Women: the risk managers in natural disasters1

By Madhavi Ariyabandu
Natural disasters- a cause for concern Natural disasters devastate the lives and livelihoods of people and cause substantial dents in the economies. South Asia is the worst affected sub continent from natural hazards in the world. We in South Asia face a variety of hazards - cyclones, floods, earthquakes, drought and landslides. The impact of hazards is severe on the large numbers of populations living in poverty, in hazard prone areas under extremely vulnerable conditions. Statistics given below indicate the damages natural hazards cause in the sub continent to life and property. In the last century alone, in India and Bangladesh 11,915,317 were killed because of drought, cyclones, earthquake and related epidemics. In the year 2001, 56% of people killed across the world by disasters were from South Asia, and 729, 033 people from Bangladesh, 21,026 from Nepal and 1,000,200 from Sri Lanka, got affected in various ways. Situation in Sri Lanka Given its location in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is at the mercy of the weather changes in the Gulf of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian sub-continent. Drought, floods and landslides appear as most recurring and constant natural hazards in Sri Lanka. Despite an annual rainfall which is in the range of 900-6000 mm, Sri Lanka has areas in its vast dry zone, which are constantly in a state of drought, mostly resulting from monsoon failure. An extensive drought is recorded every year in dry zone areas, and there is inadequate mechanisms to store the 1000 mm of monsoon rainfall it receives. Due to the seasonal nature of rainfall2, drought can prevail almost eight months of the year, and populations in these areas depend on several sources of water and adopt their own techniques to deal with the shortage. The seasonal monsoons almost regularly bring about floods in certain parts of low-lying river basins. Areas belonging to the wet and dry zones, and sometimes, even the capital, Colombo and its suburbs experience floods. Ironically the floods mostly affect the lowincome families, squatters who encroach on the low-lying areas along the rivers. But there are instances, resulting from fierce monsoons, when the flooding can extend to towns and villages downstream of the rivers - inundating roads, buildings and other infrastructure facilities. Heavy rains and flooding is generally followed by landslides. The occurrence of landslides increased in the recent past, largely due to human activity. Demand for land for cultivation and settlements and ill-sited infrastructure projects have paved the way for

A concise version of the paper was published in ‘Voice of Women’, a Sri Lanka Journal for Women’s Liberation, Volume 6, Issue 1, August 2003, Colombo

Dry zone receives rain in two monsoon seasons; North East monsoons–September to December, South West monsoons –April to June


Invariably It is the emergency responses which 3 Source: http://www. At the grassroots level. namely the National Disaster Management Centre and the Department of Social Welfare. or a stake in disaster management. the designated state institutions rush with assistance. The present system for natural disaster management in Sri Lanka comes under the Ministry of Social Welfare. Disaster Management – charity & relief With such calamities in store. The country experienced its worst floods and landslides in 50 years in last May. and the Forest Departments. the National Building Research Organisation among others.577. carry out individual plans and projects under the present framework. Accordingly.235 people were adversely affected and suffered great difficulties. What is lacking is any form of co-ordination between these institutions on the issues of hazard and disaster management.lk/floods/. for a major part of the dry zone. the Urban Development Authority. Divisional and District Secretariats presently report to the Department of Social Welfare in case of disaster. which hit six districts in the country. individuals and the communities who are not directly affected. From ancient times we carry the notions that disasters are “Acts of God” unleashing fury & punishment. It is estimated that 354. The year 2001 recorded one of the worst drought years in Sri Lanka.gov. affecting food and water security of people and damaging crops and livestock. Once a calamity occurs. disaster management is a must. The Government of Sri Lanka allocated 438 million Rs. a number of other state organizations that have links with. the disaster management style is largely one of charity and relief. The ministry of Social welfare estimates that approximately 150. At the same time. In addition 30. rather than of disaster preparedness. The recent events in the month of May recorded the largest incidence of landslides in the country and a record number of lives were lost due to this hazard. Except for initial mention. mainly for the purpose of obtaining relief and rehabilitation assistance. Under the Ministry. intensity and the damages they cause. The commonly shared perception in the country is that the Government is responsible for disasters management.000 peoples have been directly affected. Natural disasters now show an upward trend.socialwelfare. and there is nothing you can do.000 families or 600.such hazards. Irrigation. There were 236 deaths reported. but “grin and bear” when it occurs. there are two main institutes overlooking the disaster management functions. These include the Meteorological. Local Governments.385 houses are estimated to be partly damaged3. on people.015 families consisting of 1. as drought relief i. 9136 houses completely damaged displacing 138973 families. disaster preparedness and mitigation do not portray adequately in the national plans yet. in terms of frequency. followed by the other formal charitable institutions. 2 .

