Preventing disaster is largely convincing people to do things differently,
often, only a little differently. This requires communication, trust, credibility;
it requires building human relationships. Assisting with masons training
for the reconstruction of a Himalayan village after the 1991 Uttarkashi
earthquake led me to this conclusion.
The architects and geologists of the wholly Indian nongovernmental organization,
TARU (The Action Research Unit), stayed continuously for months in the
broken village, training masons and providing technical information about
the five possible reconstruction sites which residents had identified.
The residents moved their village about 100 m downslope, thus avoiding
the hazards of a rockfall zone and a national highway, while retaining
the same access to water, forest fodder, and agricultural fields. The residents
also chose to have more space between their houses than in the old village,
and to reconstruct houses with local stone and mud mortar reinforced with
concrete plinth and lintel bands and corner columns.
Because we, as professionals, stayed in the village, eating meals with
households of every socioeconomic group and participating in activities
at the temple, residents came to trust us. We talked to women, men, and
children, regardless of their social status. We learned about residents'
needs for storing agricultural produce, caring for livestock, and building
incremental additions to their homes. The professionals could then use
appropriate language and metaphors to explain technical information from
their urban, college educations to unschooled residents who had practical
local knowledge and aspirations for "modern" houses.
Mutual understanding through dialog made it possible for residents to
rebuild a little differently. Residents obtained the structural strength
they sought from concrete, while maintaining the thermal comfort, lower
cost, and familiar repair and expansion possibilities of random rubble
stone masonry. Residents replaced traditional heavy slate roofs with more
earthquak- resistant, lightweight sheet metal roofs, but house design retained
the roof's slope to shed snow and provide attic storage space.
A geologist and I returned to the village three consecutive summers
to observe the impacts of reconstruction. Only in the third year, after
being settled in the new houses for awhile, did the residents notice that
they preferred having their cowsheds downslope rather than across the slope
from thier houses so they could keep easy watch over their livestock. Contrasting
my actions with that of government officials who made only one brief visit
after the earthquake, women in the village said, "You are from far
away, but yu care enough to keep coming back." Residents are happy
to have my colleagues and I return anytime. We will return this summer
to benchmark manuals for earthquake-resistant construction in the whole
of northwest India to the 1991 quake.
Because we built human relationships, along with reconstructed houses,
we can continue learning from the village residents to better prevent earthquake
disaster throughout the Himalayas. We could also avoid future disasters
related to food shortages, water resources, or road hazards because we
listened to residents' needs.
As disaster management professionals we are often kept completely busy
with our technical tasks. Yet, by doing our work a little bit differently,
by consciously building human relationships, we can do an even better job
preventing disasters. The personal rewards are worth the effort.