Sharing knowledge for seismic shifts in disaster risk reduction

By Louise Ball, John Young 22 October 2015

An Australian aid representative learns the process of reconstructing a school building to make it earthquake proof in Nepal. Knowledge sharing is key to reducing risks associated with disasters. Photo by: Jim Holmes / AusAID / DfAT / CC BY

In 1975 a 7.4-magnitude earthquake shook Tajikistan, flattening mud homes and killing up to 20,000 people. A man named Borot lived in a house like no others in the village. Each corner was supported by a large log, locked together with sockets at the base and top of the wall. It was strong — the perfect example of an earthquake-resilient building using local materials. The house was built by Borot’s father and was the only house to survive the earthquake.

But after the earthquake, Borot set about building a new home for his family. When asked if he would build it like his father’s house he said, “I am not stupid. I will build my house the traditional way because I am not crazy like my father.”

Borot’s answer is mind-boggling to most of us. But it explains an important point: it wasn’t a lack of knowledge or a lack of resources that stopped Borot building an earthquake-resilient home. What was missing was a socially acceptable solution. This sort of barrier to earthquake resilience can only be understood at the local level.

This year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction focused on traditional, indigenous and local knowledge. Borot’s story — told by Brian Tucker in “Pathways to earthquake resilience in China” — is just one example of why we must incorporate local knowledge into disaster risk reduction efforts.

There are many more examples out there. Here are three key calls to action for the global development community:

1. Find better ways to integrate knowledge about earthquakes.

It’s not just local knowledge that’s needed. We need to make use of all available knowledge. This includes earth science, social science, and international and local experiences.

The need for an integrated approach is illustrated by recent work in China (as part of the Earthquakes without Frontiers partnership) that builds resilience to earthquakes in rural communities in Shaanxi Province, northwest China.

Nowhere within the Shaanxi Province is more than 15 miles from a fault that has been active in the past 10,000 years. But long intervals between major earthquakes and rapidly evolving societies makes improving resilience to earthquakes a particularly complex and challenging problem.

Since the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province, which killed 87,000 people and left nearly 5 million homeless, China has seen a shift away from disaster response to greater prevention and mitigation. Disaster risk reduction planning is now a part of government policy from the national to the village level.

2. Do more to share expert and community knowledge.

The science underpinning seismic hazard is well understood by government agencies, including the Shaanxi Seismological Bureau. But it’s less well understood by community residents and nongovernmental organizations. Community development disaster risk reduction programs tend to focus on more common disasters including droughts, fires, floods and landslides.

While there is a wealth of disaster risk reduction knowledge and practical experience in Shaanxi, there is little sharing of knowledge — especially between government and NGOs.

In China, Earthquakes without Frontiers recently organized a workshop in Xi’an, bringing together scientists, government staff and NGOs to capture the diversity of knowledge and perspectives in rural communities. The workshop concluded that there’s no one approach to increasing resilience to earthquakes, but you can improve your chances by using all available knowledge.

3. Apply an integrated approach.

The need to bring together different sources of knowledge was also recognized earlier this year in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. It called for governments to work together with other sectors and stakeholders to form an “all-of-society engagement and partnership.”

If we are going to make real progress in reducing disaster risk around the world, we need an integrated approach that links together physical science, social science and local knowledge. Approaches must involve close integration between communities, NGOs and government organizations — and should never treat a community’s experience in isolation.

How can an intentional, integrated approach to the design, delivery and evaluation of programs make an enduring difference in people’s lives? Devex, in partnership with FHI 360, aims to advance the global conversation on the promise offered by integrated development solutions through #IntegratedDev. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #IntegratedDev.

About the authors

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Louise Ball

Louise Ball is communications officer for the research and policy in development program at the Overseas Development Institute. She has expertise in not-for-profit communications, including strategic development, publication management, social media and digital communications.


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John Young

John Young is head of the research and policy in development program at the Overseas Development Institute. He leads work on monitoring and evaluating complex projects, particularly in the field of policy influence and advocacy, exploring transdisciplinary approaches to research and understanding and promoting evaluation use and research uptake.


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