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From victims to saviours

September 15, 2013

Whether it is tragedy in the form of coastal flooding or disaster in the form of fire in a drought stricken area — the communities of four rural districts in Sindh are now organised and ready to save themselves. “There has been a big change in their thinking — during floods or droughts they would look for support from outside, now they say they can help themselves,” explains Akbar Raza, project manager of Tahafuz project, funded by US aid and being implemented by the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP). A community based disaster risk management project, Tahafuz has been working in the disaster prone districts of Thatta, Badin, Umerkot and Tharparkar in Sindh to “prepare vulnerable societies so they can better face disasters”.

The project, which was designed by the Rural Support Programmes Network, has been working with households in these districts to build their resilience. “The focus has been on capacity building. We mobilised the local people to form 232 village disaster management committees and we built their capacity with trainings. There were two types of trainings — disaster risk assessment and planning for disasters,” says Ata-ur-Rahman, the project’s capacity building officer. In the case of floods, the committees made evacuation plans (for the coastal areas of Badin, Thatta) and in the case of fire (in the desert areas of Umerkot, Tharparkar) they came up with protocols. “They made their own plans at the village levels.” The 232 committees then coordinated with the local government to oversee union council level disaster management. They formed union disaster management committees, each with its own office space. The union level committees, comprising 10 to 20 village disaster management committees, take the lead in disaster rescue and relief.

What the NRSP did was to provide one critical infrastructure at the union level to help the communities whether it was constructing dug wells or water reservoirs (in Umerkot and Tharparkar) or raising the link roads and building culverts (in Thatta and Badin). In Badin, which is regularly hit by tidal surges, they built raised platforms (around five or six feet high) with storage spaces so that the local people can take shelter for a certain period of time with their belongings until the tidal water recedes. All the construction work for the critical infrastructure was done by the local communities themselves and they are in charge of maintenance and monitoring the new infrastructure.

The Tahafuz project team also gave each of the union councils an emergency disaster kit, which is quite sizable. It includes tents, blankets, wheelbarrows, spades, buckets, some tools, megaphones and first aid kits and is stored at the offices of the union disaster management committees in each of the four districts. Members of the communities have been taught how to use first aid kits and they can now give CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). In a recent case where a boy almost drowned by falling into a drainage ditch, he was given CPR by one of the trained community members and was successfully revived. The communities have clearly benefited from the trainings and are putting their knowledge to good use. Members of the union disaster management committees often visit the local schools to talk about disaster risk reduction. They have conducted hazard mappings of their areas to identify safe routes and safe places to be used during disasters.

According to the project manager, Akbar Raza, “the role of the village disaster management committees is to identify disasters and make plans and mobilise communities, while the role of the union disaster management committees is to see where they can help with the emergency kits and to do advocacy with the district government. The Tahafuz project has actually made a bridge between the district government and the disaster management committees.” Thanks to the project, they all have each other’s contact numbers and know who to call during a disaster.

The Tahafuz team says that the project has ensured the involvement of women; during a recent small disaster that hit the area (a fire in a desert home) it was the women who helped each other as the men were out during the day tending to livestock and the women provided shelter to those who had lost their home. A total of 1,173 adults in the four districts have received trainings in disaster risk assessment and in disaster risk management, including search and rescue and first aid — around 50pc were women. Through the use of mobile phones and with the help of the local Met Department, an early warning system has also been activated in the coastal areas (vulnerable to storms and flooding). The local people, mostly fishermen, receive alerts on their mobile phones and in areas where there is no electricity; they can charge their mobile phones using solar panels provided by the NRSP.

“Overall, it is a very good project and we hope it can be replicated across Pakistan,” says Akbar Raza. “We have identified the vulnerable communities and trained them so that they are in a better position to respond to disasters. The communities are the first responders and they are now ready to face any disaster. There is a visible change in the communities — they are feeling more empowered.”