Social movements reveal the inequality at the heart of resilience

Tuesday, August 2, 2016 - 15:33

Written by Jessica Hartog and Tanjir Hossain

Disasters, some might say, are a part of life. And yet changing factors across the world are increasing the frequency and impact of disasters; factors including population growth, climate change and urbanisation. Currently, more than 60 million people of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable have been affected by record global temperatures, droughts and floods as a result of El Niño, the World Food Programme reported in May 2016. Malnutrition in children, the elderly and pregnant or lactating women is reaching alarming levels, the result of large scale crop failures and dying livestock putting the squeeze on agriculture in areas that are already susceptible to adverse changes in production.

All too often the preventable crises that come about in the wake of disasters are left to linger. That they are preventable, and yet were not prevented, ought to be a subject of shame. As an international community we need to invest much more in building the resilience of communities to overcome these challenges, holding states as well as non-state actors to account.

Our new resilience framework guides us to work with women, their families and communities to build their resilience through agency building in the face of the different shocks and stresses they are likely to face; such as droughts, cyclones, water insecurity, conflict and more. We see that the root cause to the devastating impact of disasters like these ultimately lie in unjust and unequal power relations. Small groups of rich and powerful men and women are maximising their influence and profits at the expense of the safety of the most poor and vulnerable.

Tackling this problem requires us to go beyond only tech-managerial solutions - though we will continue to work on meeting basic needs through investing in early warning systems and training women in alternative and climate resilient livelihoods - to campaign and call for legislative changes. These changes can include things like stricter building codes to ensure workplaces do not collapse, and increasing budgets at the government level to support smallholder farmers.

We are calling for action to challenge the status quo and create a system that doesn’t look the other way as the most vulnerable suffer the brunt of the consequences of these disasters.

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We applied our resilience framework in Bangladesh where we have been working with farmers in Lalua Union Parishad. Located along the branches of the Meghna River and the Bay of Bengal, hundreds of canals carry salty water to the land from adjacent sea. As a result, thousands of hectares of land remain out of production for six months a year. Between 1990 and 2008, the people of this union have seen increased land salinity (how much salt is in the soil) due to poor governance in embankment management, and due to sea level rise and cyclones as a result of climate change.

The government had built embankments in the area over 40 years ago to control the influx and outflow of the salty water, to preserve the sweet water in canals for agricultural production in dry seasons. The sluice gates that control the flow of water in these embankments used to be managed by the local farmers themselves. However, over the last two decades, people with money and access to power started taking control of the gates in order to cultivate saltwater fish. This shift of control led to the salinity in land increasing again, with the farmers having little power. As a result, they began to change their agricultural practices - becoming reluctant to cultivate in drier seasons, believing it to be impossible during those periods.

In this context, ActionAid Bangladesh began working with the Lalua Union for an action research project on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in 2008. The process was participatory and engaged people in critically analysing the problems to come up with workable long-term solutions. Our aim was ultimately to understand the local climate context, its impact on people’s lives and livelihoods and how they cope with it.

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Forming community research groups, who identified salinity intrusion as one of their core problems, allowed a detailed analysis to be undertaken. That analysis revealed that, although sea level rise was a connected issue, power inequalities and poor governance of the sluice gates presented an angle that could be tackled pragmatically.

That analysis also indicated that a lack of confidence among farmers who had stopped believing that crops could be grown in drier seasons was a pressing concern. This confidence needed to be rebuilt in order to empower and unite them to challenge the imbalanced use of the sluice gates.

ActionAid supported the farmers to first grow saline tolerant varieties of crops using methods involving using ponds to reserve freshwater. Later, the research groups suggested embanking the canals to reserve fresh water that would enable them to grow crops all year round. The Union Parishad responded positively to the suggestion and assisted the research groups to embank the canals. Encouraged by their success, the farmers demanded control and management of the sluice gates.

The research groups led an extended campaign of lobbying local authorities and, after a year, the Union Parishad handed over the control and management of sluice gates to a committee comprised of the smallholder farmers, women farmers and local businessmen.

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It took almost three years of facilitating and organising people to solve the problem of dry season water scarcity and saline water intrusion. Our long-term initiative to involve people in research activities using participatory approaches not only united people against the unjust actions of those holding power, but also made the local government more accountable to the people. The project also strengthened the livelihood security of the people in Lalua, the community’s self-confidence and enhanced respect for women leadership as they actively engaged themselves in the process of demanding justice.

We see in this case of the Lalua Union that unequal access and control over the sluice gates was a root cause of the vulnerability of poor and marginalised smallholder farmers and their families. Without addressing the power imbalances between them and the richer saltwater fish farmers, we might not have sustainably improved the prospects of the smallholders and their resilience to disasters.

ActionAid’s resilience framework reaffirms this and calls for coherent and holistic answers to the often complex direct and underlying causes of people’s vulnerability to disasters.