I am Madhavi Malalgoda Ariyabandu, working as Programme Officer for South Asia with the Asia Pacific Secretariat of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). My education background is in agronomy and agricultural economics.
I believe that to understand disaster risk it needs to be viewed from a development perspective. Interactions with subsistence farmers in the dry zone of Sri Lanka while I was a researcher at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute, and my observations on how they manage their livelihoods gave me the first insights of disaster risk. Drought, floods and dealing with risks are part of their subsistence production and survival. The political, social, cultural aspects of production economics became evident in how production loans were obtained, social networks operated, water was distributed, and throughout, in gendered roles. These observations led to my conviction that disaster risk cannot be dealt with in isolation from the economics and politics of production.
I was part of the pioneering effort of Duryog Nivaran – the South Asia network for disaster mitigation which placed the social, economic and political realms into efforts to understand disasters. It was created to pursue an “alternative perspective” to disaster mitigation, with the conceptual foundation that disasters are “unresolved problems of development”.
As the Team Leader of the Disaster Management Programme at the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), I had the opportunity to work with and learn from a wide range of communities, local governments, NGOs, committed and accomplished colleagues in South Asian countries. We explored approaches and options for reducing and managing risks under the conditions of drought, floods, landslides, cyclones, earthquakes and other multiple hazards. A community-managed flood mitigation system set up in the village of Kamra, in Jhang District of Punjab, Pakistan developed a model which empowered men, women and children in the village to break away from the isolation of monsoon flooding, which kept them isolated for at least four to five months a year. This experience was later replicated in 60 or more villages by other local and national organizations.
Similar experiences in Gaibandha, Bangladesh; Rajasthan and Gujarat in India; Tharpakr dessert area in Pakistan; Hambantota, Putlam and Nawalapitiya in Sri Lanka; and Chitwan in Nepal gave us insights into building connections between community risk scenarios, peoples’ own capacities, and risk management options intrinsically tied with livelihoods and local governance.
This learning, was captured in the publications Livelihood Centered Approach to Disaster Management: A Policy Framework for South Asia, Disaster Communication: A resource kit for Media, and Gender Dimensions of Disaster Management Each of these was jointly penned with colleagues of Duryog Nivaran and they provided a basis for the design of recovery programmes for a host of organizations active following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005.
I have made efforts to highlight and advocate how the gendered landscape of development is extended to disasters, and how gender-blind policy and practice can effectively worsen and reinforce prevailing inequities. I was humbled to receive the Mary Fran Myres Award in 2004 from the Gender and Disaster Network and the Natural Hazards Centre of the University of Colorado, USA. Some myths on this theme of gender issues in disasters remains to be challenged, such as the one that gender concerns are a “western concept” alien to Asia, or that addressing gender issues will somehow disturb the rooted cultural norms. Anyone concerned about the equity of all people in disaster circumstances needs to continue to clarify that the subject is about both men and women having options and opportunities to contribute and to access the benefits of development.
I was a part of the Tsunami Recovery Team of UNDP in Sri Lanka, managing a micro– enterprise recovery project, and also served as the Gender Advisor to the Recovery Team. This team had a challenging opportunity to apply long-term risk reduction principles in practice, working through a human rights-based approach to address gender and other cross-cutting issues, while also meeting the early recovery activity and funding deadlines. Our work spread over the 14 affected districts in Sri Lanka and included assisting the recovery of the communities in the northern and eastern provinces, which were facing the dual burdens of destruction and displacement from the 25 year ethnic conflict and the blows of the tsunami.
My learning is that we all need to challenge and break various “disconnects”, whether they occur between practice and policy, between disciplines, and among the many professionals and institutions dealing with development, disaster risk, environment and climate change issues.
With the emerging risk scenarios related to climate change, there is now an important need for further exploration of the cause and effect dynamics of disasters and development, and how development activities can itself be a cause for increasing the exposure and vulnerabilities of people. It is important to throw some light on the rationale of a continual reliance on singularly focused economic growth models of development. Lessons of their pursuit since colonial times repeatedly illustrate their roles as possible causes of risk and disasters.
My current work focuses on facilitating the integration of disaster risk reduction into policies and practice. This involves considerable interaction with the inter-governmental organization for South Asia, SAARC, various national governments, and a number of other organizations engaged in disaster management, development, and related issues.
I also remain in search of a clear enough answer to a question my son and daughter raise each time that death and destruction from a disaster hits the international news, “What is the change that you are making ?”
Madhavi Malalgoda Ariyabandu
UNISDR Asia Pacific Secretariat