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Defining the Community’s Role in Disaster Mitigation

This is a briefing paper by Practical Answers (technical advice service of Practical Action). It outlines how and why communities must participate in disaster mitigation.
Clarice Princess Mudzengi


Community members play a vital role in reducing the impact of a disaster. People at this level are often the most vulnerable to disaster and experience the greatest impacts for various reasons. Yet they are not passive victims. With knowledge of the local geology, the hazard context, and the livelihoods options available, local communities must be involved in disaster management programmes from the start, and supported by projects to develop the capacities and linkages that help overcome.

This technical brief produced by Practical Answers (the technical advice service of Practical Action) outlines how and why communities must participate in disaster mitigation. The paper draws on examples from Latin America, but is applicable anywhere. As it is often the same group of people that are affected worst by disasters and climate change, the community-based approach outlined here is a useful tool for adaptation. Note that the technical brief was originally written by Andrew Maskrey then director of IT Perú (now known as Soluciones Prácticas) for the Appropriate Technology magazine Volume 19/Number 3 December 1992.

*Download this technical brief from the right-hand column. Some key messages extracted from the paper are provided below. See the full text for more detail.


Disasters only occur when a hazard arises in vulnerable conditions. Hazards occurring in uninhabited areas or in areas where economic activities and settlement patterns are not vulnerable do not cause disasters. It is above all the growth of vulnerability in the regional economies and their urban centres in Latin America that is responsible for the increasing impact of disasters on development, which in turn further increases vulnerability. Understanding what vulnerability is and how it arises is as key therefore to the disaster paradigm as is the study and analysis of natural hazards. ​

Lessons Learnt

The analysis of case studies suggest a possible alternative disaster mitigation methodology, which takes as its starting point the analysis of local vulnerability rather than of particular hazards. These are mainly cases of NGOs intervening at the local level to advise communities and their organizations on mitigation measures, usually after a disaster.

The cases show that faced with a multi-faceted daily disaster, local people and their organisations develop their own strategies for improving living conditions, obtaining greater access to resources and changing the character of social relations with other groups, particularly with the state.

Only local people know their own needs and only they can define the priorities for mitigation within a given context. Most communities do not act for abstract ideological reasons; specific local problems are nearly always the reason for their actions. For many, mitigation is a permanent activity and an integral part of their survival strategies.

The form mitigation takes and the way it evolves depends on the context. In some traditional societies where communities still retain control over their economy and resources there may be space for adjustment or adaptation to hazard. With increasing urbanisation and the breakdown of rural economies and the social relations that go with it, the space for adaptation or adjustment becomes increasingly reduced as vulnerability becomes more extreme and develops new facets. Communities’ mitigation strategies in most contexts inevitably involve negotiation or confrontation with the state or with market forces.

The case studies show that community-based disaster mitigation should not be confused with unaided self-help, though many communities without access to resources are forced to rely on small makeshift mitigation measures at the local level which often prove to be totally inadequate against the magnitude of the hazards faced. Traditional techniques and methods may reflect severe technological and economic constraints and an acute lack of resources. The most important cases show communities planning mitigation actions and obtaining participation from the state. While some mitigation measures, such as house rebuilding or reinforcement, may be best managed at the community level, large infrastructure works or major policy changes require a level of centralised authority which only the state possesses. The cases show that the new approach is about involving the government in communities’ own mitigation programmes.

In this approach to mitigation, it is possible to avoid many of the diseconomies and mismatches which characterise conventional programmes. Because of the use of local knowledge and decision-making, the use of available local resources is often maximised and thus programmes achieve a lot more with a lot less.

A new approach and a different set of skills for disaster mitigation planning is required. Instead of starting off from a global analysis of hazards and their effects, within which specific mitigation measures are designed, the new methodology would begin with an analysis of local conditions of vulnerability, within the context of different hazards and risks. This means that mitigation must become an enabling activity, and that disaster planning must build incrementally from a series of small-scale interventions incorporating these gradually into a wider synthesis. The key to this approach is to work with and through communities and their organisations, involving some or all of the following tasks:

  • Research and planning to articulate people’s explicit and implicit demands in terms of viable projects and programmes. Communities often have clear goals but little clarity about the technical, legal, and financial alternatives available to attain them.
  • Provide technical and legal advice to communities to help them to implement their own mitigation projects and programmes, and to negotiate effectively with governments and agencies.
  • Create opportunities for reflection and learning from disasters, building up awareness and making organisation more effective.

This new approach to disaster mitigation planning means integrating these tasks into a long-term programme covering all phases of disaster and incorporating hazard mitigation into wider development planning. The methodology of working is necessarily slow, small scale, long term, multidisciplinary, and multisectoral. Because of its complexity, the incremental planning, and dependence on political negotiation, this approach must seem like a recipe for chaos to many experts accustomed to working in conventional programmes. However, within it, scientific knowledge of hazards and their effects and technological alternatives for mitigation take on a completely new meaning, transforming themselves into vital instruments at the service of development. ​


Maskey, A. (2012) Defining the community’s role in disaster mitigation. Practical Action Technical Brief.

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