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Community-based cyclone risk management




In 1971, when Sarat Chandra Tripathi was 17 years old, a cyclone hit his district in India’s Odisha state on the Bay of Bengal. It left over 10,000 people dead including 100 from his own village. He explains that there wasn’t even a radio in the village to warn people of the coming catastrophe. He took shelter in a temple, one of the villages’ few stone buildings. In 1999 a ‘super cyclone’ hit the area and much of the village fled to a newly constructed cyclone shelter 5km away. Fortunately, the district was largely spared this time, with the greatest damage elsewhere in the state with another 10,000 fatalities. Since his childhood, Sarat Chandra has seen the sea advance 2km closer to his village and the intensity and frequency of cyclones increase due to climate change. Fifty metres from his mud and grass home the sea is kept at bay by a seawall that is now regularly breached. Shankarsana Barik, from the same community, reported that when the super cyclone came in 1999 he was living in a concrete house. He says, “when water entered the house we moved up to the 1st floor when the ground floor was under water and then to the 2nd floor when the 1st was submerged. My family stayed 3 days there with no food. There was no awareness, no-one believed such a disaster could take place.”

The Action

In response to the cyclone threat, Sarat Chandra and Shankarsana have both become members of a local task force focused on managing the risk of cyclones, ensuring effective early warning and preparing their community to act if a cyclone is expected. The task force has been mobilized by the Odisha-based NGO Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) as a part of the Paribatan (transformation) project. The project was funded by the EU and managed by Concern Worldwide in Odisha and Bangladesh. RCDC’s work focuses on natural resource management and livelihoods. It was driven by the understanding that local communities - with their traditional knowledge and stakeholder interest - are the best managers of such resources, through what they call ‘people-led action’. Such a perspective has driven a highly localized approach to climate change action and disaster risk management and led innovative approaches to cyclone preparedness.

A localized approach to resilience understands it holistically. Villagers are aware that the fragility of their own livelihoods is one of the greatest threats to their recovering from a disaster that could destroy their home, stored grain, livestock, and crops. Ashok, a farmer also involved in the task force, explained: “Such a calamity takes us back 5 years economically: the first thing we need to ensure resilience is a strong economic base. Livelihood is disaster preparedness!” The poor and marginal are constantly working to support their families. Engaging them in disaster risk management demands that they see a short-term benefit from their involvement. Accompanying risk reduction programmes with support to villagers’ farming activities both raises their economic level – increasing resilience – and ensures participation. It also acknowledges that vulnerability to disaster is linked to poverty and marginality and seeks to address these.

Kailash Dash, Executive Director of RCDC, explained that: “Paribatan began in 2011 with an engagement with communities and it took 6 months for communities to accept our approach. Once communities accepted the idea, we elicited community perspectives that could guide the project. Committees were chosen at hamlet level and then these representatives elected committee members at village and panchayat levels.” The latter is a village council that forms the lowest level of formal governance in rural India. These committees then shaped the resilience framework. They drove the action in terms of which activities to pursue, leading efforts within the community to understand and address vulnerability. A community risk and vulnerability assessment was undertaken in the community to understand the risks it faced and the resources it had to reduce them. From this a community contingency plan was prepared to be incorporated into broader panchayat planning and shared at higher levels of government. The aim was that all development plans in the state could be risk informed.

At the core of the action are the task forces formed at the community level. The task forces emphasise youth, and have equal representation by gender and caste. Members are trained in first response including search and rescue and first aid, and mobilized as an early warning system. There will typically be several days’ notice of a potentially dangerous cyclone, and as one approaches task force members will warn and educate the community. If and when evacuation is required, task force members will alert the community. They bang drums, blow conch shells and use a megaphone to announce the need to evacuate to a shelter. They will support the evacuation of the elderly, injured and disabled. Sarat Chandra, as the President of the village Paribatan committee emphasizes the importance of accessing information in cyclone season: “During the cyclone season batteries for the radio are so important that we prefer to buy batteries over food.” Neelima Parida, one of the task force volunteers described why she had become involved: “We live in a disaster-prone area, every year there is a threat. We thought such activities can save our lives and those of our families and community. Now we are prepared and have confidence that we can face any cyclone.”

Task force members will lead evacuation efforts, warning community members of the coming cyclone, and supporting them to reach the shelter with an emphasis on the most vulnerable. Additionally, community members are supported to prepare at the household level, making a store of essential items to take with them. The response of the task force is explicitly localised. Volunteers are local, and local knowledge is used. Technical approaches are also local, as seen in the use of bicycle ambulances, stretchers made from saris and poles, and floatation aids made from local pots and empty bottles. A dependence on expensive and externally sourced material is likely to ensure that these cease to function at some point or become unavailable.

