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Community Resilience

Originally published October 5, 2012, on InterAction’s blog.

How, in today’s world of increasing urbanization, can we better prepare for increasingly frequent natural disasters and extreme weather events? One answer is to focus on communities, said speakers at a recent event dubbed Cities and Climate Change Adaptation: What We Can Learn About Resilience from Those Living on the Edge. When people living in a neighborhood trust and rely on each other enough, evidence shows that they work together and rebuild more quickly after a disaster. Janice Perlman, who moderated the event organized by CHF International and the U.S. Green Building Council, argued that organizations must involve the knowledge and creativity of the people who live in affected communities, emphasizing, “It’s not just their sweat equity we want.”

Brian English from CHF International discussed their Slum Communities Achieving Livable Environments with Urban Partners (SCALE-UP) Program, explaining a project in Pune, India. They worked with people living in the slums there to gather information on things like which areas had access to a toilet, which areas had problems with drainage, etc. Once they aggregated all the data with the city government, they met with the original data collectors and helped train them how to engage their communities on prioritizing the problems. The communities then decided what they wanted to tackle first.

Aram Khachadurian described the Katye (a Haitian creole word meaning “neighborhood”) project in the Ravine Pintade neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Organizations working on projects in the neighborhood decided to rebuild it with the people living there involved in every aspect of the project, from rubble removal to supervising the construction crews building the new homes. Ravine Pintade has weathered the crises since the earthquake very well – they’ve had no deaths from cholera infections, because the community is organized and responds readily when cases come, and the neighborhood fared extremely well after Hurricane Isaac struck because residents quickly cleared the area of new debris, Khachadurian said.

Perlman highlighted a New York Times article comparing how two neighborhoods in Kobe, Japan, weathered the 1995 earthquake differently. One of the neighborhoods had a history of residents reaching out and connecting with each other, while in the other neighborhood, people kept to themselves more. The neighborhood where people already relied on each other as a community weathered the earthquake much better.

When communities work together and are involved in the process of a project, it gives residents a sense of ownership, which invests them in ensuring that the project will continue after the implementing NGO is gone. This kind of sustainability is key in building resilience because the next time a disaster comes around – which it will – communities will have a more solid foundation from which to rebuild.

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