Phulkumari. in and around the village . I n responding to the question as to why she is not moving away and settling elsewhere. and the storage of food and other essential items. Living with Floods In Bangladesh. Women. and to maintain the life support systems. Research studies carried out in Bangladesh. which can be the source of energy and nutrition for the family for days when the floods come. in times of disasters. and Sri Lanka ii on ‘Gender issues in disasters’ show the risk management strategies deployed by people for surviving the vagaries of nature. whether it be a sudden onslaught like floods and landslides. and dangerous slopes. Pakistan. Women in this area also ensure that their m eagre belongings such as clothing and bedding are stored in such a way that they can be easily removed when flood waters rise. to secure life and the continuity of livelihoods. are some of the functions carried out entirely by women in such situations. she said ‘one needs to learn to live with the river.engaged in cultivation. like the drought. During the monsoon period. or in managing slow onset of a disaster. women take on the role of preparing and storing food items. collecting water and fuel wood. men and women complement each other by taking on gender specific roles and responsibilities in overall risk management. and dried coconuts for this purpose. people play an important role in preparing for the management of the emergency situations. secured in appropriate packaging. Being poor. and in re. or small scale disaster.dominate. safe from flood waters. The social role assigned to women in South Asian societies as caregivers and nurturers naturally extend to risk management. where frequent flooding is a regular feature in most parts of the country. Risk management is part and parcel of the life of millions of people living in poverty in South A sia. without any external support. risk is a factor people have learnt to deal with. This is my native place. Taking care of the family in emergencies. India. is a Nepali woman who is living in a small village in Chitwan District. drought. women prepare a mixture of puffed rice. observing the water levels in the river is done by all. As the studies showed. Nepal. taking children and animals to safety. and gives sufficient energy when consumed in small quantities. often they are forced to live in marginal lands prone to floods. in how disaster risk is managed.building the disrupted services and infrastructure.the risk managers Women play a major role in risk and emergency management. which are prone to landslides. they have extensive 3 . who gets perpetually affected by its rising waters almost every year. but particular by women. Often. A substantial amount of risk management takes place at the community level. The studies reveal that there is a clear division of labour based on gender. near the river Rapti. the river supports our crops. but when it turns angry we move away from it’. In such conditions. This is a food item which has a long keeping quality. in Faridpur. Role of Community Whether it is a major calamity. Accustomed to spending most of their day.

Generally. Women in this area have taken the initiative to form themselves into vigilant groups along with men to keep vigil in the nights. they come back to continue with their livelihood. Women in Jhang area in Punjab. Pakistan. and arrange for their fodder women make preparations to take care of the children. Further. The area has been identified and declared high risk by the authorities. and preserve seed for the next cultivation season. In Andarawewa. Sri Lanka is an area where people live in constant fear of dual threats . while women stay at home occupying themselves in petty income generating activities such as preparing various food items for sale. but people continue to occupy the houses with cracked walls. Living in risk. and the cooking utensils. which are linked with the Nawalapitiya township. crockery for the house. While male members of the family take the livestock to protective embankments or distant places. or long awaited items of jewellery. It is the women who make provision for food to support the family during the floods. The collection is accessed by each family on a rotating basis. the people claim that it will jeopardise their income earning opportunities. corn and other cheaper and less favourable food grains are introduced to substitute rice. many women went into seettu 4 5-10 families get together to contribute with a given quantity of rice to a common pot every week/month. there will be hardly any time for the people to move to safety. have mastered the skills to survive floods through generations. millet. Families. the numbers of meals taken for a day is reduced. ‘Rice Seettu’ 4 organised by women in the drought affected villages is a common practice. where small amounts of cash is contributed. The Government has offered settlement in an alternative location. the valuables. Guided by their own judgment. when it is their turn to collect the lump some of money. to avoid the risk of starvation of the family. when the water levels rise beyond the safety levels.knowledge and powers of observation to know the slight changes in the movement and the levels of water. under normal circumstances. and people live in constant fear and uncertainty. Once the water levels recede. as regular managers of the food and water needs of the family. with this money. that women also get in to seettu. The occupants claim that they have nowhere else to go. Vigilance – the one option Gondennawa. Men go out for labour and other work opportunities in the town. As drought advances. for possible threats of rock fall during the heavy monsoons. change the composition of the meals to reduce the rice consumption. women are in the habit of purchasing special items such as furniture. however. and move to safety. in order to preserve the available food grains. and the walls. resort to various mechanisms to survive the difficult conditions. which is a clear sign of possible landslides. when to leave their huts. women keep regular vigil. people face scarcity of food and water during the long dry periods. in Nawalapitiya. and observe signs of cracks on earth. However in Andarawewa.landslides and rock falls. so that they can alert the neighbours to run for safety. it was noted. due to the weak structures along the river. they move to nearby safe places with the cattle. who generally take 3 meals of rice a day. Women’s art of surviving drought In the dry zone of Sri Lanka. if it is a flash flood due to the rains upstream (such as the 1993 flash flood in the area which washed away entire villages). Such observations help them to make the decisions. 4 . Women. However it is observed that they are at high risk.

