Flood early warning systems from a gender lens
By Ipek Aybay
We are mentioning technology as a tool for changing our lives so often that it has become a ‘cliché’. This mentioned “change” however, seems to be very relative depending on which part you live in the world. As an example, for someone living in a country not exposed to natural hazards, technology is in most cases a tool to facilitate daily life, using GPS system to find address or to check traffic jam. On the other hand, in countries like Bangladesh and Nepal where natural hazards happen frequently, technology could save lives. In this sense, Early Warning Systems (EWS) for floods are an example for proving the crucial role of technology in disaster risk reduction.
When we look at the role of technology in development and resilience, we can easily realise that this subject is almost always paradoxical. While some advocate it strongly, others criticise it harshly. For this reason, when I had to choose my dissertation subject at the International Development Department of the University of Edinburgh, disaster risk reduction seemed a very convenient area of study. Practical Action’s EWS projects in Nepal and Bangladesh immediately drew my attention and I decided to study these programmes from a gender lens. Why I selected Nepal and Bangladesh? And why this perspective was needed?
Nepal and Bangladesh were two key countries for proving the significance of EWS, as both countries are part of a continent where 95% of the people who are affected by floods have lived in the last decade according to CRED and UNISDR. Despite many differences in the ways in which these countries are affected by floods, EWS in both countries have a great potential to save lives and reduce the impact of natural hazards. For this reason, Practical Action has developed various projects concerning EWS in close collaboration with the governments of Nepal and Bangladesh. My main objective was to reveal the gender gap in these projects in order to better assess impacts of disaster resilience activities.
As the efficiency of flood EWS depends on the ways in which people perceive and process risk information, without understanding the risk perception of communities and the factors affecting their decisions, it is not possible to expect EWS to operate efficiently. A variety of factors ranging from gender and socio-economic status to cultural values can affect the ways in which EWS operate among which gender can be specified as an essential factor.
Scholars suggest that women are affected disproportionately by floods and are often referred to as the ‘most vulnerable’ by different institutions that are involved in flood response. For instance, UNIFEM (2010) reports that during the 2010 floods in Pakistan, despite flood EWS in place, there were women who refused to leave their houses for reasons such as “disbelief of flood warning; concerns of theft or occupation of, or losing claim to property; reluctance to move to camps due to cultural norms, and hesitation about taking women and girls out of protected environment of homes exposing them to strangers”. Furthermore, as evidenced by various scholars, floods also increase “women’s domestic burden” as in most households women depend on their houses for sustaining their livelihoods. In contrast, although it is known that a gender-inclusive EWS is essential for reducing loss of lives, the gender factor is often neglected when designing related projects. For this reason, it is very important to consider flood EWS in a gender framework, rather than define it as a technical process independent from the gender and power relations in place.
I conducted semi-structured interviews with government officials, Practical Action employees from different country offices, local NGOs and international organisations. During my work based placement with Practical Action, I found out very interesting differences in gender aspect of EWS projects among country offices as well as between advisory and project implementation levels. One of the most prominent findings was that different people had different interpretations of the terms “gender-sensitive” and “gender-disaggregated”. This has led to variations in the responses to the questions around gender in both of my focus countries, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the Nepali context, I was able to speak to a government official and it was puzzling to see that INGOs and in particular Practical Action was referred as more involved with the gender aspect of flood EWS at the community level. Therefore, understanding gender interpretations within organisations is essential as their actions directly affect communities and their responses to disasters. On the other hand, it was not surprising to find out that donors were also key players about the gender inclusiveness level of the projects as there were clear differences when a gender goal was set by a donor organisation and when it was not.
Unfortunately, there was a considerable evidence to suggest that in both Nepal and Bangladesh, gender dynamics of EWS are often neglected or seen as an external factor by the key organisations as well as governments. In relation to this, further research is needed to explore the ways in which EWS programmes could move beyond the current approach based on needs in order to adopt a gender approach. Indeed, it is essential for an NGO to have the same understanding of gender-sensitive programme making among its staff members. If the views in this regard are different or opposed in an institution, procedural documents cannot deliver their aims in the field. Instead, it could exacerbate the already existing gender power relations as gender roles amplify the liability on the already overburdened women during the time of the disasters.
My experience with Practical Action enriched my knowledge in many ways. Being a part of the organisation at all times made it easier to contact key staff as well as government officials. Further, as I was affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, I believe this allowed me to study and analyse the institution relatively more objectively. In conclusion, I believe the practice programme has been beneficial both for me and for the organisation, especially with regards to the communication within the organisation around gender issues. It is possible to see that, when people become aware of each other’s varying interpretations of the same issue, it could help them to rethink of their actions, re-evaluate their approach and eventually reinvent their influence on the communities. According to me, this was the most important positive outcome.