The importance of directly working with vulnerable communities to assess and reduce disaster risk is now generally recognised in the fields of disaster preparedness and mitigation and, increasingly, also in disaster response and recovery. It is therefore crucial that at-risk communities are actively involved in the identification and analysis of the risks they are facing, and participate directly in the planning, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of disaster risk activities.
Although community risk assessments are most of the time collective processes whereby the opinion and input is sought of communities in their entirety, in some cases specific input is sought from certain individuals or groups of individuals and households. Elderly are often a useful source of information when historical profiles or visualizations are carried out or disaster timelines are being drawn. Focus group discussions are often held with women, children, handicapped, certain ethnic groups, etc. to discuss their specific vulnerabilities and risk perceptions and identify appropriate solutions to their problems. Households are specifically targeted during CRAs when household/neighbourhood vulnerability assessments or livelihoods and coping strategies analysis are being carried out.
Private sector actors are rarely at the forefront when community risk assessments are taking place. They can nevertheless be a useful source of information when secondary data are being collected or baselines are being established. They are also often identified an important asset/capacity when risk mapping is being carried out. They also play a key role in livelihood and neighbourhood analyses, especially in urban areas. Their material, financial and technical support is also often sought in the community action plans which are developed as a result of the community risk assessments.
Community organizations are central to the process of community risk assessments. They plan and prepare for the CRAs, apply the tools with the community and systematize, analyse and interpret the data. They also return the information to the community for their verification and decision on the priorities for action. Community organizations also actively engage in the implementation of the risk reduction projects in close collaboration with the communities and support them in developing reports and proposals for local authorities and donors. In view of enhancing community resilience, it is important for community organizations to build up the capacity and ability of communities themselves to over time carry out self-assessments and be directly engaged in fundraising and advocacy with local authorities.
Local and National Government
Local governments are increasingly recognizing the value of participatory assessments with communities. More and more they are also being invited to actively take part in the assessments and incorporate the outcomes of CRAs in their local development plans, as has happened in some cases the Philippines. In view of scaling up CRAs, it would be advisable if local governments could build up their own capacity in applying participatory techniques so that governmental risk reduction and development plans are being better informed by the realities of the most vulnerable population groups. National governments need to allocate more human, financial and material resources to the local level so that community risk assessments and the ensuing action plans will receive more substantial support.
The rationale for using participative approaches in disaster risk reduction is well known:
- Local communities are the first responders when a disaster happens. In the hours following a disaster search and rescue and the provision of immediate assistance to the injured and homeless are almost entirely carried out by family members, relatives and neighbours. In the case of small-scale events, communities may be left entirely to their own devices, as there may be no external assistance available at all.
- Top-down disaster risk reduction programmes often fail to address the specific vulnerabilities, needs and demands of at-risk communities. These vulnerabilities and needs can only be identified through a process of direct consultation and dialogue with the communities concerned, because communities understand local realities and contexts better than outsiders.
- Even the most vulnerable communities possess skills, knowledge, resources (materials, labour) and capacities. These assets are often overlooked and underutilised and, in some cases, even undermined by external actors.
Over the last 25 years, a diverse range of community-level risk assessment methods have been developed and field tested, mainly by NGOs and community-based organisations (CBOs) (see Box 1). The influence of participatory action research (PAR) and community development methodologies, such as participatory rural assessment (PRA) and rapid rural appraisal (RRA), is evident in many of these risk assessment methods.
Community risk assessment serves a dual purpose:
- The primary purpose of a community risk assessment is to provide data to better inform local decisions on the planning and implementation of risk reduction measures. An effective CRA will contribute to a greater understanding of:
- the nature and level of risks that vulnerable people face; where these risks come from;
- who will be worst affected;
- what means are available at all levels to reduce the risks;
- and what initiatives can be undertaken to reduce the vulnerability and strengthen the capacities of people at risk.
CRA identifies specific vulnerable groups/individuals, based on key social characteristics such as gender, age, health status, disability and ethnicity (either through checklists or through a situational analysis). The process also includes an analysis of patterns of population density, livelihood security and occupational activities that increase the vulnerability of certain households and communities. Capacity assessment aims at identifying a wide range of resources: coping strategies, local knowledge, leadership and institutions, existing social capital which may contribute to risk reduction efforts, skills, labour, community facilities, preparedness stocks and a local evacuation plan. An additional and often overlooked aspect of a participatory risk assessment is the local perception of risk, which can play a key role in deciding on mitigation measures.
