An ounce of prevention, a pound of cure
When Jacobo Ocharan, Oxfam America's new Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist, begins a training session on disaster preparedness, he sometimes asks people to close their eyes and point to the emergency exit.
"The usual results," he says, wrapping his arms into a pretzel shape and pointing in opposite directions, "are good for a laugh. But of course they also demonstrate one of the biggest challenges we face in this work: people's tendency not to focus their attention on an emergency until it's happening."
Anticipating emergencies can save lives and vast resources, but around the world, programs to prepare for and prevent emergencies are poorly funded compared to those aimed at responding to disasters once they've happened.
"It's like a medical system that pours resources into hospital emergency rooms but neglects routine care," says Jacobo. "Of course we need emergency rooms, but it's much better to solve problems before they become catastrophic."
How do you prevent an earthquake, flood, or hurricane from becoming catastrophic?
Preparing for evacuation is one way: helping communities set up communication systems, identify or create safe places to gather, learn first aid, and carry out drills to be sure everyone knows what to do can all reduce the human impact of an emergency. (Read more about an Oxfam preparedness program.)
Easing the effects of an emergency on an affected community—a process known as mitigation—is another way of reducing disaster risks. For example, an Oxfam partner in El Salvador has helped flood-prone communities grow a variety of cashew that can survive for weeks under water. And our work to help farmers in Ethiopia create storage buildings for food and seeds is reducing the threat of food shortages in areas where frequent droughts put communities at risk.
It's also sometimes possible to prevent a natural hazard from damaging communities in the first place. Oxfam partners have helped create protective walls between villages and nearby rivers, for example, to minimize the risk that floodwaters will reach into farms and communities.
Poverty, rights, and the role of Oxfam
Yet preparedness, mitigation, and prevention programs on their own may not get to the heart of the matter.
"When you look at the aftermath of disasters, you quickly understand how poverty puts communities at risk." says Jacobo. He recalls a visit to Gujarat, India, after a powerful earthquake in 2001. Everywhere he went, he found that the homes of the lowest caste were flattened, while those of the highest caste barely appeared to need repairs. "Every community was a case study in the relationship between vulnerability and poverty."
Oxfam is reaching out to vulnerable communities and helping them address not only the disaster risks they face but also the poverty and discrimination that underlie those risks. Oxfam staff and partners are working to improve incomes with programs that include offering grants and loans to start up small businesses, giving job training to people who want to pursue new employment, and developing water sources to improve agricultural livelihoods.
The primary responsibility for reducing the risk of disaster, however, lies with governments, because they make the key decisions about each country?s priorities and course of development. Advocacy is therefore a key part of Oxfam's work on disaster risk reduction.
As Jacobo puts it, "People deserve a chance to raise their families in homes that are safe. It's their right, and part of our job is to help them fight for that right."
A lifelong search for solutions
Jacobo Ocharan grew up in the midst of an armed struggle. He is Basque, and his native region has been embroiled in conflict since the Spanish Civil War. Years of watching the consequences of violent action and reaction caused Jacobo to look outward for answers. "Some of us got interested in other conflicts," he says, "to open a window on our own."
He began his professional career as a journalist but took a detour in the early 1990s to volunteer in a program in Guatemala aimed at protecting civilians who were being targeted for violence. It was there that he first learned about Oxfam, and after returning to Europe and spending several years as a reporter and radio producer, he joined the agency's staff in Kigali, Rwanda, where he worked in camps for people displaced by the 1994 genocide. Rwanda, he says, was a nation in mourning. "In a country of eight million people, one million were dead. Not by accident or bomb but by machete. So people were not just mourning but were also suspecting and blaming their neighbors."
From there he went to Nairobi, Kenya, to help coordinate Oxfam's humanitarian work related to the conflict in southern Sudan, and in 1998 he returned to Barcelona to take charge of the rapidly expanding humanitarian program of Intermón, Oxfam's Spanish affiliate. His work since then has taken him around the world, to the sites of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, drought, and conflict.
Jacobo's experience with humanitarian response has led him to an important conclusion: "Armed conflicts and natural hazards like hurricanes have something in common: most of their disastrous impacts are avoidable." It also led him to a decision to give disaster prevention his full attention.
A new direction for Jacobo Ocharan and Oxfam America
In October of 2006, Oxfam America welcomed Jacobo to Boston. Here he will lead efforts to improve and greatly expand Oxfam's disaster risk reduction work in the field.
"Helping communities reduce their vulnerability to disasters has always been a component of Oxfam's programs, but now we're moving that work to center stage," says Jacobo.
"Our goal is to help impoverished communities avert catastrophic losses at times of emergency. And never to lose sight of the role of poverty and discrimination as root causes of disaster."