Preparing communities for extreme weather

Piva visits a destroyed house in Indonesia
October 14, 2020

When disaster strikes, the basics become critical—food, water, shelter, hygiene. We all do what we can to survive.

But what happens if, when you’re still in survival mode, you experience a second disaster? And in that same year a third? With each disaster, it gets harder to see how you’ll ever build a stable life.

For millions of people, severe weather events, made more extreme by climate change, are increasingly frequent and destructive. Those affected most already experience poverty, marginalization and a lack of quality health care. Now COVID‑19 is making their ability to recover even more difficult.

Mercy Corps has worked with communities around the world for decades, not only responding to natural disasters by delivering water, shelter and hygiene materials, but also by collaborating with residents to create innovative, long-term solutions that build resiliency and hope.

Let’s take a look at a few recent natural disasters and how Mercy Corps is using its experience to address a growing need around the world:

What are the most devastating recent natural disasters around the world?

Every corner of the world has experienced massive natural disasters in recent years. Many of these disasters have been made worse by climate change. An analysis conducted by Carbon Brief found that, of the 355 extreme weather events analyzed in peer-reviewed studies, 69% were found to be made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change.

an animated map of the globe displaying natural disasters for the year 2017

The natural disasters represented here include earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons and tsunamis. The data is collected from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Joint Typhoon Warning System and the International Tsunami Information Center.

Mercy Corps goes to the countries where people are least equipped to recover from a natural disaster. We work with communities to not only rebuild, but also to plan ahead for future disasters. There will always be storms, floods, droughts, and earthquakes. The communities that work with Mercy Corps develop the knowledge and skills they need to build lasting resiliency.

Hurricanes in The Bahamas and Puerto Rico

In 2019, Dorian was the strongest hurricane on record to hit The Bahamas. Once it made landfall, it hovered over the country for more than 48 hours, relentlessly battering the islands.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria sustained winds of up to 155 mph, uprooting trees, knocking down cell towers and cutting power across all of Puerto Rico. About 3.4 million people lost electricity and the island’s agriculture was devastated. An estimated 18 million coffee trees were destroyed.

An adult stands in room littered with debris from a hurricane.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Mercy Corps teams walk door-to-door in chronically vulnerable communities distributing debit cards to people like Gilberto.

After both storms, Mercy Corps teams rushed to provide immediate relief with lifesaving supplies, cash assistance and access to water, but with an eye toward sustainability. For example, in The Bahamas, Mercy Corps installed a reverse osmosis water treatment system—turning saltwater into freshwater—to help local water systems and suppliers get back on their feet. Today, the Grand Bahama Utility Company uses this system to deliver thousands of gallons of clean water to Freeport residents and the island’s water supply is on track to being fully restored.

Floods in Indonesia

In January 2020, heavy rainfall inundated rivers in three of Indonesia’s western provinces, causing flash floods that wiped away infrastructure, homes and belongings and displaced nearly 398,000 people. In the hardest-hit villages, wood beams, pieces of concrete, piles of shingles, clothing, half-broken furniture, metal utensils and more could be found stuck or buried in the muck.

In days and weeks following the disaster, Mercy Corps distributed emergency items including food, cleaning kits and solar lamps. Water was also an urgent need. In many communities, river water and mud filled the wells, damaging them or polluting what had once been potable water. Our team began trucking in water where possible and is now installing water points that can provide reliable access to clean water for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Drought in Kenya

In many regions of Kenya, years of heat waves and drought have baked the soil. Many farmers can’t grow their crops, herders fight over water, and children go without milk. In 2018, 3.4 million Kenyans did not have enough to eat and an estimated 500,000 had no access to water. A crisis on this scale requires more than individual interventions. Whole systems and communities need to be strengthened.

