Category: Resilience

Japan, one year on: Red Cross helps rebuild shattered communities


74-year-old widow Tamayo lost her home in the disaster

Guest post by Flora Watters.

On the afternoon of 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake beneath the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan created a tsunami that took over 15,800 lives and left more than 3,000 people missing or unaccounted for.

For Tamayo Furakawa, it was the end of life as she knew it. A lifelong resident of Hirono, a town in Fukushima, her home was destroyed by the tsunami. She says: “I saw the tsunami from the evacuation centre and I knew my house would not survive.”


New Zealand: helping vulnerable people recover and prepare

Kitty with her torch radio


Kitty, 83, is one of the people the New Zealand Red Cross is supporting after the earthquake last February. She has cancer and finds it difficult to walk.

Kitty lives alone, so when her television and radio stopped working after the earthquake, she was completely cut off from the outside world. She says: “I just sit in my chair. I’m on quite a lot of medication so can’t move around, but I’ll be alright – I have to be. There are so many people worse off than I am.”

New Zealand Red Cross volunteer Ruth Herbertz often encounters this attitude, especially from the elderly. “But they’re not okay and this is not okay,” the 23-year-old says.

Ruth is one of many students who have volunteered their time following the disaster to check on the well-being of people stuck at home. Kitty is grateful for the company, and Ruth likes visiting her. Ruth says: “We get an outreach call and we go. I enjoy it; it’s my chance to give something back and to help someone else.”


Change is needed in the humanitarian system’s response to disasters

Both within Somalia and in neighbouring countries, many people are living in camps

© IFRC/ Olav Saltbones

The British Red Cross welcomes a report released by Oxfam today which highlights the need for the humanitarian system to shift towards a local response, rather than global, when disasters strike.

Greater numbers of people are being affected by disasters due to issues which include:

As the report explains, the international humanitarian system will struggle to cope with those affected when disasters strike without having local response mechanisms in place.

For the British Red Cross, as part of an international Movement, working with local staff and volunteers is always central in any response to a disaster. And every Red Cross and Red Crescent National Society is a neutral auxiliary to its government, meaning their volunteers and staff are active from the earliest moments in a crisis.

 In 2010, when an unprecedented earthquake struck Haiti, it was local volunteers who were first on the scene. Since then, the British Red Cross has been working closely with the Haitian Red Cross to help survivors recover.

Prepared before disaster strikes

Child with bowl of porridge

© Katrina Crew/BRC

As Oxfam’s report emphasises, there is an increasing need for emergency resources to be closer to where disasters happen.

Around the world the Red Cross has 187 National Societies and each has its own emergency supplies stored in-country. However, when large-scale disasters happen there can of course be a need for international assistance.

At the British Red Cross our aim is to buy and store goods locally so as to speed up our response, boost local economies and ensure assistance is relevant to local society and culture. For instance, we store emergency relief items in warehouses in Kuala Lumpur and Panama, which are strategically positioned close to areas more prone to disasters.

If we don’t have what is needed in our pre-positioned stock another approach we use, as for example in our response to the current food crisis in east Africa, is to release cash to buy items in-country or nearby. This is an efficient way of responding and supports the local economy.

When responding to an emergency, the Red Cross co-ordinates with affected governments the UN and other humanitarian organisations – however co-ordination in the chaos of a disaster is always a challenge and all actors have a responsibility to improve ways of working together more effectively.

Reducing the risk of disasters

Suchitra Rani teaching cyclone preparedness to other women

© BRC/ Sarah Oughton

Investment in reducing the risk of disaster is a core part of British Red Cross work. When we plan a recovery programme to help people get back on their feet, we also look for ways to lessen the impact of future disasters. In Haiti, we’ve seen how improving the ways we communicate with people affected by disasters is vital to ensuring that communities are at the heart of and engaged in their own recovery.

However, it’s not only in the aftermath of disasters that we help communities be better prepared. Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, but the work that the government, the Red Cross and other organisations have done to help communities at risk of cyclones get prepared has had a huge impact in recent years. In part, this work can be attributed for the fact that in 2007 Cyclone Sidr resulted in more than 3,300 people losing their lives, where as in 2009 when Cyclone Aila struck the number of lives lost – while still too many – was reduced to 190, although 300,000 lost their homes and livelihoods.

When disasters strike humanitarian aid is essential and the generosity of donors at such times helps save lives. Although the emphasis remains on responding to crises, as Oxfam’s report points out, there is not enough investment in preventing and reducing the risk of disasters.

We know that when the TV cameras shine the spotlight on a humanitarian disaster people are willing to give a donation, but raising money to help people prepare for a disaster that hasn’t happened proves a much bigger challenge.

