Community-Driven Disaster Preparedness – Lessons From Cyclones and Floods in SA

Communities need to develop their own capacity for disaster response and recovery. Community-based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR) is a proven approach for strengthening community capacities.

This article explores lessons learned from recent cyclone and flood events in South Africa. It focuses on the importance of empowering local residents to take action.

1. Resilience is a community-driven process

In the wake of devastating cyclones and floods across Africa, communities have been left with many questions about resilience. This is particularly true for communities in low-income areas where the impact of these natural disasters is exacerbated by structural and economic challenges. The challenge of climate change has been a major contributor to these events, but it is the way these risks are realised and managed at the local level that is also crucial (UN/ISDR 2008:5).

Local communities are often on the frontlines of both the immediate impact of a disaster and the initial emergency response to it (Mercer 2010:249). They are the source of the most trustworthy primary data regarding a community’s vulnerability and capacity to reduce its risk. This is why it is vital for hazard, vulnerability and capacity assessment strategies to include community-based approaches that empower communities to reduce their own risks.

There are a number of resources that can be used to facilitate community-led disaster preparedness. These can be material (sandbags, generators), knowledge/expertise, or time. However, a long-term approach to community-based disaster preparedness must include an understanding of what makes these resources effective in building community resilience to disasters. It is critical that people are provided with the tools they need to be resilient and this includes ensuring that access to these resources is equitable.

This will require a focus on processes rather than products and an understanding of what community means. The notion of community is often conflated with geographical descriptors and binary dichotomies (resilient/vulnerable). Understanding how these are constructed and experienced by people in different contexts is vital for supporting community-driven resilience to disaster events. A key aspect of this is the decision-making process and who makes decisions. This is a common point of conflict between formal systems and community-driven processes, especially during response times when decisions are needed quickly.

2. Having a plan is not enough

Having a plan is crucial for communities to survive a disaster event, minimise its mental health impacts and support community recovery. But having a plan alone is not enough. Creating a preparedness plan is just the beginning of a process that requires ongoing engagement, training and capacity building.

This is where community-driven disaster management comes in. It is a community-led approach to reduce disaster risk that is guided by a series of principles. These are based on community needs, capacities, vulnerabilities and priorities. It involves the development of a community-based disaster response framework, including hazard and vulnerability analysis, and the identification of human and material resources to cope with threats (capacity assessment).

The principles for this approach are rooted in the theory of complexity and community development. They offer a holistic approach that addresses 7 domains: information, networks, communication, decision-making, resources, self-organising and inclusion. This framework is a powerful tool for supporting community-led disaster resilience efforts.

Taking a community-driven approach is important for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) as it empowers people to reduce their own vulnerability. It has been shown that communities are more resilient and have a greater capacity to recover after disaster events when they take responsibility for their own preparedness efforts. It also ensures that local voices are heard and the dignity of local people is respected.

As the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the feasibility of in-person workshops, Lifesaving South Africa (LSA) was approached to facilitate a series of online flood disaster mitigation and response training sessions for their members. These included a ninety minute session where participants could share their experience and expertise. The session included presentations from LSA’s Provincial Disaster Management Manager, a Civil Defence member, and a local individual who had recently experienced floods.

3. People need to be prepared

Disasters happen worldwide and at varying times throughout the year. They can be man-made or natural, and are usually unexpected by their very nature. It is not always possible to avoid them, and the only way to mitigate their negative impact is to prepare in advance. This preparation includes planning for your own home and educating yourself about any plans in place at your workplace or children’s school. It also involves knowing who to contact in the event of an emergency, such as your local police or Red Cross. Finally, it involves storing important information on your phones and computers (along with hard copies) in case your electronic devices are rendered useless by power loss or even lost or damaged in the aftermath of a disaster.

The importance of being prepared for any disaster is underscored by research showing that people who feel relatively safe for a long time after a disaster experience less stress and anxiety than those who do not. This is especially true for those who live alone, and it is why it is crucial to include them in any emergency preparedness planning.

Community participation in disaster preparedness is key to supporting the development of a caring community. However, defining and strengthening the concept of community can be challenging. Geographic descriptors are limiting and often infused with romanticism, while binary descriptors (resilient/vulnerable or prepared/unprepared) provide limited insight into how communities are constituted, experienced and function.

4. Having a plan is not enough

Community preparedness is the most fundamental element in reducing disaster risk. It involves local communities examining their susceptibility to hazards (hazard analysis), identifying human material resources available to cope with these threats and the organizational structures that are available for the implementation of strategies to reduce vulnerability and build resilience to disasters. The process of hazard and vulnerability assessment is generally undertaken at the community level by volunteers, often with support from community-based organisations or local government.

As part of this work, a detailed plan is developed that will identify the community’s vulnerabilities and the actions required to address them. These plans are then communicated within the community for review and acceptance, a critical step in building trust. This is essential in ensuring that a community is ready to withstand the impact of an emergency event and minimise the associated mental health impacts.

While community preparedness is key, it is not enough. A broader approach to disaster risk reduction is needed. This is evident in the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which focuses on four priorities that can lead to sustainable and resilient societies:

One of the challenges in implementing this is to find ways to support community-led preparedness. This requires a greater focus on communication processes rather than just the delivery of information. Moreover, the communication must be two way. This is not an easy task given that communication during emergencies prioritises the delivery of information (one way) and community-based organisations are often not well positioned to support this. This is especially the case in urban areas where many people live close to each other and have similar communication pathways.

5. Having a plan is not enough

The cyclones and floods that have wreaked havoc across South Africa this year are the latest reminder of the devastating impact that climate change is having on parts of the world, especially those who contribute least to it. As these disasters continue to ravage communities, it’s important for those who have the ability to do so to ensure that they are doing all they can to support their neighbours.

Community-based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR) is a key component of the government’s response to disasters, as outlined in both the National Disaster Management Act and Disaster Management Framework, which prioritise community participation. However, there are still challenges around the inclusion of vulnerable communities in disaster preparedness initiatives and ensuring that funds received from international donors reach the groups who need them the most.

It’s important for the people who are able to respond in times of disasters to be well-trained and supported by their organisations so that they can do so effectively. In this way, they can make a significant contribution to minimizing the impacts of disasters, maintaining order and increasing hope in their communities and beyond.

However, facilitating the development of local capacity for disaster response must be a collaborative effort between all spheres of government and the communities themselves. This can be done by creating a framework for communication between these parties. Communication during a crisis often prioritizes the dissemination of information, but effective communications must be multi-directional and involve a wide range of stakeholders, particularly localised communication pathways that are rooted in value systems, skills and structures in specific settings.

For example, networked communication enables collaboration based on co-configuration and distributed expertise and aims to promote a flexible and adaptive approach in which new ideas are constantly emerging. In this way, the complexities of disasters are understood more clearly and community action is designed to meet those complexities.