Participatory GIS for building community resilience

Over the years, the approach to natural disasters has changed from response and relief to risk reduction, with policy focusing more and more on building resilience and increasing preparedness among communities living in hazard prone areas. However, in India, such efforts are only just catching on and have not yet been fully realized.

In India, where population density is high, proper awareness, preparedness, and resilience building has the potential to save many lives during disasters. The key to an effective disaster risk reduction strategy lies in integrating hazard assessment, socioeconomic factors and, people’s perceptions, and with decision-making processes. However, the gaps between people and the government, between the government and research organizations, and among government agencies themselves are immense, resulting in the failure of many risk reduction practices. In addition, although the shift from response and relief to risk reduction is being made by many institutions and government agencies, this shift has not yet trickled down to the people living with disaster risks. While disaster risk reduction research has steadily developed, strategies for reducing disaster risk often continue to operate in a top-down fashion, ignoring social dynamics.

Extent of flood inundation
Extent of flood inundation area using flood hazard modelling

Incorporating community perceptions of risk and technological solutions such as GIS in the planning process can shed light on the various levels of vulnerability within social and physical environments, how vulnerabilities interact, and the context in which to place vulnerabilities. The project ‘Building community resilience to flood hazards using geospatial technology’, implemented by the Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), India, has attempted to reduce this gap by strengthening resilience to natural disasters in the Himalayas through an improved understanding of the state of resilience of communities and integrating GIS with local knowledge. Some of the activities carried out included preparing flood hazard zonation maps, analysing people’s perceptions of flood risk and coping mechanisms, and identifying appropriate local government strategies to reduce disaster risk.

Community-based disaster risk management is based on the fact that local communities are the first to be affected by a disaster and, therefore, have a vested interest in preparing. Communities living in natural hazard zones should be equipped with skills – based on both traditional and scientific knowledge – to empower them to effectively deal with disaster events.

The study area of Uttarakhand, located in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, has in recent years witnessed changing climatic conditions and extreme rainfall events. The people living in this fragile environment are aware of the importance of protecting their surroundings. Shivendra Rawat, a resident of the study area, said, “We must protect the environment, as it affects our village, and we should also be prepared for disasters”.

During extreme events, people rely on what they have learnt from past experiences; they stay up all night after a few days of heavy rain or move to higher ground and stay in open fields as long as possible. One of the emerging perceptions is that communities see the government as responsible for their safety – including for relief, compensation, relocation, and resettlement – rather than relying on self-preparedness. “We should be trained by the disaster management committee regularly and we should be given disaster management kits”, opined Chandradevi, a local from Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand.

Digitized version of the PGIS map
Digitized version of the PGIS map created through focus group discussions in Didsari village

Insurance is seen as a viable solution for recovering losses in disaster prone areas. However, it is neither available nor affordable. “Insurance would be useful for businesses, but there is no company here that is willing to take the risk. We live in an area that is flooded frequently and we have no assets to put up as collateral”, said Santosh Singh Rana, a villager from Uttarkashi district.

A major lacuna that exists is in the availability of health facilities. Health care facilities are scarce with most located far from communities, requiring people to travel long distances. “During the last disaster event, the injured were airlifted to other areas. It becomes difficult during the rainy season as there is a risk of landslide due to excessive rain”, said Indubala Semwal, a local from Uttarkashi district. The rugged terrain in these regions is an added challenge in developing new facilities and infrastructure, such as roads and communication networks.

The communities’ responses and perceptions have been shared with government officials at various levels, enabling them to incorporate their views and needs into policies. The consideration of local communities’ views in policy making has made disaster risk reduction more effective and bridged the gap between policy and local people’s everyday experiences. “We acknowledge that community members need to be trained for disaster management, but there is immediate need to integrate disaster risk reduction into government departmental planning”, said Devendra Patwal, District Disaster Management Officer, Uttarkashi district.

The zonation map prepared by the project provides information on the extent of floods and vulnerable villages. It includes a spatial representation of the villages at risk of future floods and the extent of the expected flooding based on physical characteristics. These maps have been shared with the communities and relevant stakeholders.

The perception of communities in relation to disasters, disaster preparedness, and disaster response can be vital in designing actions to be taken by communities to avoid, manage, and adapt to disasters. “Mainstream scientific investigation helps us to understand human vulnerability, but local knowledge integrates human adaptability with vulnerability to provide a more holistic picture. Placing communities at the centre of the design and implementation of disaster risk management strategies can make them more effective”, commented Kirti Ajith Varma, policy researcher at TERI. Through focus group discussions and household level surveys, this study engaged directly with communities, increasing their participation in the decision-making process for better disaster risk management.