How livelihoods were saved in Pakistan's 2010 floods

In 2010 Pakistan suffered the worst floods in the country's history. Floodwaters inundated up to one-fifth of the country and affected 20 million people, destroying 1.6 million homes and leaving over 14 million people acutely vulnerable. Along with other international agencies, Oxfam responded as best as it could to Pakistan's calls for help, and raised more than £48m to provide assistance to an estimated 2.4 million people. 

Despite the impressive scale of the emergency response, few would disagree with the conventional wisdom that in cases such as this prevention - and more effective preparation - is better than cure. But to what extent have Oxfam programmes supported this? 

When the 2010 floods struck, Oxfam already had a number of long-term initiatives on the ground in Pakistan. One of these was the Community-based Disaster Risk Management and Livelihoods (CBDRML) Programme(2008-12), co-funded by the European Commission and implemented by partner organizations in four districts. Recent research shows just how effective this was in preparing people for the extreme floods of 2010.  

Before the CBDRML Programme ended in mid-2012, the impact of its work in two districts in Punjab Province was evaluated for Oxfam's first batch ofProject Effectiveness Reviews. The CBDRML Effectiveness Review found strong quantitative evidence that participating households were much better prepared to manage flood-related risk than those outside of the programme, and so lost fewer assets during the 2010 floods. This very positive outcome was tempered only by the finding that households had not diversified their livelihoods to the extent that it had been hoped they would.

In order to explain these findings, Oxfam GB's Research Team commissioned consultants (Emerald Network Ltd.) to undertake a qualitative follow-up study in Pakistan, while the Head of Research, Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, also reviewed the programme with Oxfam staff and partners in Islamabad. The results of this in-depth research have been distilled in an Oxfamresearch report which is being launched today: Information flows faster than water: lessons from a mixed methods evaluation of Oxfam's Community-based Disaster Risk Management and Livelihoods Programme in Pakistan.

A day's extra warning

The report focuses on the most striking finding of the effectiveness review, that households in the programme had received an Early warning information flowed faster than the floodwaters of the Indus River average of two days' advance warning of the 2010 floods, twice as long as other households in the communities studied. They therefore had more time to evacuate and prepare for the floods, and so lost less grain and fewer livestock and other farming assets. The follow-up study found that participating households had achieved this level of preparedness after a mere 18 months of programme intervention at community level. They had been enabled to do so by Oxfam's partners, theDoaba Foundation and the Help Foundation, both of whom made effective use of a participatory approach and their networking capabilities to undertake disaster risk reduction capacity-building with local CBOs (community based organisations) in support of an early warning system that villagers could understand and engage with on their own terms.

In effect local people were empowered to demand and disseminate information and, as a result, early warning information flowed faster than the floodwaters of the Indus River and its tributaries when they rose rapidly in 2010. However, while the CBDRML Programme did an impressive job in saving local livelihoods, efforts to diversify them were less successful. This was largely because the programme was not designed to tackle the very considerable structural (social, economic, institutional, and gendered) constraints to livelihoods diversification, and even if it had, would not have been able to impact significantly on local power relations in the four-year timeframe available.

Key ingredients of this approach are... participatory planning and actionThese and other findings are discussed at greater length in the report, as are lessons for both resilience-building and the design of mixed methods evaluation.  The most important lesson that can be drawn for this study is that with the right approach effective early warning can be developed in a relatively short period of time. The key ingredients of this approach are participatory planning and action within local communities and between them and higher levels of administration, empowering ordinary men and women and giving them a voice and the ability to hold  government authorities to account.

By empowering villagers and enabling them to access and demand early warning information, Oxfam's two partner organizations in Punjab Province provided them with the capacity to respond quickly to the 2010 floods. And this rapid resilience was developed within a mere year and a half, at a time when the programme was attempting to attain a much wider range of objectives, including the diversification of livelihoods. This may have been only a small island of success in the midst of a great national disaster, but it provides pointers to how people might be empowered to prepare for disasters elsewhere, as well as reminding us of the challenges to achieving resilience that are posed by entrenched structural inequalities. 

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