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< prev - next > Disaster response mitigation and rebuilding Reconstruction pcr_tool_3_learning_from_disasters (Printable PDF)
Learning from Disasters
In order to be able to build back better, we need to
understand what caused the hazard that occurred
to become so disastrous for the people it affected.
This involves not only studying why houses were
vulnerable to collapse, but also the underlying
causes for that; these lie in the vulnerabilities of
people themselves. What happened in the Alto
Mayo earthquake, described in the box, right,
explains why. Although a study of housing revealed
that some building technologies were more
resistant than others and that certain residents
and local builders had the capabilities to construct
well, within those technology categories there were
variations too. These often resulted from people,
who were getting poorer, being no longer able to
afford to build or maintain their houses well.
Vulnerability is now receiving more attention,
not just in the context of disaster reduction,
but also with respect to issues such as drought,
food security and increasingly climate change.
It is not enough, though, to only know people’s
vulnerabilities, or weaknesses. We also need
to explore their coping capabilities, because
these are the strengths on which to base better
reconstruction. In the case of the Alto Mayo,
one coping capability was the local knowledge of
resistant building technologies.
Vulnerabilities and assets – which include
capabilities – are key components of sustainable
livelihoods analysis, which goes back to the
thinking of Robert Chambers in the 1980s. The
livelihoods approach puts people at the centre of
development. Livelihoods analysis is helping us to
understand that poverty is multi-dimensional and
that disasters are not the only risk poor people are
facing. For some poor people, day-to-day survival
may be a greater concern than the distant threat
of a disaster. People do not willingly run the risk of
death or asset losses, but short-term pressures such
as the need to make a living or to feed a family
may force them to accept the more remote risk of
disasters. For example, a study of the Karakoram
region of Northern Pakistan from the 1980s found
houses to be dangerously located on slopes. The
owners were aware of the risks these locations
posed, but opted to build there rather than using
the little arable land they had for housing.
The Alto Mayo earthquake of 1990
When a moderate earthquake struck the Alto Mayo of
Peru in 1990, the region was in economic decline.
Its main product was rice, but the government had
disbanded the agency buying rice from farmers and
failed to properly maintain the one major road that
linked the region to the markets of the main cities
on the coast. Many incomes therefore declined;
this reduced people’s capabilities of building and
maintaining their houses well, and this proved to
be a major factor in the damage and casualties the
earthquake caused. The region’s inhabitants had
become more vulnerable because their livelihoods
had been negatively affected by external events, in
this case a government failing to do its duty to them.
What is more, when aid started to flow into the region
in the aftermath of the disaster, it included a lot of
imported rice, at a time when local stores were full
to the brim of rice farmers were unable to sell. This
further worsened their potential for recovery, as it now
became nearly impossible to sell rice locally. However,
observations of the impact of the disaster also showed
that not everybody was equally affected. Houses built
with heavy rammed earth (tapial) or adobe walls –
built by people who had migrated into the region from
Cajamarca - had generally performed badly, but those
with much lighter mud-and-pole (quincha) walls quite
often stood up. The latter technology then, with some
improvements, became quite popular in reconstruction
supported by Practical Action.
Earlier thinking on reconstruction did not
pay much attention to people’s livelihoods and
vulnerabilities. It tended to concentrate on
technical issues, e.g. the weaknesses of housing,
and how these could be overcome, often by
construction experts rather than the people
themselves. Affected people were frequently forced
to relocate away from sites considered dangerous;
some chose not to occupy the alternative houses
offered, whilst others moved out to return to places
where they could resume their livelihoods and
social networks. In other cases, new houses were
built using technologies so alien or expensive, that
inhabitants were unable to maintain or replicate
them and ultimately reverted to the old ways
of building, reinforcing their vulnerability. This
thinking is now changing, but only slowly.
It is important to understand what people’s
vulnerabilities were before a disaster struck, but to