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Imagine you lived with the fear that at any moment your life and the lives of your loved ones could be taken, or your home and livelihood abruptly destroyed. Imagine you were powerless to help protect your family and community from the forces of nature, and were exposed to needlessly high risk. Imagine that the only people responsible for helping you when disaster strikes are hundreds of miles away and may not even know of your plight.

This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of people living in the Himalayan region of northern India, one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world. But while hazards may be natural, appropriate disaster preparedness can substantially mitigate their impact. Yet poor preparation and lack of resilience at the local level results in massive, avoidable loss of life year after year.

We have a bold new solution to share. The ‘Disaster Management System (DMS) – Himalaya’ is an innovation developed by Pragya to empower remote and marginalised Himalayan communities to take charge of disaster management at the local level, whist enabling seamless community-state collaboration.

 

Disaster Response Team training with the District Disaster Management Authority, Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. Credit: Pragya

The community-led model comprises two parts; a customised disaster communications network that links even the most remote communities with government responder agencies, and appropriate technology infusion for community-managed pre-disaster early warning (‘Go-Risk’) and post-disaster needs assessment and information-relay (‘RnR-Comm’). Associated community capacity building (such as training local Disaster Response Teams, mapping local hazards and resources; conducting evacuation drills) is delivered in close collaboration with government responder agencies, propelling the innovation’s integration with established government disaster management processes.

Following a hugely successful 4-year pilot in the Central zone of the Indian Himalayan Region, we are mounting an ambitious scale-up of the DMS-Himalaya. With the support and expertise of Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, we will reach communities from across all three Indian Himalayan Region zones (Western, Central, and Eastern), with a 2-year goal to scale the innovation’s impact to 900,000 people. That’s no small feat; but this is a big problem – and solving it demands big thinking.

Some critical questions as we journey to scale are –

How adaptable is the DMS-Himalaya model to the widely varying climatic contexts across the Indian Himalayan Region’s zones? Will the innovation be as effective in the new contexts as it has been in the pilot zone?

Will new local authorities welcome the innovation and engage as needed for its delivery? Will the innovation prove itself more successful at reducing disaster risk for remote rural communities than existing modes of disaster management?

Ten months into the scaling, we have successfully built trust and confidence in the model among the target local authorities in the two new zones and secured government commitment through state-level workshops. This has been achieved despite the huge demands on government time from the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic and its associated restrictions on movement in India presented challenges in the initial stages of our scale up, but by adapting activity schedules and modes of delivery, we are largely on track. We have conducted hazard and capability assessments in almost all our target areas, supporting customisation of the DMS-Himalaya to local contexts and providing data for resource directories that will streamline regional disaster response. Selected community youth have been trained as Disaster Response Team leaders, building capacity for locally-managed disaster early warning and response.

 

Disaster Response Team training conducted by the State Disaster Response Force in Assam. Credit: Pragya

We have found that the new Himalayan zones present new technological challenges. Extremely severe winters and high winds in some target locations demand more robust weather and geological monitoring technology than was necessary in the pilot areas. We are in the process of procuring new technology suitable to these harsh climates, and we’ll be bringing you more on this exciting development in a future update.

One intriguing question we are exploring is: what community resilience gains are to be had from building local leadership skills across diverse groups, especially those most vulnerable to disasters? As part of our journey to scale we are pioneering leadership modules customised to children, youth, women, persons with disabilities, older persons and frontline workers such as health practitioners and schoolteachers. In the longer term, how will such leadership investment challenge and change societal norms that see vulnerable people excluded from positions of influence, including in the sphere of disaster management that too often fails to account for and protect the most vulnerable and marginalised?

From its inception, the DMS-Himalaya has always been about challenging the entrenched but ineffective disaster management norms that result in avoidable loss of life.

Our innovation is a reimagining of disaster management, trailing novel approaches, building skills, inspiring hope, and saving lives. Our journey to scale will yield insights for more effective disaster management not only within India but across Asia and beyond.

The DMS-Himalaya innovation is a game-changer; watch this space!

Author: Alex Kirkwood, Pragya

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