Disasters happen to real people – and it's complicated

  • By Megan Rowling
  • 24/05/2019

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Women repair the roof of their houses at the cyclone-hit Nalianuagaon village in Ganjam district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, October 15, 2013. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi


When floods hit Lebanon's Bekaa Valley this harsh winter past, Syrians living in camps after fleeing the conflict back home were tipped into yet another crisis. But a group of their young women refugees who had received vocational training from ActionAid were able to organise help.

They knew what their fellow refugees needed most - mattresses and wood for fuel. And because of their existing relationships with local suppliers, they were able to procure and deliver those basic items to about 160 families in two places.

Hadia Ghadban, who coordinates the aid group's programmes in Lebanon, said its work in creating "safe spaces" and circles where Syrian and Lebanese women can learn sewing or electronics had given them confidence and connections to be able to bail out others in trouble. 

"Syrian refugee women depend on their families a lot - we increase their skills and, with that, they become more independent and open to the community," said Ghadban, speaking at this month's Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.

Both she and Kamal Abu Joudeh, the governor of Bekaa, separately said the arrival of so many Syrians uprooted by war had increased poverty, demands on healthcare and competition for scarce resources such as water. That, in turn, had left people with fewer means to cope with natural threats such as floods.

But ActionAid's efforts to build the social and economic resilience of some of those women and girls - it is hoping to reach 500 - is an example of what researchers describe as an "intersectional" approach.


This means taking a broad view of the different aspects that can make someone vulnerable to disasters and how they interact.

Those factors include age, gender, disability, ethnicity, caste, sexual orientation and geographical location - and they can evolve through the course of a life.

"Intersectional approaches recognise that people have different identities, needs, priorities and capacities which will shift and change over time," Emma Lovell, a researcher with the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), told a discussion at the disaster forum in Geneva.

It is still the exception for aid workers and donors to assess those they are striving to help through such a complex lens, she added, not least because there is rarely enough detailed data for them do that.

The event organised by the UK-funded programme "Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters" (BRACED), examined the latest findings on intersectional approaches - and what could push them higher up the agenda in the humanitarian and political worlds.

ODI worked with BRACED partner organisations to carry out research on the ground in a flood-prone part of Nepal and a northern area of Kenya often hit by drought.

Through surveys and interviews, they tried to establish whether women and men were affected differently by climate risks, also taking into account other potential causes of exclusion such as caste and lack of political representation.

In the case of Nepal’s Bardiya district, the research found men are more resilient to natural hazards and climate change, in particular because they have more control over financial resources.

Women appear less able to cope, with poorer access to information from official sources and to phones and radios to receive early warning messages. The differences between women and men are even larger in the disadvantaged social groups, the study concluded.

Madan Pariyar of iDE Nepal, which participated in the research, told the Geneva event his development organisation would aim to incorporate those nuances into its work, as well as push for government policies on disasters to do the same.

In Kenya, the survey among rural communities in Wajir county did not throw up such clear differences, but interviews and focus groups revealed that economic status and local infrastructure had an influence on how well local people could cope with extreme weather.

Getrude Lung’ahi of ENDA, an African environmental and development group, who co-authored the research, said gender inequality left rural Kenyan women more isolated and with fewer resources to get through a disaster.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities without political representation were less able to access food and other aid, partly because they live in places with poor infrastructure, she said.


For Save the Children UK, issues of gender and disability are now considered in all projects, noted advisor Christophe Belperron, who emphasised it was important for aid agencies to adopt an intersectional approach as part of their core mandate.

Currently, most donor governments cannot be relied on to support such a fundamental transformation in how aid is planned and delivered because their funding cycles and interests tend to be too short-term, he and others argued.

"Increasing inclusion is a matter of shifting norms - it takes longer than a year or two," he said.

For children - another group whose needs are often badly catered for in relief and development work – the desire to continue their education is paramount in disaster situations, he said, based on a project on children and risk that started in 2011.

Others at the Geneva event called for the rarely recognised exclusion of other groups, such as LGBT+ people, to be addressed in intersectional approaches.

In Kenya, that was starting to happen, said ENDA's Lung’ahi, but remained difficult due to ongoing stigma around sexual orientation.

Asha Hans, an academic in the Indian state of Odisha who works with Rehabilitation International, said that when climate extremes hit - as with Cyclone Fani this month – disabled women in rural areas suffered more due to daily discrimination in their lives, such as not being permitted to leave their homes by their families.

“How do you ask these women to cope unless you put them as part of your development planning?” she said.

One encouraging sign is that, as the Indian government embarks on a new 10-year census, it is interested in collecting data on disasters and disability - although how has yet to be decided, she added.

"For women with disabilities, the equality factor in most of our countries is completely missing," she said. "The buck stops at the ground… It is the communities that must change, and we have to work with (them) to make them change."

Mami Mizutori, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the views and needs of all vulnerable groups must be included in national plans due by 2020 to prevent and prepare better for disasters.

“These people’s voices should be reflected," she said.

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Braced or its partners.


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