Sometimes a journey for a single pot of water can be as long as 4-5 Km. to which over 30 families come to wash clothes. elderly and the sick. when outside work is not available. is suitable and safe for different family requirements. living in hazardous conditions. It is the women who are left in the villages to mange the crisis. of how she survives many risks the drought conditions pose. and women tend the indigenous fruit and other plants. while working as a daily wage labourer. is not good enough for drinking. bathe. The water in the village tube well is too saline for consumption. has figured out which particular source of water. working away from home in the city. They trek long distances to collect pots of drinking water. On these irregular visits of the bowser. 5 . There is only one well for the entire village. They collect the fodder for animals . Ground water is saline and not suitable for drinking. These tasks are managed. People in Andarawewa face water problems round the year. women carry the responsibility of ensuring drinking water needs of the family during the long dry months which last 6. and to ensure that there are sufficient quantities available. cattle and goats who are left behind from the herds taken by men to the irrigated areas 5. which visits the village not too regularly. Men go out of the village taking the herds of animals to areas where there is irrigation water and wage work is available. To access water for cooking she walks to the village well which is about a two km away. Sooriyawewa. These are just a few examples which demonstrate how women employ their knowledge and skills to manage risks. which are sources of nutrition for the family.8 months a year. since it is injurious to their health. Even this well water. where annual rainfall is not more than 300 mm a year. who spends a minimum of 3 hours a day in collecting water for drinking and other household needs throughout the year. a mother of four children from Andarawewa. thus its water is used only for washing and cleaning purposes. She secures and preserves water from 3 different sources. Sri Lanka meet the domestic water needs of her household is an example. Food becomes extremely scarce in the long dry months. and to steer their families to survival. and collect water for other domestic needs. Her husband is a labourer. she collects water from the Government distribution bowser. The story of how Sumanawathie. or making Beedi at home for sale. draught power and transport. Sumanawathie. since it is often muddy due to over consumption. Animals are an integral part of the livelihoods of people in Tharpakar. Drought in dessert In Tharparkar dessert area in Pakistan.camels. in Hambabthota district. to collect and preserve water to meet their family’s water requirements during the long dry periods. They are a source of food. to protect her family from disease.to collect money to purchase large plastic barrels. when there is work available. she feels. to look after the food and water needs of the children. For drinking purposes. 5 Animal population in Tharpakar is 4 times the human population. she collects water into large plastic cans and stores them for future use.

Bangladesh notes that. and to purify the water. and belongings. and material for makeshift household purposes are borrowed on loan or given as charity. v Post disaster re. In Jhang. Women were found to be engaged in rubble clearing. once temporary relief and support leaves the area. The study also observes that the social networks of women provide emergency survival support during floods. There are strong gender-based differences in the capacity to deal with a situation. and taking the children. Women take considerable risks to procure drinking water from great distances. seed and livestock. Borrowing of food or minor items is not identified as a man’s responsibility. water. as well as in community work. Here too. and other household belongings. Women are the first to provide nursing care to the most affected family members whether it is a flood. bedding. in masonry for reconstruction. A study on floods in Jolpur. as beneath his dignity iv . They help each other to save their production assets. walking through chest-high water or swimming to collect fresh and clean water. They were taking part in community meetings about the quake. before any official relief work begins. women mange the risk of starvation by various means. food items. The study also noted that women use various techniques to take water out of the tube wells so as not to mix it with flood water. For instance. The study also noted that men often sat idle or moved elsewhere. Women share responsibilities with them in the handling of animals and in the rebuilding of houses which involves preparing mud and doing construction work. earthquake or drought.” v i A research conducted in the earthquake hit Gujarat in 2001 records vii the role women played in post–quake reconstruction. and rotten or discarded vegetables. the sick and the elderly to safety. Along with the task of providing immediate care. the collection of food from common land was women’s work. along with their regular chores of preparing food.building Most part of the immediate rehabilitation also lies with the community members. who provide the first emergency assistance to one another when a disaster strikes. Pakistan. by gathering edible wild plants. such as calling out warnings to neighbours. male members usually start rehabilitation work on agricultural land and in caring for livestock. livestock. and were meeting other villagers to 6 . women contribute in a variety of forms. leaving their household members behind. in the absence of fuel wood iii. Often. Punjab. women also take the necessary steps to find food. Women. It was left to the women to take the responsibility for protecting children and other members of the family. with floods. as well as in the in the way coping mechanisms are employed. along with men play a crucially important role in emergencies. Also. asking for help from others is looked down. in procuring food for the family during flood emergencies.When disaster strikes It is the members of their own community. fuel. most of the drinking water sources go under water. and fuel to prepare the next meal for their families. in the aftermath of floods when affected people return to their destroyed houses. collecting water and fuel wood.