Mercy Corps has implemented multiple programs to help communities survive and adapt to changing weather patterns in Kenya. We partnered with a local radio station to broadcast climate information, helping the station double its reach so farmers could know when to move their herds. We also partnered with NASA and local businesses to connect millions to mobile tools that provide support and services such as weather data, soil analysis, access to better seeds, financial services and crop insurance.

Together these programs are a lifeline for hungry families struggling to forge a more secure and stable future amid severe drought and a changing climate.

Earthquakes in Nepal

When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, the effects were devastating. More than 9,000 people were killed, 800,000 homes destroyed or badly damaged and 2.8 million people displaced. Days later, as communities were just starting their journeys to recovery, a second major earthquake shook Nepal.

Mercy Corps was working in Nepal long before these earthquakes. With expertise in large-scale disaster response and a team of more than 100 staff members on the ground, we were able to mobilize quickly in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, distributing emergency kits and critical assistance to survivors. In the years since, we’ve remained committed to helping people in Nepal rebuild their lives.

Who’s hardest hit when natural disasters strike?

Every year, natural disasters affect close to 160  million people and kill around 90,000 globally. Disasters also have devastating effects on natural resources, the health and livelihoods of survivors and the overall stability of communities. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, climate change is contributing to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, which has led to prolonged droughts, wildfires and other disasters that destabilize communities and economies.

The people hit hardest by these disasters typically have less wealth and are more reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods. When fragile infrastructures and economies are damaged, it can throw communities and countries even further into crisis and make them more vulnerable to future disasters. That’s why Mercy Corps focuses its work on the people who are most severely impacted by natural disasters.

For example, in a small Kenyan village about 85 km northeast of Wajir, drought is not only making it harder to find water and produce food, it’s causing violent conflict. The wealth of an entire family might be counted by the number of goats, cattle, or camels it tends. However, droughts have caused desertification, reducing the acres of grazing land for livestock.

“One of the major reasons why there’s widespread inter-clan conflict is the issue of resources. When you are grazing an area, it gets depleted, and you move to a different grazing area and you find another clan living there, you upset them. You have to fight for that resource,” says Musa Hassan Mohamud, a Ward Adaptation and Planning (WAP) Committee chairperson.

An adult stands on the shore of a body of water.
In a rural community of Kenya, Kaltuma and her neighbors are on the frontlines of the climate crisis and its shifting weather patterns. Mercy Corps helped expand their reservoir, so they could survive the severe drought that has been punishing the region.

Why do people stay in areas vulnerable to natural disasters?

There’s a simple reason people stay and rebuild after a disaster. It’s the only home they know.

All of us, whether we live in Marin County, California or Lombok, Indonesia, face changes to our weather, our landscapes and the safety of our homes. Change is happening quickly and we’re struggling to keep up.

Also, for many people, rebuilding is the only option. Extreme poverty means you don’t have transportation to get your family across the country, you don’t have money to rent or buy a home in an unfamiliar place and you don’t have local connections that can help you find a job to provide for your family. Communities caught in a vicious cycle of disaster and recovery often are not able to save money, especially if their wealth is in property that was lost or damaged.

Consider Wani, whose house in the district of Central Sulawesi was destroyed by an earthquake in 2018. She and her husband quickly built a temporary structure, but a month later it was destroyed by mudslides. Her family fled to her father’s house, but soon it too was buried in mud.

Wani never considered moving because Sulawesi is where her parents live, where she visits with friends and neighbors, where there are shops with the foods she likes. To move would mean leaving behind a lifetime of memories, community supports and connections.

In January 2020, heavy rain deluged a river in western Java, causing multiple flash floods and slow-onset flooding that ripped through nearby communities. Water and mud were ceiling-high in places, destroying structures, wiping away belongings and forcing families to leave their homes.


How is COVID‑19 affecting our disaster response?

A major natural disaster hitting in the middle of a global pandemic would be difficult anywhere in the world. For fragile communities already working to overcome other challenges, it can be paralyzing.