And yet according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), every $1 spent on reducing the risk of disasters could save $4 in responding to an emergency.

I doubt many people know that and it’s not exactly a headline winner – but if anyone has a bright idea on how to get people excited about putting their hand in their pocket to support disaster risk reduction please let me know!

Visit our website to find out more about how we help people prepare for disasters

Bangladesh: a cyclone photo story

Trees destroyed by cyclone in Bangladesh

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Bangladesh has always been a frequent victim of cyclones, but a number of complex issues mean cyclones, and the tidal surges they often cause, are having an increasingly devastating impact on people living along the coast.

Population pressure, land shortage, urbanisation, governance and environmental management are all contributing factors, along with any rise in sea level from the impact of climate change* , which challenge the sustainability of many people’s means of making a living.

Fishing families and others on low incomes are particularly vulnerable. As they are already poor, when a cyclone or flood takes everything they own, they are left with literally nothing. They have no reserves in the bank and no insurance to help them start over.

The trauma of living through a cyclone only gives way to the overwhelming struggle to survive in its aftermath. And of course the survivors are the lucky ones.

It would be understandable to think that hundreds of thousands of people are facing a bleak future. But that’s not quite the whole story.

Many communities are defying the odds, hoping for, and finding, a better future for themselves and their children.

You can find out more in the photo story below.

Our programme


© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Thanks to a five-year Bangladesh Red Crescent programme (2006-2011), supported by the British Red Cross,  84 communities are now better at protecting people and their means of making a living when a cyclone strikes.

We focused on those living along the coast and most at risk of losing their lives, in particular:

  • women and children
  • fishermen.

Alamgir Hossain, from Ghutabacha community, says: “Knowledge is not expensive but it saves lives. Before Cyclone Sidr in 2007, people didn’t bother much about cyclone warnings.

“But over the last few years, since the Red Crescent has been working with us, people’s attitudes have changed. Now people listen to the warnings and know what to do.”

Safety at sea


© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Facing a cyclone at sea is a risky business. But without a radio and understanding of early warning signals, this is the terrifying situation experienced by many Bangladeshi fishermen.

We’ve trained 300 fishermen in safety at sea and provided them with:

  • radio
  • torch
  • buoy
  • compass
  • first aid kit.

The training included: use of the equipment; understanding the cyclone warning system; first aid; and search and rescue.

Empowering women

Group of women at a meeting

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

It is common practice in Bangladesh for women to only leave the house with permission from their husband.

When a cyclone hits and a woman’s husband is out, despite the danger, she often doesn’t feel able to leave the home to seek safe shelter. As a result many women and children may die unnecessarily.

Through our programme, we tackled this problem by:

  • setting up women’s forums and building women’s confidence through training
  • working with the wider community, including religious leaders, to change attitudes to women.

Community action

Hazard map

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Setting up community committees, made up of volunteers that motivate and organise their community to prepare for and respond to cyclones, has been key to the programme’s success and sustainability.

Alagmir Hossain, who is the secretary general of the Ghutabacha community disaster preparedness committee, says: “We are much better informed and organised. We’ve developed hazard maps that identify the homes and people most at risk, as well as the location of shelters.

“I feel confident we’ll continue sharing this knowledge and using the skills we’ve gained to save lives.”

A safer future

A man throwing net in fish farm

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Following the completion of this work, the Bangladesh Red Crescent, with support from the British Red Cross, is developing a programme to help communities become more resilient, not just to cyclones but also a wider range of disasters and day to day crises.

Helping people protect their livelihoods as well as their lives will be a vital part of this work.

* UNISDR: Climate Change Impact And Disaster Vulnerabilities In The Coastal Areas Of Bangladesh

View the photos on Flickr

Find out more about how we’re helping people in Bangladesh prepare for disasters

Food crisis looms in west Africa

Woman with a bowl of seed in drought stricken field

© Julien Goldstein/IFRC

The Red Cross is carrying out assessments in the Sahel region of west Africa where millions of people are at risk of a food crisis this year. 

Low and erratic rainfall and insect infestations have led to poor harvests and lack of pasture in parts of Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Communities are also dealing with high food prices and reduced cash flow from migrant workers sending money back to their families from Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Unless urgent measures are taken now, the Sahel region could experience a major food crisis.

Red Cross response in west Africa

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has already released over £500,000 to help 70,000 people, in advance of the full assessments of the affected countries.

In Mauritania, where assessments have already been completed, the Red Cross plans to help over 10,000 households for the next year. The programme will include: emergency relief distributions; water and sanitation; and activities to reduce future risks, through more resilient livelihoods.