- The process of carrying out a participatory assessment and the ensuing action planning may be of equal long term importance as the tools that are adopted to collect and analyse data on vulnerabilities and capacities. This process is one of participatory partnership and active long-term engagement with communities in defining their problems and opportunities. The process also enables communities to analyse and better understand their capacities and strengths, building collective self-confidence. As such, CRA is both an assessment tool and an organising process
Review of secondary sources : collecting information that already exists, usually in the form of written reports or documents. It provides an overall picture of the community in which the CRA is going to be carried out. When? This review should be done prior to any field work, as the findings may influence the types of tools you choose to use in a given community.
Community baseline data : a list of questions designed to obtain much of the information needed for the creation of baseline data. When? It is important to undertake it early on in the process because it enables you to compare the situation before and after risk reduction projects have been implemented.
Semi-structured interview: a form of guided interview in which only a few questions are decided upon ahead of time. The questions are open-ended, with the aim of stimulating an informal discussion on a given topic. This interviewing technique can be used both to give information (such as raising awareness on climate change) and to receive information (such as finding out what people know about climate change). It is one of the main data collection methods used in a CRA.
Focus group discussion: an organized dialogue between a selected group of knowledgeable individuals in a community to obtain their views on and experiences of a given topic. It is particularly suited to obtaining several perspectives on the same topic. Focus groups also provide insight into people’s shared understanding of everyday life and the ways in which individuals are influenced by others in a group situation.
Direct observation : a useful research tool as it helps the CRA team to understand the context in which the information is being gathered. All members of the CRA team should be constantly taking notes on what they are observing. It is essential to provide as much detail as possible and to describe the circumstances and the context that lead to certain observations. This will allow others to assess the reliability of the information.
Mapping: maps can be made by a community to indicate the position of risks and hazards. They can also be used to understand what a community has in the way of resources and where they are located. Maps are also useful for stimulating discussion among community members about important aspects of the community. They can help a community to analyse potential problems and solutions.
Transect walk: involves walking through a community to observe the surroundings, people, land use and resources. The route taken can be determined by drawing a line on a map of the locality that goes through or “transects” all zones in order to gain a representative view of the community. A transect walk is usually carried out early in the research process because it gives you an overall view of the community and helps you to observe things that may require further investigation later on during interviews or group meetings.
Seasonal calendar: for a seasonal calendar, a chart is created with the months of the year along the horizontal axis and the events and activities significant to the community listed in the vertical axis. Completion of the chart by the community helps the CRA team to see the hazards and risks in terms of when they occur. The analysis can help a community to rethink its living habits according to its vulnerability to hazards.
Historical profile/historical visualization: with a historical profile, a community can build up a picture of past events, track changes in the environment and behaviours and understand causal links. Awareness of these patterns can influence the decisions that community members take when planning projects. With historical visualization, the community creates a chart showing how key aspects of their lives have changed over time. It can show up changes in housing, trees, river levels, livestock and hazards and helps people to think about how their susceptibility to certain risks may continue to change in the future.
Household/neighbourhood vulnerability assessment: tool useful for helping households – and by extension neighbourhoods – to assess their level of vulnerability so that action can be taken to reduce it. It assists in assessing how vulnerable the household/neighbourhood is in relation to likely hazards and risks, taking into account key factors such as type of housing, rivers, evacuation routes, electricity, gas and drainage.
Livelihoods analysis and coping strategies analysis
Livelihoods analysis and coping strategies analysis look at two separate but closely related issues. The tools can be implemented separately or together.
- Livelihoods analysis creates an inventory of a household’s assets and how they are applied as a “bundle” to its income earning. It is a powerful tool to identify the areas of a household’s vulnerability and what capacities it has to protect itself from hazards.
- Coping strategies analysis focuses on what people do when they are already affected by a hazard (e.g. drought). Coping strategies are what come into play when dealing with the hazard. They are what families (and communities) rely on to develop means to maintain their livelihoods during and after a disaster.
Institutional and social network analysis: helps to gauge people’s perceptions of the role and significance of various organizations within the community. It can stimulate discussion leading to identification of the role each organization can play not only in time of disaster but also in relation to disaster preparedness and mitigation activities.
Assessment of the capacity of people’s organizations: listing the key organizations in the community, such as religious bodies, schools, financial committees, hospitals, coordinating bodies and local government, can help to identify the various types of support available to the community in time of crisis. This can be used to gradually build up a picture of local capacities. It is closely linked to capacity mapping.
Venn diagram: diagrams designed to collect social data by using circles to show the links or relationships between different parts of a community or institution. Because they reveal similarities and differences between institutions, partners, people and issues within a community, they can be useful in identifying problems and possible solutions. Venn diagrams are especially relevant for institutional analysis as they can help to identify specific organizations that could be involved in implementing a community action plan or specific risk reduction projects.