Despite being threatened by different hazards and geographical risks, Bangladesh is still a country that shows how people can successfully adapt and survive in the face of disasters and extreme weather.
Communities are usually the first to respond to any disaster, and people all over the country face risks every day. But research shows that community voices are rarely reflected in local level disaster risk reduction (DRR) planning and activities.
BBC Media Action’s research and learning team has been trying to understand the barriers that prevent communities from engaging in local level disaster preparedness measures through a study in three communities of Barisal, Khulna, and Rangpur divisions in September-October, 2015.
The study found that barriers to participation include information and knowledge gaps within the community, an emphasis on response rather than preparedness, lack of communication between people and local government, and a lack of capacity of local government.
The study found that a lack of understanding about the benefits of DRR meant that the community lacked motivation to partake in DRR activities. As a result, people remain reluctant to be involved in local level disaster preparedness measures initiated by the community, local government or other local institutions.
Their day to day struggle to ensure their livelihood also poses a barrier to involvement. Sometimes, incentives such as “food for work” or “cash for work” encourage people to step forward to participate in local preparation activities such as road or dam repairing.
In many cases, communities don’t feel the need to report their disaster related problems because they think these are well known to their local government. Likewise, people think that union parishad chairmen and members hold the responsibility for initiating local level disaster preparedness measures, which then prevents them from being proactive.
However, the study found that there was often limited action due to a lack of capacity within local government to take preparatory measures.
In particular, lack of funds within local government sometimes led community people to conclude that it is central government’s responsibility to address issues. This lack of capacity of local government discourages people from reporting disaster-related problems or approaching the local government for assistance.
Thus, any action/initiative is often prevented as both the community and local government lack resources, and this slows down preparedness measures.
One government official reported being disheartened: “A UP chairman only gets Tk2,000 per month as his remuneration. It does not even cover the fuel cost of the motorcycle he uses to come to upazilla meetings. He is busy making a living.”
Another reason that communities might not engage with these processes is a lack of information and awareness of local level disaster preparedness planning processes and activities. This is due to a lack of communication and dissemination of information between communities and local government: People often do not know where they can find support to help them better prepare for disasters.
“We do not know where we should seek help with these issues (DRR) and we do not get any information from anyone either. We have no idea about any committee working here for disaster,” said a female community member from southern Bangladesh.
Sometimes, the reason people avoid getting involved with local government is that they think they might not receive help because of preferential treatment towards certain individuals or groups. People are often reluctant to raise their problems as they fear this might be regarded as a criticism of local government members and might lead to a threat for community people.
A female community member from a southern village accused: “He who has four latrines gets the fifth one, and he who has nothing does not get one as he/she is unable to pay the money.”
However, the study findings show that people do sometimes work with local government, typically in an emergency when a disaster hits their communal property directly, and requires a prompt response in order to save their lives and livelihood.
In Rangpur division, the study found a positive story of community involvement in local level disaster preparations. People sit together and discuss with elected ward member (smallest unit of local government) for taking preparations to better deal with sudden flash flood in their locality.
They first try to address all potential risks during flash flood and distribute different tasks among community volunteers and people, particularly announcing news of flash flood using mosque’s loudspeaker and helping most vulnerable people to shift their houses and cattle.
The ward member also discusses with community people to prepare a list of most affected people in the community for government reliefs.
Even community people along with local government have petitioned central government for a dam to protect from flash flood and river erosion.
Hereafter, in order to take part in DRR measures at local level, people need information, motivation, and resources (such as knowledge, money, and time) along with positive attitudes towards working together with local government or other local institutions.
These research insights encouraged BBC Media Action to provide information on local level planning measures and showcase inspiring stories to motivate people through the third series of the TV factual program Amrai Pari (Together we can do it), funded by the UK Department for International Development and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office.
The series was broadcast on ATN Bangla earlier this year and, alongside the show, capacity building activities have been run with community radio and Bangladesh Betar to help them produce editorially robust programs on DRR.
These activities aim to make people better informed and better prepared to deal with upcoming disasters.