During recent assessments in Mauritania, the Red Cross found the lack of rain had seriously affected people’s ability to grow crops. As a result, in rural villages, such as Tchout, all the men and some women have moved to towns in search of work.

In Tchout, the Red Cross team found two in twelve children were already malnourished. The money and food sent home by those who have left to work elsewhere does not go far.

Halima, a 32-year-old mother of four boys, said: “Eight months ago, my husband went to the capital to work as a laborer. But since then he’s only been able to send me 25kg of rice and 5kg of oil.”

Food shortages in Mauritania

Malnourished child having his arm measured

© Nathalie Bonvin/IFRC

Another village, Tenwakoudeil, is in a similar situation where agricultural production is non-existent and farmers are struggling to feed their animals. To survive, they have started selling them at lower prices and many men have gone to Nouadhibou, a coastal city, to fish.

Access to safe water and sanitation is also a major problem here. The only source of water for the village is a well 30 metres deep, which serves both people and animals.

In Tenwakoudeil, women’s weaving co-operatives and small-scale trading are practically the only economic activities that allow families to survive.

Slow response to east Africa food crisis

A recent report by Oxfam and Save the Children says tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily during the current food crisis in east Africa because the international community, donor governments and humanitarian agencies didn’t respond quickly enough.

Clearly, we need to avoid such a situation in west Africa where once again the international community can see a crisis looming. In order to avert it, funds are needed now to help communities become more resilient before the crisis hits.

During 2004-2005, people in the Sahel faced a particularly severe drought, to which the British Red Cross responded by launching an emergency appeal. However, as the UN calculated at the time, $1 could have been spent to prevent a child becoming malnourished, whereas it cost $80 a day to treat a malnourished child.

The emergency response was necessary to save lives, but as always more could have been saved by acting earlier. Last year, the Red Cross acknowleged a similar situation when it published a report on the east Africa food crisis focussing on the need to support longer term food security to avoid future food crises.

Building resilience to food crises

In the village of Roti, this is exactly what the Mauritanian Red Crescent is doing, with support from other Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies. Like many other villages in Mauritania, families here are struggling with the effects of poor rainfall: their crops are failing and they have no money to buy the products needed to sow expensive drought-resistant grain.

High demand and low availability of food are pushing up prices. Normally, a sack of wheat costs £10, but villagers are now paying £17 per sack.

However, unlike other villages, gardening activities are fairly well developed in Roti, where the Mauritanian Red Crescent is teaching people to grow food that is less dependent on abundant rains. The results are encouraging, with families producing crops of melons, cowpeas and millet for home consumption and trading.

A responsibility to respond

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will be supporting the Mauritanian Red Crescent in addressing the looming food crisis by setting up a mobile unit to help with early detection and treatment of malnutrition. Over the coming year it also plans to address the root causes and reduce the risk of future food crises through a number of initiatives, which include:

  •  providing grants to communities for livelihoods projects
  • establishing community irrigated gardens with water system and solar panels
  • raising awareness of famine early warning systems to help people have a better understanding of what and when to plant.

The British Red Cross don’t know yet whether it will launch an emergency appeal to respond to the food situation in west Africa, but what we do know is the more prepared we are to respond quickly the more lives we can save.

The British Red Cross’ Disaster Fund is a facility designed to rapidly allocate funds to disasters irrespective of whether they have a high media profile or not. So far, we’ve used our Disaster Fund to contribute £1 million to the Red Cross response in east Africa, which includes much of the early allocations of funding before the crisis was widely reported.

Early action in west Africa, before the crisis potentially peaks in the summer, will make a huge difference. If you would like to help us be better prepared for this and other future disasters please consider making a contribution today.

East Africa: so was it all too late?

Woman and child in a Somali Red Crescent health clinic

© IFRC/ Olav saltbones

Oxfam and Save the Children yesterday published a report – titled A Dangerous Delay – on the food crisis in east Africa. It says that thousands of needless deaths occurred and millions of extra pounds were spent because the international community failed to take decisive action on early warnings of a hunger crisis in east Africa.

The importance of preparing for disasters

The humanitarian aid that was provided saved many lives, but we agree that taking action earlier would have saved even more.

An International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies report on the drought in east Africa, published in late 2011, concluded that governments, donors and humanitarian organisations must work together on a long-term approach, addressing the chronic underlying issues. It advocated a focus on preventing future crises through intelligent investment in sustainable change.

Generally speaking, funds invested in preparedness are several times more effective in avoiding crisis than similar funds invested in response. However, until there is a crisis donors tend not to allocate substantial funds to an operation.

