Posted : 2012-03-01 19:45
Updated : 2012-03-01 19:45

Women’s role vital in disaster prevention (2012-03-01)

Yoshie Murakami cries as she holds a hand of her dead mother in the rubble near the spot where her home used to be on March 16, 2011 in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture in Japan following the devastation of a tsunami in which many women and children were victimized. / Yonhap

By Margaret Arnold

Natural disasters are not neutral in the way that they impact people. They compound social exclusion and existing vulnerabilities, disproportionately impacting the poor, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, minority groups and those marginalized in other ways.

Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to disasters, for example, female-headed households, children, the disabled, indigenous groups, landless tenants, migrant workers and other socially marginalized groups. The root causes of their vulnerability lies in a combination of their geographical context; their financial, socio-economic, cultural, and gender status; and their access to services, decision making and justice.

More than 90 percent of the estimated 140,000 fatalities following the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh were women. In India, up to three times as many women as men died in the 2004 tsunami, while in Indonesia, this figure rose to up to four times the number of male casualties. The limited mobility and social status of women increased their vulnerability to these events.

Importantly, reconstruction and recovery interventions are also not neutral. They can increase, reinforce or reduce existing inequalities. In a post-disaster context, the poor and marginalized face obstacles to accessing government relief or recovery assistance. They are less likely to understand how to work through the bureaucratic system or may not have access or entitlement to key documentation, such as national identity cards. Certain groups are therefore not only more vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters but they may also be more vulnerable to ending up in a worse situation as a result of the recovery process.

Disaster risk management

Within the disaster risk management community, we often speak about the window of opportunity that opens after a natural catastrophe to do things differently going forward. The idea is that while devastating, the disaster brings a momentary period of raised awareness of risk, monetary resources and both a real and metaphorical blank slate upon which people can build more resilient communities or initiate other social changes on issues that may not advance during “normal” times.

Hence, the resounding calls after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America for “transformation, not reconstruction.” We heard about “building back better” after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the “peace dividend” that the tsunami brought to Aceh after decades fighting between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Experience has taught us that this window of opportunity is not a given and must be managed carefully. The pressures to get people out of tents and back into houses, or to spend donor money quickly often trumps the need to ensure quality in construction or the adequate engagement of communities to ensure sustainability. Most would agree that Central America has yet to be transformed, and that the tsunami failed to deliver a peace dividend in Sri Lanka.

A key area, however, where much progress has been made after disasters, is gender equity, which can often be addressed easily and speedily in the recovery process. Support to disaster recovery can be designed to empower women at a grassroots level, build more resilient communities and initiate long-term social change and development.

Women have often been active leaders in rebuilding their communities after disasters. They take the initiative in calling grassroots community meetings and organizing disaster response and recovery coalitions. In Maharashtra, India, after the earthquake there, a local NGO negotiated with the government to secure the appointment of women as communication intermediaries, placing them at the center of the reconstruction process. The women’s groups underwent training to build technical capacity and monitor reconstruction.

Over time, they became community development intermediaries. After the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, local NGO KEDV began creating public spaces for women and children to rebuild disrupted community networks and promote women’s participation in the public sphere. These women and children’s centers started out in tents and then moved to temporary housing settlements.

Women’s empowerment

Disaster aid agencies can support women’s empowerment after disasters by deeding newly constructed houses in both the woman’s and man’s names, including women in housing design as well as construction, promoting land rights for women, building nontraditional skills through income-generation projects, distributing relief through women, and funding women’s groups to monitor disaster recovery projects. These are a few of the practical steps that can be taken to empower women and at the very least avoid the reinforcement of any existing gender inequities.

Promoting women’s empowerment in disaster recovery not only contributes to more effective and efficient recovery but establishes opportunities for women and communities to shape a more sustainable development. Moreover, the experiences of grassroots women leading disaster recovery efforts has grown to include their engagement with local, national and regional authorities to inform the development of policies and programs that support pro-poor, community-driven resilience building.

As the head of the ProVention Consortium, I had the opportunity to support the networking and knowledge sharing of grassroots women leaders, led for years by GROOTS International ( and the Huairou Commission (http:// www. These include groups such as the Comité de Emergencia Garifuna of Honduras, which began with organizing emergency relief after Hurricane Mitch and went on to reduce the impact of future hazard events and climate change by restoring indigenous food crops and reforesting coastal areas.

On a recent trip to Peru, I met with women representing a network of grassroots organizations working on resilience building in the slums of Lima who are partnering with the National Institute for Civil Protection (INDECI) to inform their efforts and formalize the role of grassroots community leaders in the national dialogue.

