Making science work for development

Communities against disasters

Strengthening resilience to disasters through local community involvement

Disaster resilience is a critical part of sustainable development, helping communities to recover from disasters and maintain their livelihoods. Researchers from the University of Northumbria have revealed how local government approaches and policies can be improved to protect against the risks of disasters. Their work has influenced the disaster strategies of local governments across Southern Africa and South Asia, giving community groups a central role in risk identification and management.

The ability to adapt to and recover from disasters is a crucial aspect of sustainable development. Since its foundation at the University of Northumbria in 2004, the Disaster and Development Network (DDN) has been researching and facilitating the implementation of disaster risk reduction strategies to improve community resilience in the poorest communities of Southern Africa and South Asia.

Researchers from Northumbria have been working with communities in Bangladesh, Mozambique, Nepal, Pakistan and Zimbabwe to gauge ideas and perspectives on the risks they face. Using extensive surveys and interviews, they found that community involvement is vital to supporting local governments in identifying and managing disaster risks, especially to address socio-economic vulnerabilities and weak governance systems. This work – supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Department for International Development and the Natural Environment Research Council – has influenced the disaster strategies of several local governments, helping to protect the livelihoods of vulnerable communities residing in disaster-prone regions.

The local community gets involved in disease control in Mozambique (Image Andrew Collins)

DDN work in Bangladesh involved interviews with over 600 households to identify how health strategies can make a community more resilient to disasters. They found that risks could be reduced by allowing communities to contribute directly to identifying and managing health risks. Multiple organisations working in Bangladesh have since adopted the DDN’s recommendations.

In Mozambique, studies into risk perceptions of infectious diseases found that community involvement in disease control was more likely to encourage local participation. In response to the findings, local authorities set up community-centred disaster risk committees. The most successful of these started a local resident cleaning initiative that’s reduced cases of diarrhoeal diseases from an estimated several thousand per year to less than 50. UK research has also underpinned an international cholera vaccine trial and further collaborative study into cholera prevention.

Through their work in Pakistan and Nepal, the Northumbria researchers addressed the impacts of environmental hazards in the Himalayas. The DDN helped to establish the first disaster and development-focused centre in both countries, which, with support from their respective governments, integrated disaster reduction activities with local communities.

Local involvement can help prepare for and respond to disasters more effectively (Image Tariq Saeed / IRIN)

In Zimbabwe, their research found that supporting human-rights and giving children a central role in activities were critical in building disaster-resilient communities – particularly in locations where HIV and AIDS has led to high numbers of orphans. As a result, community advocacy groups were established, working to preserve constitutional rights and bring communities together.

This work from the University of Northumbria has gained international recognition, and its findings have influenced policies worldwide. In recognition of its expertise, the DDN was the only UK university research group to be an official partner in the United Nations process to decide a global agreement on disaster risk reduction, known as the Hyogo Framework for Action, which has recently been reformulated into the new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. 

Department for International Development | Economic and Social Research Council | Natural Environment Research Council