14 May 2012
Rebuilding communities in the wake of disaster
The long-term sociological consequences of disaster relief and recovery are examined in a new book by RMIT University researchers.
Rebuilding Communities in the Wake of Disaster: Social Recovery in Sri Lanka and India (Routledge) is the most intensive and extensive study of post-disaster community rebuilding ever published in the literature on disaster management, drawing on research in five communities affected by the 2004 tsunami.
Co-authored by Associate Professor Martin Mulligan and Dr Yaso Nadarajah from RMIT's Globalism Research Centre, the book was launched by Andrew Hewett, Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.
Associate Professor Mulligan said a key lesson for aid agencies was that decisions made in the immediate aftermath of a disaster could have significant long-term consequences for the rebuilding of resilient communities.
"There needs to be a much stronger awareness of the kinds of transitions that must take place in moving from immediate disaster relief to long-term planning," he said.
"It is essential to ensure the pressing needs of disaster victims are met quickly and efficiently, but there comes a time in the transition from relief to recovery when it is vital to ensure that physical and social planning for resettlement is not rushed.
"Given that climate scientists are predicting more frequent and more intense natural disasters in the decades ahead, it has become even more important to understand what good post-disaster community development means.
"The alternative is to allow natural disasters to grow into social disasters that can destabilise local communities and society more broadly."
Dr Nadarajah said the book stressed the importance of understanding the three phases of recovery - short-term relief, intermediate recovery and planning for long-term rebuilding - and the need for a more deliberative approach to planning for social recovery.
"International aid agencies can respond quickly to major disasters but there is intense competition, heavy scrutiny and rather short timelines for rebuilding shattered communities," she said.
"A key finding of our research is that a two-year timeframe would rarely be adequate to ensure that severely disrupted and traumatised local communities are able to function effectively.
"There can be no arbitrary timeframe put on the process for moving from relief to long-term recovery - aid agencies must either adopt more open-ended commitments or prioritise transition planning to make sure local organisations can take over the work when they leave."
Oxfam Australia's Executive Director Andrew Hewett said the aim in any humanitarian response should be to support communities to recover so they would be more resilient when the next disaster strikes.
"Recovery is not just about rebuilding bridges and buildings and roads. It's about supporting communities to rebuild their lives with dignity," he said.
The research mapped social recovery from the tsunami across a wide spectrum of local communities in southern and eastern Sri Lanka and Chennai, India.
The project was supported through an ARC Linkage grant, resulting in a series of reports delivered to Australian Government Overseas Aid Agency, AusAID.
Other researchers who contributed to the project included Associate Professor David Mercer, Dr Ifte Ahmed and Monash University's Dr Judith Shaw.
The book is a groundbreaking study of post-disaster community rebuilding.
Researchers travelled to Sri Lanka to hear first-hand from communities affected by the tsunami.
New housing in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, built after the tsunami.