BY KALPANA SHARMA
In terms of both the impact of disasters and post-disaster recovery, there are common threads that bind countries together regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
`There is no guarantee that we will not face more natural disasters. But unless long-term developmental efforts that support the principles of participation and sustainability are integrated into post-disaster recovery programmes, the survivors of THE disasters will remain impoverished and dependent.'
FIVE years ago, on January 26, 2001, the earth shook in one corner of India. Within minutes, villages disappeared, concrete buildings were flattened, over 18,000 people died and almost a million families were rendered homeless. The Bhuj earthquake is a vivid memory for those who survived. For others, it is yet another disaster in the continuing list of natural disasters that seems to strike different parts of the world with unrelenting regularity.Between the end of 2004 and last year, we have witnessed natural disasters on an unprecedented scale beginning with the Asian tsunami and ending with the earthquake in Kashmir on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. Yet, in terms of both the impact of such disasters, and post-disaster recovery, there are common threads that bind countries regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
A small booklet titled "Women's participation in disaster relief and recovery" by Ayse Yonder with Sengul Akcar and Prema Gopalan (published by the Population Council, 2005), sets out some interesting observations on disasters, their impact on women and the role women can play in the recovery process. It recounts the work done with women affected by the Marathwada earthquake of 1993, the Bhuj earthquake of 2001 and two major earthquakes that hit Turkey in 1999 within six months of each other. Turkey is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. A destructive one can occur every 18 months or so. More than half of the country's land area is placed in the first and second-degree risk zones and 90 per cent of its total surface area is at seismic risk. In 1999, the extent of this risk became evident when between August 17 and November 12, the country experienced the strongest earthquakes in its history of 7.4 and 7.2 on the Richter scale. The major impact of the quakes was in a densely populated and heavily industrialised part of the country, on the outskirts of Istanbul. Around 23 per cent of Turkey's population lived in this Marmara area and 47 per cent of its GNP was generated by the industries located here. The two earthquakes together killed over 18,000 people, injured another 49,000 and destroyed 100,000 houses. When disasters on such a scale occur, there is a great deal of activity in the initial months in providing rescue and relief. Aid pours in, technical assistance is offered, and volunteers turn up to lend a hand. People are housed in tent cities, governments announce relief packages and the process of accessing these entitlements begins. But because there is no long-term planning, and disaster relief is not integrated into a developmental package, a dependency is created amongst the affected populations.As the authors of the booklet point out, emergency assistance "in a top-down manner", makes the victims into "passive recipients of aid". Instead of encouraging self-reliance in the affected communities, "agencies behave as benefactors and do things for, not with, survivors". As a result, funds are wasted, and people become cynical. The report looks at the interventions of two non-governmental organisations in India and Turkey and their work with the women affected by the earthquake. The Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (KEDV) in Turkey worked in Marmara following the twin earthquakes. Like other groups, in the first few weeks they had to provide relief. But soon they realised that what was needed for long-term recovery was creating safe and secure community spaces for women and children. To prevent people from becoming dependent on aid, they felt that they should help them to resume their normal lives as soon as possible. Even if people were living in tents - in Turkey 800,000 people were accommodated in 121 tent cities - they felt that the most effective intervention would be to help the women to find a sense of security and ensure that they participated in the reconstruction process.One strategy used was to create community rooms where the women could sit, work, meet others, and keep their children. These tents became the focal points for programmes including income generation and exchange of information. This helped the women to overcome their grief and also provided them with money that they badly needed. Said one woman, "Every day, I had to get up, come to the tent, and be together with others. It helped me to forget about my troubles."
While the immediate problem consisted of providing women with livelihood options and avenues to participate, the very process of rehabilitation threw up additional challenges. For instance, KEDV found that although the Turkish government managed to build 42,000 temporary shelters in just nine months, they did not consult the affected communities about the design of these shelters. As a result, many families, and particularly the women, found these spaces unsuitable and preferred to stay on in the tents.Also, only those who owned houses were eligible for the housing programmes while people who lived in rented accommodation had no such entitlement. KEDV worked with the women who were forced to accept these temporary shelters as the only alternative. They worked out, for instance, how to overcome infrastructure problems. Instead of waiting endlessly for electricians and plumbers, the women themselves got trained in these skills. They also began to save and plan for permanent shelters and learned from women from the earthquake-affected areas in India what constituted earthquake resistant features in a building. The women also conducted their own surveys to find out the needs of affected families thereby equipping themselves with essential data when they negotiated with government agencies for specific needs such as housing. In meetings with government officials, they would take down notes and get the officials to sign them so that they could not go back on what they had promised at the meetings.There were many struggles along the way. But by 2003, 200 women from three provinces, comprising a section of the tenants who were not entitled to government housing, had set up four housing cooperative societies. Over 10,000 women were engaged around the centres established after the earthquake. These women initiated savings and credit groups that exist even today. This booklet brings out an important lesson. There is no guarantee that we will not face more natural disasters. But unless long-term developmental efforts, that support the principles of participation and sustainability, are integrated into post-disaster recovery programmes, the survivors of the disasters will remain impoverished and dependent. The experiences recounted in the book also emphasise the importance of reducing women's economic vulnerability. If this is done during normal times, then during an emergency, women are better placed to participate in the recovery process. E-mail the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org