“Because of physical distancing measures, community centers that typically provide housing to those affected by a hurricane may not be usable, while food and water distributions may not be as fast as usual reaching people,” says Greg Cormier, Mercy Corps’ Americas Team Leader for Humanitarian Response.

An adult waits while an aid worker completes paperwork on a table
After floods swept through the Kailali District in Nepal in July 2020, Mercy Corps distributed kits that included shelter materials, hygiene and dignity items, and kitchen tools.

The realities of limited international travel, access restrictions in-country and funding constraints have compelled us to draw on our decades of experience. We will continue to respond to natural disasters and deliver on our core humanitarian mandate during the COVID‑19 pandemic.

To continue this work, we’re instructing our teams to take a do no harm approach, which includes following the risk management strategy we developed specifically for COVID‑19. Mercy Corps workers wear masks in the field and limit person-to-person contact to only essential interactions. We’re still delivering valuable aid directly to communities, including cash assistance, but we have fewer options for procurement and may not be able to provide the same level of in-person support as in the past. However, we are finding innovative ways to use digital tools and local suppliers to connect people with resources without further risking their health or the health of Mercy Corps workers.

COVID‑19 will likely continue to have profound effects on vulnerable communities recovering from disaster. Our urgency to provide shelter, food, clean water, sanitation supplies and more is stronger than ever because we know that the risk of transmission will only increase if people cannot get the resources they need to rebuild their lives.

How is Mercy Corps helping communities prepare for future storms?

Every Mercy Corps project is about building resilience, not just meeting today’s needs.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), warmer sea surface temperatures could intensify tropical storm wind speeds by up to 10 percent and cause 10-15 percent more precipitation if temperatures rise two degrees celsius. We know we’ll have to continue to prepare for future storms by working with local leaders to identify vulnerabilities and opportunities and to develop strategies for growing capacity. We also will need to continually evaluate and adapt our programs with and for the people we strive to help.

Many Mercy Corps projects are specifically focused on resiliency. For example, the Association Pro Juventud y Comunidad de Barrio Palmas (APJ) in Cataño, Puerto Rico is a thriving community center where hundreds of children, young adults and elderly residents gather each week for hot meals and snacks, tutoring, community events and a range of workshops and classes, including dance, cooking, painting and sports.

APJ is one of seventeen community centers Mercy Corps has transformed into Resilience Hubs to help community members stay safe and connected through the next disaster. At APJ, Mercy Corps has provided seeds, small plants, materials and training to help community members build a community garden that today is bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables that the center uses for the meals it provides.

“We’re very happy and excited to be participating,” says Ana Martinez Rivera, who grows tomatoes, peppers, papayas, plantains and chickpeas. “The garden is important because it’s preparing us in case there’s any food shortage, so we have food to survive.”

Mercy Corps is also working with communities in Central Java, Indonesia to prevent dangerous floods that, due to changing weather patterns, have become increasingly unpredictable. “People were afraid to go out of their houses because of the flood,” says Ika Yuda Kurniasari, a mother of five.

A adult smiles and poses for the camera.
Agus Zubaidilah says that Mercy Corps has been helping his neighbors in Gogik, Indonesia and himself learn how to maintain the local watershed and prevent flooding.

Through education initiatives with upstream communities and the TRANSFORM program, which helps upstream and downstream communities work together, Indonesians are reforesting land near rivers, implementing water management practices such as dry wells and more carefully managing trash. Today, Central Indonesia is more resilient to flood and will better be able to prevent property damage and lives lost.

“If the upstream area has a good filtration system, then I believe whenever it rains upstream, the downstream communities won’t be affected by flooding,” says Sagiman, a resident who has lived in Panggung Lor, North Semarang for 35 years.

The storms will continue. And due to climate change, they will come more frequently and intensely, sending floodwaters higher. That’s why Mercy Corps teams are looking ahead and designing for the future of storms. Our decades of experience have shown that when we forge partnerships and spark innovation, we can build stronger, more resilient communities that are ready for what comes next.