Perhaps it is my childhood ‘Tales from the Moominvalley’ where the Moomin family copes with comets, floods or storms, which made me interested in the social aspects of disaster prevention. In Europe today flooding is becoming the most common natural disaster, caused mainly by increased population and values in exposed areas, an increase in the vulnerability of structures, goods and infrastructure, and failure of flood protection systems and changes in environmental conditions. Many argue for better technical solutions, but here I wanted to also point to the important social solutions, or mechanisms and how we do it together. I agree with those who argue, that in terms of how we manage and organize our social systems, we are only where Physics science was in the 17th century. In a world more and more characterized by rapid change processes and complex problems, learning how to cope and adapt to new situations is crucial. This is to some extent self-organized, with collaborative problem solving across disciplines, cultures and hierarchies. However, the question is: Are we good at it? Can we do better?
photo by Åse Johannessen
Studies of organizations show that past learning inhibits new learning: Before organizations will try on new ideas, they must unlearn old ones by discovering their inadequacies and then discarding them. The new ideas are often also not coming from the top-down. Instead strategic innovation often emerge from the lower levels of an organization, which are in immediate contact with the customers, users, or target groups and able to pick up signals or ‘intelligence’ from changes in the environment. What is crucial here, for these insights to be taken forward is that leaders, managers, decision- and policy makers are responsive to the recommendations coming from the grass roots, or practitioners in the field.
Between 8 and 13 May 2011, the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction is taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a bi-annual event, managed by UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction where actors come together to share the latest experiences. I’m hoping that the leading agents of this world carry their responsibility beyond just rubbing shoulders and staying in power, and explore new ways to capture the innovative resourcefulness of the grass root level. Perhaps some of those Moomin strategies can be useful, at least for inspiration.
A practical application in WASH to mitigate disasters
The picture shows small-scale drainage system, adapted to peri-urban areas, in Urbanização suburb in Maputo, Mozambique. The system drains the massive amounts of water during the annual rain period, preventing people from wading in water for long periods of time. The local community also is cleaning the drains from solid waste so that the water can flow away freely. It came about through an effort from Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) responding to the almost annual cholera epidemics, realizing the need for more long term disaster risk reduction instead of responding to each disaster. A local community organization is now managing the activities with the support of WaterAid, which also includes provision of safe water, improved sanitation, waste collection and hygiene education by a drama group.
by Åse Johannessen, Cluster group leader, Water and Disaster Risk Reduction