World Disaster Report Launch: Awareness of Beliefs and Culture Can Reduce Disaster Risk

Home News And Events World Disaster Report Launch: Awareness of Beliefs and Culture Can Reduce Disaster Risk

Community culture and beliefs must be better incorporated into disaster risk reduction programmes in order to lessen the humanitarian impact of disasters worldwide, says the 2014 World Disasters Report released in Ireland today by the Irish Red Cross.

Planning ahead for disasters, and helping people most at risk to better withstand and prepare for natural hazards such as earthquakes, flooding and extreme weather, is rapidly becoming an essential part of international development efforts.  The introduction of innovative technology such as tsunami early-warning systems, sustainable irrigation and farming practices and adaption to climate change, are just some of the notable examples of disaster preparedness helping millions around the world.  

However, despite the progress, there is increasing evidence that the international approach to disaster risk reduction is compromised due to one obvious, yet often overlooked, factor – the critical influence of culture on attitudes towards risk.  

Fitting people’s beliefs, practices and their different interpretations of risk into programmes that aim to reduce that risk is challenging. The logic and scientific rationality of development agencies do not always fit well with the culture and beliefs of a vulnerable community.

The 2014 World Disasters Report aims to bring these complex issues and clashes of cultures into the open for discussion, so that they can be better incorporated into disaster risk reduction programming.  The report also explains how disaster risk reduction must take account of all the causes of vulnerability – including cultural ones – as the starting point for risk reduction.

Livelihoods vs. Risk

Earning a living or growing food for a family can come with deadly risk. Coasts and rivers are good for fishing and farming but at risk from storms and tsunamis; valley and volcanic soils are very fertile but at risk of flooding and landslides.  

Although these communities are almost always aware of the risks, they choose to stay. They need to earn a living and have no alternative. 

Communities living and working so close to potential disaster zone poses a significant challenge for development agencies aiming to minimise risk.

Risk vs. Beliefs

An angry goddess was blamed locally for the River Kosi floods, India 2008 and a mountain god for the volcanic eruption of Mount Merapi in Java.  Many people in Aceh, Indonesia, believed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to be a form of divine retribution because of ‘decadent’ tourists or drilling for oil. Similar beliefs were common in the United States after Hurricane Katrina (2005) - that the disaster showed God’s displeasure with the behaviour of some people who lived in or visited New Orleans.

Such strong beliefs also pose significant challenge, how can aid and development agencies best meet the needs of communities who believe they are being punished?