Grassroots organizations

At the global level, grassroots women are organizing under the Community Practitioners’ Platform for Resilience (CPPR, http:// Endorsed by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) in 2010, the CPPR aims to demonstrate, teach and build alliances with governments and development institutions and take strategic policy and program action to promote pro-poor, resilient development.

All of these efforts grew out of the experiences of women in poor communities that were hit by disasters and who organized to take charge of their recovery and development paths. The window of opportunity opened. While it was seized upon for their basic survival, it resulted in long-term, positive social transformation.

Climate change, perhaps the mother of all disasters, provides the mother of all windows of opportunity for positive social transformation. There are countless examples where empowering women to exercise leadership within their communities contributes to climate resilience, ranging from disaster preparedness efforts in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nicaragua, to better forest governance in India and Nepal, to coping with drought on the Horn of Africa.

There is also strong and mounting evidence at country level that improving gender equality contributes to policy choices that lead to better environmental governance, whether through increased representation and the voices of women within their communities, in society at large and at a political level or through increased labor force participation.

Climate change hits least protected people, regions

Climate change has major social implications. Many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people already feel the effects of climate change, and adverse impacts are unavoidable for millions more. The negative impacts of climate change push those living on the margin closer to the edge and can hamper the development pathways of entire regions by impeding the fight against poverty, disease, and hunger.

In addition, policies and interventions to both mitigate and adapt to climate change entail significant distributional, poverty and social impacts. Mitigation policies and measures can have significant distributional impacts, including opportunities and risks for the poor and other vulnerable groups. For example, a greener urban transportation system that reduces CO2 emissions could mean higher travel costs, making it less affordable to the poor. Similarly, programs like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) will need to promote low-carbon livelihood options that deliver development co-benefits for the poor, particularly in the areas of agriculture, forestry and sustainable land management.

Poor people in developing countries bear the brunt of climate change impacts while contributing very little to its causes. However, the human and social dimensions of climate change have been woefully neglected in the global debate. The World Bank focuses on climate change as an integral part of its mission to fight global poverty and enhance growth with care for the environment by helping to realize climate-smart policies and operations in client countries that advance the interests of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The starting point to understanding vulnerability to climate change is a clear understanding of existing levels of socioeconomic vulnerability and adaptive capacity. However, climate change impacts entail a number of characteristics that require a more dynamic view of vulnerability and new ways of working: they are diverse, long-term and unpredictable. Adapting to these traits is challenging as they require making decisions under high levels of uncertainty.

The 2010 World Development Report: Development and Climate Change, echoes this by stating, “Climate change adds an additional source of unknowns for decision makers to manage” and that, “Accepting uncertainty (is) inherent to the climate change problem.”

There is a need to revise existing concepts of vulnerability and integrate approaches into development efforts to help the poorest and most vulnerable access the financial, technical and institutional resources necessary to adapt to climate change impacts and climate action. Proper attention to the social dimensions of climate change can greatly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of development. Climate change presents the world with perhaps the biggest challenge of our time. It also presents an opportunity to do things differently. – M.A.

Environment info Air pollution

Air is the ocean we breathe. Air supplies us with oxygen which is essential for our bodies to live. Air is 99.9 percent nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and inert gases. Human activities can release substances into the air, some of which can cause problems for humans, plants, and animals.

There are several main types of pollution and well-known effects of pollution which are commonly discussed. These include smog, acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and "holes" in the ozone layer. Each of these problems has serious implications for our health and well-being as well as for the whole environment.

One type of air pollution is the release of particles into the air from burning fuel for energy. Diesel smoke is a good example of this particulate matter. The particles are very small pieces of matter measuring about 2.5 microns or about .0001 inches. This type of pollution is sometimes referred to as "black carbon" pollution. The exhaust from burning fuels in automobiles, homes, and industries is a major source of pollution in the air. Some authorities believe that even the burning of wood and charcoal in fireplaces and barbeques can release significant quantities of soot into the air.

Another type of pollution is the release of noxious gases, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and chemical vapors. These can take part in further chemical reactions once they are in the atmosphere, forming smog and acid rain.

Pollution also needs to be considered inside our homes, offices, and schools. Some of these pollutants can be created by indoor activities such as smoking and cooking. In the United States, we spend about 80-90 percent of our time inside buildings, and so our exposure to harmful indoor pollutants can be serious. It is therefore important to consider both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Margaret Arnold is a senior social development specialist with the World Bank specializing in the social dimensions of climate change, disaster risk management, and community-based and gender-sensitive approaches to risk management. She leads work on pro-poor adaptation and resilience building for the Social Resilience cluster. Arnold has been with the World Bank since 1995, and has worked on urban development and postconflict reconstruction in addition to disaster risk management.
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