Yet. This challenge offers an opportunity to look deeper in to the vital role communities play. in the last 50 years. thus overlooking the contribution they are capable of making in disaster preparedness and emergency management. At present.slt. men and women possess specialized skills and strengths to cope with crisis. Lionel Edirisinghe Mawatha Colombo 5 Sri Lanka Phone: 00 94 11 2829412 Fax: 00 94 11 2856188 Email: madhavia@itdg. A decentralised approach towards disaster preparedness and risk management would provide opportunity for greater involvement of the community. and way of life. Instead of completely depending on centrally managed warning and response systems. systems where community based initiatives are linked to the local and district level disaster management plans are more likely to succeed. Communities are largely seen as victims who need help. and cost effective. Sri Lanka is faced with the challenge of coming up with rehabilitation and disaster management plans. change from ‘helpless victims’ to a ‘useful resource”. Women were seen taking extra efforts to bring the situation back to normal. which are costly to operate and often not too effective. Madhavi Malalgoda Ariyabandu ITDG South Asia # 05. expand their potential. Women are particularly disadvantaged in this regard. Having faced multiple disasters of floods and landslides in the recent months. and are often kept away from the planning process. which were also affecting the earthquake hit areas in Gujarat. with and without external support in managing disaster risk. go unheralded and unrecognised. Case studies presented here illustrate how this contribution is made in real life situations. to ensure sense of security fir the families for the community. more appropriate to the local environment. even though their skills and contributions both at the household and community levels. disaster management plans suffer from severe gaps in terms of preparedness action and community involvement. for options which are cost effective. women’s roles in mitigating and preparing for disasters. where the resourcefulness of ‘victims’ is recognised.address the drought issues. which are considered the worst of its kind. resources. which are sound. improve their risk management skills. are crucial. Turning victims to a resource Due to the gender division in labour in daily life. A change in the approach towards disaster management is required. in managing emergencies. so that they will in turn.lk 7 . Such an approach would provide the space and opportunity for both women and men to take part in the risk management process more constructively. and space given to realise its full potential.

carried out for ITDG South Asia. 2001 vii Enarson E. ‘Gender issues in livelihoods and flood disaster. 2000. a Gender Perspective’ in Disaster: issues and gender perspectives.www. 2001. Report based on a Quick Response Grant from The Natural Hazards Research and Applications Centre and the National Science Foundation..edu/hazards/qr/qr135/qr135. University of Dhaka. p 316 iv Opcit Opcit v vi Hameed K. Punjab. ‘We want work: Rural Women in the Gujarat drought and earthquake’. Department of geography and Environment. 2001 iii Nasreen M. Paper prepared for the ADPC regional consultative committee on Disaster Management. Islamabad .html 8 . Jhang District. October 2002 ii ITDG South Asia. Pakistan’. Khatun H eds . ‘Coping Mechanisms of Rural Women in Bangladesh During Floods. Sri Lanka ‘Impact of drought and initiatives in Sri Lanka’. case studies on Kamra and Kot Murad Villages.colorado.i Hettiarachchi N. Ahmed N.D. Research studies on ‘Gender issues in Disasters’ carried out for the regional project ‘Livelihood Options for Disaster Risk Reduction in South Asia’. Journalists Resource Centre. ITDG South Asia. National Disaster Management Centre.

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