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Reducing the Risk of Disaster

October 9, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jason Sangster for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tajikistan's rugged landscape is both enchanting and disaster-prone. Photo: Jason Sangster for Mercy Corps

With its steep mountains, heavy rains and seismic activity, Tajikistan is one of the most disaster-prone countries on the planet. Each year some 50,000 landslides, 5,000 earthquakes and tremors, and hundreds of avalanches and debris flows hit the Central Asian state.

Global humanitarian agencies such as Mercy Corps are usually in the business of helping communities recover after disasters such as these. But we also have a role to play in helping communities address their effects before they even occur.

Two years ago in Khujand, Tajikistan, I watched several youth groups demonstrate what they had learned about what to do in the case of a fire, earthquake, flood or electric shock. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan — no less a stranger to natural calamity — newly formed disaster management committees were sharing their emergency plans with neighbors and posting signboards with emergency evacuation routes. Frequent emergency simulations and competitions among neighboring youth groups were keeping skills fresh.

Disaster-preparedness programs such as the ones in Central Asia do more than simply ready families to respond to Mother Nature's whims. Two communities proudly told me about women who had become doctors after participating in a youth responder group and being trained in first aid. Youth in Tajikistan talked eagerly about testing their skills against their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, presenting an opportunity to meet Kyrgyz for the first time and form friendships between border communities often in conflict.

Mercy Corps is not alone in promoting disaster-risk reduction through community development and mobilization activities in areas particularly prone to floods, earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural catastrophes. Whether it is by supporting flood-prevention infrastructure projects or by helping communities to better organize themselves to deal with various shocks, many agencies are already embracing promising disaster-risk reduction practices.

October 10 has been designated an International Day for Disaster Reduction by the UN. As director of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Risk Reduction at Mercy Corps, it is my job to work with our country teams to make sure that we consider the ways in which we can help the families we work with identify hazards, understand risks and prepare for and mitigate the effects of disasters — including those related to climate change. We can also assist existing or new community disaster committees by providing emergency planning and training support and by helping to link community plans to regional and national level plans.

Through these efforts, we can insure and strengthen our existing development practices, and help communities be better prepared when the next disaster strikes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of InterAction's Monday Developments.