In the Horn of Africa, regular droughts are a fact of life. It’s a complex web of factors – including conflict, food and fuel prices, and poverty – that can combine to cause the delicately balanced environment to tip towards scenes of desperate hunger.

One Kenya Red Cross programme is helping former pastoralists earn an income through farming

© IFRC/ Jonathan Kalan

The accuracy of the early warning systems has developed considerably in recent years and their predictions for drought in east Africa in 2011 in late 2010 were mostly correct. However, the systems do not predict when other factors, such a conflict and high food prices, will combine to make a bad situation worse.

In east Africa, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies are always present. The Kenya Red Cross, for example, works longer term through a network of volunteers across the country who support agriculture, the rehabilitation of boreholes, and much more.

In June 2010, the British Red Cross donated £205,000 towards supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross’ work in Somalia. By April 2011, we had already donated over £500,000 to support drought, food insecurity and school feeding programmes in the region.

However it is hard to garner financial support in times when rains have fallen, crops are growing and livestock are multiplying – before the situation is a full blown crisis.This meant not enough was given before famine was declared, money which could have built people’s resilience and saved lives.

When, on 4 July 2011, the British Red Cross launched its East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, the situation was already so dire that in many cases emergency food aid was the only realistic option. But, while food aid undoubtedly saves lives, it doesn’t help build resilience, and can, in some cases, destabilise local markets and lock families into dependency.

So what is the solution?

Two women selling vegetables at a market in north-east Kenya

© IFRC/ Jonathan Kalan

There are no simple answers to the complex long term food crisis in east Africa, a disaster which has changed and evolved over time.

In areas of acute crisis and suffering food distributions or cash support are vital, we are unapologetic about saving lives through distributions of emergency food aid. But we also recognise that the broader crisis across east Africa is chronic and recurring, and needs a response which goes beyond food or cash relief.

This is why some of the funds raised by our appeal are also being used to help improve people’s resilience to future disasters. We are helping communities improve their livelihoods to better cope with chronic crises and reduce the risk of falling into a state of acute emergency. In each country, and indeed each community, the risks and therefore the required assistance will be different.

The complexity, fluidity and scale of the food crisis in east Africa means that no one agency, government or institution can provide the answer alone. International donors, humanitarian agencies, national governments and local communities must all work together.

The Red Cross strives to do its part to alleviate the suffering of the most poor and vulnerable by using our skills and expertise, as well as our network of volunteers –often from the very communities affected by the crisis – in the most effective way we can.

Donate to our East Africa Food Crisis Appeal

Haiti, two years on: volunteers determined to help their community


Théogène Mie MichèleThéogène Mie Michèle is 22 and volunteers as a British Red Cross community-based health and first aid team leader, raising awareness about the risks of diseases such as cholera, malaria and tuberculosis in her area of La Piste Camp, Port-au-Prince.

The camp is home to at least 40,000 people and the health and first aid programme is designed to reach the entire camp community. As part of the programme, two facilitators from each block of the camp were selected to train three more volunteers. These three volunteers trained another 15 volunteers, who in turn will train 40 households each until the whole camp is covered.

Mie Michèle is one of those most active volunteers in the largest camp in Port-au-Prince, and was one of the first volunteers to be trained in first aid, and health and hygiene promotion.

A chance to help my fellow Haitians

Mie Michèle says: “This is a chance for me to help my fellow Haitians, those who have been suffering under these tents for almost two years, to help those who face various health problems without even realising it, or when accidents happen. For example, if a child is injured while playing, I can be there to help instantly, before his parents are able to take him to the hospital.”

Despite the challenges that volunteers face, Mie spends three days a week walking from tent to tent to raise awareness in the community,. Mie says: “People living in La Piste Camp come from a different social background. We have to make huge efforts to get this information through to them. Sometimes people refuse to listen to us when we go to their tents to speak to them.”

Coping with poverty and insecurity

Dr Vieux Manoucheka, programme manager, says that the poverty in the camp causes the most communication problems: “People are more worried about finding food to eat than in the health messages from the volunteers. And at the end of the day, the volunteers also live in the camp and are facing the same problems, although their determination to help their community comes first and foremost.”

Another big problem that volunteers face is the insecurity in the camp. “The camp is very dangerous,” Mie explains. “People are murdered every day, there are armed gangs, and we are afraid to walk through the camp in case we bump into them. They could rob us or even rape us. We sacrifice a lot to volunteer in this camp. Community-based health and first aid volunteers are exposed to all these threats because we are always walking around from tent to tent.”

However, Mie believes that because the British Red Cross is willing to help everyone in the camp people view volunteers in a better light. “This ensures our security a little,” she says.

