Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program :: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

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notes from the field

These field notes are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Kanmani Venkateswaran

Lusaka, Zambia
May 11 – August 11

June 4, 2013

Red Cross volunteers meet for an orientation in Zambia. CU grad student Kanmani Venkateswaran is working in Lusaka, Zambia, with the Zambian Red Cross to develop a community early-warning system for floods.I’ve been in Lusaka for almost 3 weeks now and I can definitely say that I’m quite settled down. I feel extremely lucky to be staying with a friend’s family here – they go out of their way to make sure that I’m comfortable and acclimating to Zambian culture. I’ve had the full tour of Lusaka, attended a Zulu dance performance (the dancers are so sassy!) and Zambian fashion show, seen crocodiles at Kalimba farms, learned to tie a chitenge (a traditional wrap-skirt), successfully haggled at the Sunday crafts market, and mastered the bus system. The biggest challenge so far has been the food. I quite like Nshima, the staple corn meal simmered in water. However, local dependence on meat means that my seven year old vegetarianism is quickly dying. Mudenda, my supervisor and the Zambian Red Cross’ Disaster Management Coordinator takes great delight in watching me try to eat around fish bones and cow hooves.

My first week at the Red Cross office was a whirl of introductions and project meetings. My research plan has changed significantly given that I do not have to speculate anymore as to what research is specifically needed. A conversation with Mudenda revealed the struggles the Zambian Red Cross has faced in managing climate disasters. First, Red Cross volunteers are only trained in disaster response once the disaster has occurred. Second, requesting funding through the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) can be time-consuming. Third, the majority of relief supplies are only requested after the disaster strikes and suppliers will only provide the supplies once they have been paid. All of these challenges prevent the Zambian Red Cross from being able to provide relief immediately after a disaster strikes. Accordingly, the Red Cross is in the process of shifting from reactive response to climate disasters to proactive response to climate hazards. In particular, they are interested in developing and implementing forecast-based community early warning systems. These early warning systems then translate into early action as a means to reduce losses, reduce vulnerabilities and increase climate resilience.

In the Southern African Zone, these plans fall partly under the Zambezi River Basin Initiative (ZRBI). The ZRBI was launched in 2009 by the IFRC and seven National Societies (Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) to improve the capacities of National Societies to deal with issues of climate risk, vulnerability, and resilience faced by communities living along and dependent on the Zambezi River basin environment. Among the goals of the ZRBI is disaster preparedness and risk reduction. Its expected outcomes include: increased individual and community resilience and consequent reduction in vulnerabilities to recurrent disasters, implementation and use of community-based disaster preparedness systems, and increased branch and volunteer capacity for disaster preparedness and risk reduction. With greater capacity on the Red Cross’ end and a community-based disaster preparedness system in place, the Red Cross can be the first community-based responders in the event of any climate disaster, small, medium, or large.

A major challenge the Red Cross has run into in terms of early warning > early action is funding. Quite simply, donors are not necessarily willing to fund disaster risk reduction before climate disasters occur because climate forecasts come with a high degree of uncertainty and because it is difficult to gauge the full effects of a disaster before the disaster occurs. My role, therefore, is to provide evidence to the donor community that it is worth it to disburse funds before a disaster strikes and that the risk of failing to act outweighs the risk of acting in vain (i.e. if the forecast does not materialize). The Red Cross’ ultimate goal is to set up financial mechanisms that would “automatically” provide funding as soon as a certain science-based early warning threshold is reached. This way, disaster risk reduction and preparedness will not be inhibited by funding. Rather, the availability of funding will accelerate what can be done in the limited time available.

My research will be conducted as a part of ZRBI in Tonga settlements in Sesheke and Kazungula, both located in the Southern provinces of Zambia. I will be focusing on floods given that shorter-term flood forecasts based on observed or expected rains in the upper Zambezi are more reliable than seasonal forecasts based on ENSO. My objective is to understand the nature of floods and vulnerabilities faced by Zambian communities along the Zambezi River and establish the scope of early warning systems in these communities as a means to justify the development of community-based early warning systems to the donor community. From here, community contingency plans can be created. Contingency plans detail what actions need to be taken by Red Cross volunteers and community members before, after and during a flood; they vary based on type of disaster, magnitude of disaster, location of the community, and socio-economic context of the community. Consequently, these plans will help us determine what kinds of skills and training are required for Red Cross volunteers involved in flood risk reduction along the Zambezi River basin.

The information gained from my study can be used to develop community-based early warning systems. The hope is that these systems will help ensure that the Red Cross is the first community-based responder for all climate disasters and increase the climate resilience of vulnerable communities.

I am so excited to head to the field in the next week! More from there!

Photo: Red Cross volunteers meet for an orientation in Zambia