Culture must be considered in approaches to disaster risk reduction – UN-backed report

In Samoa, rising sea levels and storms affect the country’s fragile agricultural sector, and the Red Cross Society runs a vegetable garden project to teach communities agriculture best practices. Photo: IFRC/Benoit Matsha-Carpentier

28 October 2014 – Disaster risk reduction approaches must recognize why people live with risks and how their behaviour and attitudes related to culture affect their exposure and sensitivity to hazards, a new United Nations-backed report out today warns.

The 2014 World Disasters Report, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), explores the question of how culture could become a central consideration in disaster risk reduction efforts, and analyses the influence of disasters and risks on culture.

The report was launched today The Event at the Vienna International Centre at an event organized by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), IFRC, the Embassy of Norway in Vienna and the Austrian Red Cross.

A press release from UN Information Service in Vienna, notes that the new report tries to answer the question of what should be done when people blame a flood on an angry goddess, as it was the case when the Koshi River in India flooded huge regions in 2008, while people in Indonesia blamed the mountain god when Mount Merapi erupted in 2010.

Similar beliefs were widespread even in the United States during Hurricane Katrina, when some believed it showed God’s displeasure with some of the behaviours of the people who live in or visit New Orleans.

Acknowledging the fact that hundreds of millions of people live in dangerous places – including the sides of volcanoes, earthquake fault zones and coasts exposed to storms and tsunamis – the report underscores that people’s own priorities often include the need to live in such high-risk environments because that is where they can gain their livelihoods.

Speaking at the event, the Deputy Executive Director of UNODC, Aldo Lale Demoz said: “We need to do more in helping those who have already been victims of disaster to protect themselves from violence, including violence against women and children and organised crime groups trying to exploit them.”

To reduce the risks that people face, it is essential to focus on how livelihoods can be made more robust, safer and, where necessary, be replaced, the report states. Reconciling local health beliefs or everyday practices with public health interventions is also vital, as people’s perceptions of health risks involve local traditions, beliefs and social practices that sometimes do not coincide with the expectations of public health interventions.

Citing the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa as an example, the report stresses the need to address misconceptions and cultural beliefs through effective social mobilization and behavioural change so that efforts to stop such deadly diseases will not be in vain.

Future investments must be channelled towards a more culturally sensitive, human-based approach to disaster risk reduction, as part of the discussions in framing a new post-2015 development agenda, the report concludes.

The mandate of UNODC, whether on drugs, crime or terrorism, has a strong connection to the notion of risk. People risk their health and lives by engaging in drug use, drug trafficking or unsafe migration practices. The reasons for such risk-taking might be very similar to those explained in the report as it relates to disasters. As has been seen in the past, places hit by natural disasters are breeding grounds for crime, violence and corruption.

The report, which has been published annually since 1993, compiles trends, facts and analysis of contemporary catastrophes and their effect on vulnerable populations worldwide.


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