Despite all of the work of the British Red Cross in the camp, people in La Piste Camp – including Mie Michèle – still face enormous difficulties. Before the earthquake, Mie lived in Cité Militaire with her family, near La Piste. The earthquake totally destroyed their house and they moved into tents. Since then, the conditions in the camp have made Mie’s mother constantly ill, and she sometimes has to go to live with friends elsewhere. This meant that Mie was often alone in her tent and has ended up moving in with her boyfriend for safety.

Volunteers are best placed to serve their community

According to Dr Vieux, volunteers who come from the camp are the best placed to serve their community: “Camp residents have more knowledge around health problems in the camp and therefore they can much better serve the population with health care and first aid. They are living in the community and so they know the way to address these issues with people, which would be almost impossible for an outsider to do.”

Mie Michèle firmly believes that her work is having a positive impact on the life of the community: “I’m addicted to this job of helping this poor community that suffers from all kinds of terrible problems. People in the camp do not realize they are slowly dying because they don’t do anything to prevent diseases. Poverty blinds them.

“However, thanks to our work with the British Red Cross no one is dying any longer of cholera or any other epidemic, so I feel that despite the difficulties, my work is having a positive impact and my objective is being achieved.”

Discover more about our work in Haiti

Read blog posts and survivors’ stories from Haiti

Haiti: taking the time to make recovery sustainable

The Red Cross helped tackle cholera in remote regions of the south

© BRC/ Amanda George

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the British Red Cross was quickly on the scene helping communities recover. Two years on, we are still there. Why? Because recovering from such a huge disaster takes time. At least, it does if you want to improve people’s lives permanently.

By adapting our approach to the local context, working directly with the affected communities and ensuring that the work we do is sustainable, our programmes can continue improving people’s lives long after we have left. By taking a long-term view, we are helping people in Haiti rebuild their lives in a way which reduces their vulnerability to future disasters.

Rising to unexpected challenges

When responding to a disaster, we need to adapt to new challenges. In Haiti’s South Department, the British Red Cross ran a livelihoods programme from October 2010 to October 2011, giving grants and training to the most vulnerable people. However, shortly after the programme began, a cholera outbreak spread to the region.

Luciana and her baby have benefitted from Red Cross livelihoods support

© BRC/ Amanda George

One of the only organisations to respond to the outbreak in the south, we quickly began treating people, delivering medical supplies and spreading hygiene information. Many remote communities in the south could only be reached on foot or by donkey. Despite this new challenge, we continued to help people through our livelihoods programme – reaching over 3,000 households.

Luciana Pierre Jean was displaced from Port-au-Prince after losing everything in the disaster. Using cash grants and training from the Red Cross she improved her small commerce business. She says: “The way I run my business now is different. I make more profit and I can use the profit to buy things that I need for my baby and myself. The Red Cross has helped me so much. I am not just surviving now, I feel like I am progressing.”

Our programme in the south has now finished, and we have given thousands of vulnerable families the ability to continue providing for themselves once we’re gone. In addition, by training local government medical staff and Haitian Red Cross staff and volunteers in cholera treatment and hygiene promotion, we have ensured that they can continue working to prevent and cure cholera.

Handing over responsibly

In the Automeca and La Piste camps in Port-au-Prince, the British Red Cross has been running water and sanitation-focused projects since July 2010. As in the South Department, it soon became necessary for us to provide cholera prevention and treatment services too.

Before the earthquake, many people in Port-au-Prince had limited access to the services we now provide in the camps – basic necessities such as clean facilities and water. Before our programmes in the camps finish at the end of this month, we are working with the Haitian government and other agencies to ensure that vital services continue to be provided. This way, improvements to people’s way of life can be sustained until more permanent resettlement is possible.

Volunteers promote hygiene in Port au Prince

© IFRC/ Julien Goldstein

Another way to make sure that benefits are long-lasting is by working with local communities. In the Delmas 19 area of Port-au-Prince we are working with the community to regenerate their local environment. This includes addressing shelter, livelihoods, health and hygiene issues. By enabling the community to determine the pace of recovery, what’s needed and when, we can help them recover in a sustainable way.

As Luis Sfeir-Younis, programme support officer for recovery, says: “You have to take the time to work with communities, or it is superficial and the impact doesn’t stick. We want to make communities stronger and more resilient”.

The British Red Cross will continue working in the Delmas 19 neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince until at least 2013. Luis says: “We have a strong understanding of the multi-faceted problems this community faces. Using this information we are helping vulnerable people rebuild their lives.”

We’re no longer taking donations for our Haiti recovery work, but you can help us to provide immediate aid when disasters like this strike by donating to our Disaster Fund.

Find out more about the ways we help communities recover