Resilience was understood at the community level, not only in term of cyclone preparedness but as a stronger economic base. Therefore, Paribatan incorporated progressive farming techniques such as integrated fish-rice cultivation, kitchen gardens, rain harvesting and smokeless stoves for beneficiaries in communities. Beneficiaries were chosen through a broad community consultation. Ashok is a farmer who had adopted many of these approaches. He says that, “while the rich can always move, the poor are more invested in disaster prevention and so emphasise their economic situation. This is preparedness at the household level. Sometimes people want to see what I am doing and I am happy to show them. I was attracted by the integrated rice-fish cultivation, and as a result of implementing this my income has increased by 50%.” Integrated fish-rice cultivation creates ponds around paddies where fish can be farmed: the fish help fertilise the rice, while keeping parasites at bay. The positive impact on livelihoods of these techniques served to give other community members examples to copy, constituting a horizontal replication mechanism to spread them. Community members were also supported to individually join a micro-insurance scheme, and to create a Community Contingency Fund that could support affected households when a cyclone comes.

Participation and Partnership

Partnership and participation are core values that are integral to the community-driven approach, and to any localized action. Kailash Dash believes that “planning with the community is a core principle of localisation, since the community is the best manager of resources. This leads to inclusive decision making and people-led development.” Sarat Chandra described this process: “The committee was informing people, arranging meetings every month to discuss activities and developing an action plan. An RCDC representative was invited to meetings and presented with the activities selected previously and asked what their support would be. The committee decided what to do and RCDC would help make this happen.” This ensured routes to accountability for everything that was done in communities, with the community driving activities, not a donor or external actor. Partnership was understood largely in terms of government at both local and state level: where RCDC could not support a desired activity, the committee sought to mobilise local authorities. A member of the panchayat said: “the Community Contingency Plan helped us a lot. The whole community was involved, and it understood the problems of the locality and the resources available. The problem analysis of the project informed the panchayat.” An Odisha state official with significant experience in disaster management, Dr Kamal Lochan Mishra, said that he saw NGO partners as highly complementary to the authorities: “The government is hardware focused – as seen in the shelter building programme – but has no concept of ‘software’ activities, such as working with communities. NGOs support mobilisation such as shelter management committees and provide capacity building at the grassroots.” He also saw that NGOs have an advocacy role with government, gathering information and sharing it. They are also a source of ideas that government could adopt, from both international best practice and localised innovation. As such, this represents a model for policy influence and advocacy. Amulya Samartha, trained by RCDC, now trains the task force voluntarily. He reports that the state Disaster Management Agency was copying ideas from RCDC, in terms of search and rescue, early warning systems, shelter management and community training. Capacity building is at the heart of the action. This is understood by RCDC as building the skills of communities and increasing the capacity of the authorities at all levels.


The funding model for Paribatan represents a traditional one, with a donor supporting an international agency who managed project implementation by RCDC. The project was developed jointly by the international partner and RCDC and leveraged the international experience of Concern and their capacity to manage multi-country projects. One impact of this was that ideas and innovation could travel between India and Bangladesh, such as the example integrated fish-rice cultivation. The project did however demonstrate some of the challenges in such top-down international funding approaches. For example, RCDC had little contact with the donor, and expensive international staff were considered necessary to ensure standards, notably around financial and ethical accountability. A Concern manager made it clear that a funder such as the EU would not directly support a local NGO precisely because of concerns about their ability to meet such standards. A localised funding model would be one that supported RCDC directly for their work with the community. It would build their capacity in areas where they were unable to manage any project element

Successes and challenges

The most visible impact was seen in the effective community response to Cyclone Phailan in 2013, with evidence that resilience was improved in project areas. This showed that information about a coming cyclone reached the village. That enabled the population to evacuate with the support of the task force to a shelter recently built by the government. Leeja Baradi, a task force volunteer, reported that when Phailan hit: “the local shelter was not finished and so 50 families moved to another shelter nearby. When villagers received news of the coming cyclone, many left the area for relatives’ homes while the rest came to the incomplete shelter, which volunteers were managing.” Sarat Chandra lost the roof of his house and saw his paddy fields damaged by the water, but he and his family were unhurt. There is a broad awareness now of climate change and the origin of recent changes in the weather that all farmers have seen. The success of the project derives from its highly localised approach: community participation is not constrained to implementation, but sees activities driven by community needs and engagement. One result of this is that resilience is understood to include livelihood, knowledge and behaviour change, challenging approaches that are constrained to preparing for response. The continuing impact beyond the life of the project (which finished in 2016) relies on its successful engagement at multiple levels with the authorities. It also depends on self-sustaining community structures being created. Challenges faced in ensuring effective localised cyclone risk management include the often inconsistent engagement of state authorities, and the resulting potential fading of the current capacity. Those authorities are crucial actors in replicating activities across vulnerable coasts of Odisha.

Produced with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

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