Testing a new way to better prepare communities for disaster

Nepal, November 11, 2014

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  • Hanesh Osha, 53, stands outside his home and shows how high the flood waters rose last year. Hanesh is now working with Mercy Corps to reduce the risk of that happening again, while also earning an income. Photo: Mercy Corps staff

Last summer, Hanesh Osha was standing in front of his mud-brick home in the lowlands of Nepal, watching as the river across the road started to overflow its banks and creep up toward him.

“Once I saw the river cross the road, I wondered whether I would be able to save my family,” he said. “I put three beds on top of each other outside my home, and seven people in my family stayed there, including my one-year-old grandchild, for three days.”

Hanesh began to run out of food and water for his family, but was able to get help from a neighbor. “Everyone was okay, but it was devastating for our community. We lost all of the food we had stored and our rice seed to plant this year.”

When monsoons flood major rivers, and earthquakes lead to rock falls and landslides, families with few resources have a hard time protecting themselves and recovering. This is especially true in Nepal, a country nestled between the soaring peaks of the Himalaya Mountains and Indian jungles, where erratic and destructive weather patterns are the norm.

Despite its natural beauty, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Nearly a third of Nepalis, like Hanesh, live well below the national poverty line.

While we can’t prevent natural disasters, the good news is we can help more people survive and communities thrive.

Mercy Corps strengthens communities so they can prepare for disasters, reduce their risk and recover more quickly. With our support, locally-led disaster management committees carry out training in disaster response and preparedness, and develop early warning and contingency plans that make their whole community safer. Years of work on emergency response and disaster preparedness have taught us some valuable lessons.

While these planning efforts have most certainly saved lives, community-level disaster risk reduction often depends on the diligent efforts of local volunteers. The time required of these volunteers, like Hanesh, can directly compete with their pressing need to earn incomes and provide for their families. This means that the daily stresses of poverty slowly diminish enthusiasm and commitment to disaster risk reduction activities over time.

This makes a tough challenge even tougher. Mercy Corps saw an opportunity to address these competing demands by designing a new kind of disaster risk reduction approach – one that would address disaster risk reduction while me providing an opportunity to earn an income.

How do we do this? In the lowlands, like Hanesh’s village, frequent floods draw in sand from upstream and drop it downstream, making the land too sandy for traditional crops, like rice or wheat, and prone to being washed away.

Listening to insights from community leaders, Mercy Corps suggested planting high-value sugarcane, a crop that does well in sandy, flooded soil and earns a good income when it’s processed at the local sugar factory. What’s more, the sugarcane plant can help reduce the speed of floodwater, reducing the risk to Hanesh and his neighbor’s other crops as well as their homes.

That’s just one example of how Mercy Corps is taking a new approach to disaster risk reduction. In several communities, families are building bamboo fences along the river bank that will mitigate the risk of floods, and in the highlands they are planting a specific kind of grass on the hillside that provides fodder for cows and holds the soil in place so there are fewer landslides.

In all, Mercy Corps is working with 34 communities across Nepal. This work is possible in part by a grant from Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, which shares our priority of building the capacity and resilience of communities to better prepare and respond when disaster strikes.

At the end of this year, Hanesh and his neighbors will harvest the sugarcane they planted. They expect to earn 300,000 rupees from the crop, and they plan to split the money evenly among participating households, which will amount to about 3,488 rupees per household, or $36 US Dollars.

“Before, we only had risk reduction activities in our community. We think these previous activities saved our lives, and that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “But adding the opportunity to earn income will help us be more resilient to the floods.”

Mercy Corps deeply appreciates Margaret A. Cargill Foundation’s support in testing a new and exploratory approach to disaster risk reduction. We believe that the coupling of disaster risk reduction and economic opportunity has promising outcomes and we look forward to continuing to share our learnings about the best ways to reduce suffering and build resilience in disaster-prone communities.