Role of Information in Disaster Mitigation

Dolly Jain,

Inadequate housing together with lack of health services and education are world’s most serious problems. These problems are exaggerated by lack of information and awareness.

"Information is power" and it is a catalyst to sustainable development. Complete and correct information to the community is clearly a very important tool to assist in developing a transparent system free of bureaucracy, corruption and general mismanagement of already limited resources.

The role of information and communication changes in emergency situations and can play important role at 5 levels based on different needs.

Role I: Flashing warning news
Incorrect or unreliable information while forecasting the disaster can often result in great damage. In October 1999, coastal regions of Orissa state in India were hit by a killer cyclone, taking thousands of lives and leaving millions shelterless. The government agencies responsible for forecasting probably did their job well but the news about the magnitude of the expected cyclone was not conveyed clearly and strongly enough. Relying on their previous experience of "unreliable" news forecasting of imminent cyclones, most of the families did not realize the seriousness of the situation. The lack of responsive action resulted in deaths, which could have been avoided.

Role II: Disaster preparedness
At the second level, correct guidance can prepare the community to face an unavoidable natural disaster by providing basic information on Do’s and Don’ts. An orientation on what to do, when to do and how to do can empower the vulnerable communities with valuable life saving information.

Role III: Information on relief operations
Designing appropriate relief and mitigation projects for natural disasters requires a solid understanding of the magnitude, geographical distribution and frequency of these hazards. This level of information requires both horizontal and vertical flows within the relief providing organizations and from organizations to community. Information is not an end in itself, but a tool to assist the community to organize themselves in the hour of emergency.

Role IV: Capacity building for reconstruction
After any disaster, there is sudden decline in the confidence of people in traditional / prevailing building systems. The reconstruction phase is considered as a second chance to start afresh with something more "reliable". A lack of information at this stage can have a strong dampening effect on rehabilitation activities.

Recent experience in Gujarat has revealed that in search for "secure" technologies, village communities acknowledged any piece of information that came its way, even in languages they couldn’t understand. The same community returned material goods like used clothes and cooked food as unacceptable! This very clearly shows marked preference of quality information required for reconstruction over material gains in form of donations. Information empowers the community with confidence to feel self-reliant.

Role V: Information for sustainable development of community
Sustainability is the basic need for every society, including urban and rural alike. Hence need of information grows with in its changing roles. Development Alternatives group as a partner of the basin network is working for enrichment of human life by providing quality information on shelter through building networks and partnerships.

Even as we comprehend and write about the role and importance of Information and communication, this aspect has not received its due credit because of the misconception that it can’t be "traded" into financial gains. However, it is being now realized that information sharing is not always inversely proportional to money making as its various roles have different objectives. The information provided at first four levels is a "non-marketable commodity", but its role for sustainable development can be matured into self supporting internally viable system. This role sees the translation of information into material wealth. While for the first four roles the barrier is the mindset of people, where the importance of documentation and information sharing is not considered as important, the fifth role of information faces the problem of lack of stable communication infrastructure. For this financial aid can be one of the solutions.

Finances available for knowledge transfer can and do have a strong impact on the efficiency and hence on the media used for transfer. The instrument for information dissemination changes from electronic to physical, i.e. email and Internet connections to "word of mouth" depending on the role of information. This can change from that of creating "fast impact" to a more moderate and extended process of sustainable development. The role of information and communications technologies (ICT’s) to respond to the needs of affected community is still not very clear. While these "fast" technologies have contributed much to sharing experience and knowledge with in the urban population, rural families still haven’t benefited significantly. In India while working for rehabilitation programs in cyclone hit Orissa and earthquake hit Gujarat, our group adopted the fast electronic medium to share, gather and learn from the rich experience of national and international network partners. But while disseminating knowledge to the community, we built on the conventional and more effective ways of village meetings, community gatherings, house visits and working in small groups to bring in desired change. To empower the beneficiaries, every family was provided with "family passbooks" which had complete day-to-day information about the quantity of materials received by the family against their entitlement. It included a certificate signed by engineers of participating organizations certifying the completion and ownership of the house.

The most effective information dissemination system is community based participatory approach where technical know-how is provided through training to enhance internal capacity of community and local NGO’s of the region. The information and knowledge thus provided enters the system and stays effective in the long run. To accomplish this, the group has now developed an archive of user friendly information packages, which include posters, brochures, pamphlets, information leaflets and training manuals designed for different end users. These include beneficiary families, community workers and site supervisors. These packages include interactive literature in form of user manuals, production manuals, family passbooks, and other documents customised to their needs in regional language.

The medium of information transfer becomes more important as the credibility of any information depends on its source and medium of delivery. Even if information is made accessible to the needy, it is not always necessarily useful or reliable! Facts have to be understood completely and correctly for its elevation from "information" to "knowledge".

The Gujarat disaster is such an example, where lack of correct knowledge but easy availability of information through networks were two equally important players. We witnessed the effect of wrong knowledge transfer when the traditionally excelled art of constructing earthquake resistant structures got diluted over time as the skills got transferred from generation to generation. Information got adapted according to the needs, and in this process the basic "non-negotiable" parameters of safe structures, like tie bands got diluted. As a result the "newer" structures were the worst hit, where as many "old" buildings have withstood nature’s fury.

But on the other hand, because of the links of regional community with the "outside world" through NGOs and NRI networks, rehabilitation is happening at a fast rate. People are informed and inquire for more information on various government and non-governmental policies before they take their decisions! They are well equipped with facts and figures to decide if the cash promising governmental packages are better suited to their needs than the material support provided by non governmental programs. During our meetings with the community of three villages in Anjar Taluka of Kutchchh district, we admired and honored the confidence with which the village community accepted and also negated our offer to them to build houses!

The author is an architect with Shelter Group and manages basin activities at DA

Further Information and linkages
Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Active Projects:

1. DA-EFICOR Gujarat rehabilitation program

2. CARE-FICCI Gujarat rehabilitation project

Information on structural do’s and don’ts:

1. IIT, Kanpur, National information center of earth quake engineering

2. University of Rookee

Manual for emergency safety in earthquake damaged buildings

Know-how resources:

1. Building Advisory Services and Information Network (basin)
Development Alternatives is a basin partner
2. Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
4. Kutchchh Nav Nirman "Abhiyan’
5. National Center for Peoples Action and Disaster Preparedness
6. TARU leading edge
7. People Science Institute (PSI)


1. Habitat Ploytect, HUDCO (2001). Pocket book series on cost effective technologies, New Delhi.
2. Gujarat state disaster management authority (2001). Village partnership procedure manual. A manual as per government of Gujarat schemes.
3. An informations, pamphlet ‘ Dharti Hil Jaye’ (Hindi). Peoples Science Institute, Dehradoon.
4. An information booklet. Earthquake resistant House construction guide (2001) (Gujarat). Kutchchh Nav Nirman Abhiyan, Kutchchh
5. Information booklet: Construction of earthquake resistant houses and Retrofications of earthquake hit buildings (Gujarat) (2001). National center for peoples action and disaster preparedness.
6. Development Alternatives. Marathawada reborn. A study reports on rehabilitation efforts in providing housing to earthquake victims of Maharashtra State.


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