Friday, May 16, 2014

For the fear of floods

Flash floods have wreaked havoc all the way across the northern region of this country this spring.  It is crushing to get report after report of new floods.  The government and aid community can barely begin to respond to one flood affected area before the next flood hits in a different area.  Pity the villages that were hit hard by floods but mostly forgotten when the next flood hit another area harder yet, demanding all the attention of the responders.  This is how it has been, especially in the case of the Argo landslide.  In the days just before that landslide occurred dozens of houses were buried and fields destroyed in villages near the ones we work in.  Then the landslide happened, and all spotlights pointed exclusively there.  I could write a lot more about this, but that’s not the subject I’m after tonight. 

All three of the communities we work in were affected by floods in the last 3 weeks, but there will be little to no response for them from the gov or big aid orgs.  It is not that they were less affected or lost less than the Argo residents, but rather they are outside of the center of the flood relief hubbub.  So, since our staff are there several days each week, we are hearing about these communities’ needs and wants after the floods.  They don’t want food or common staples that the gov and big aid orgs always give.  Instead they are saying they want cement and payment for the labor to build floodwalls, check dams, and ditches.  What should we do with their requests?

In each of our three villages we have a house; we call these our community offices.  These houses have been generously provided as a free lease, by community members, as a part of their participation with our programs.  Our staff stay there 3 nights a week generally, and the rest of the week the rooms are empty.  On a recent weekend when no one was in those rooms, floods swept into all three of our villages.  In two of the three villages, the landlords of our community houses were outside during the downpour with their shovels, shaping a path for rain runoff to go around the houses rather than pooling and soaking into the rock and mud foundations.  In the other village, however, the landlord does not live nearby, and the neighbors were attending to their own houses rather than our community office.  When I sent a team out the next day to assess flood damage, they found a 12” layer of mud in their community office.  The other two community offices were untouched by the flooding because of the responsibility taken by the property landlords.  Clearly the defining difference in the effect of the flooding on these three houses was the action taken by humans, not the type of construction. 

One of our three villages has been slow to work out a plan for projects this year.  The big leaders have made some requests, but as we’ve worked through technical and social surveying we have determined with them that each of those suggestions would not serve the community that well (usually in terms of sustainability or benefit for the whole community.)  Finally after the flooding, the leader of the village council came to my facilitators in the field and demanded that we hire an excavator to come and begin clearing the flood damage to their village and clearing a foundation area for a flood wall above their houses.  He said that if we didn’t do this, there would be no future for our work in their village, because their village itself would have no future if the flood risk continued!  This is not the first ultimatum I’ve received from villagers, so I have a few ways of responding to these types of demands.  This time I made a slight subject change and talked about the asphalt road connecting this province with the rest of the country.  I talked about what a tremendous project it was, how much it changed all of their lives to have such a great improvement in transportation, but also how costly and problematic it has been to maintain during flood season.  I asked the old men in the room what travelers and traders did with the dirt road (before it was paved) when it was damaged by a flood.  Would they hire excavators and bulldozers to clear 20-meter-deep mudslides off the previous path?  No way!  They would find a new route up and over the material that the flood brought down, and continue on their way!  I then challenged them: was the asphalt road really serving them, or had it in fact become very costly and problematic to maintain?  Was keeping the asphalt road clear really solving the problem, or was the damage of the road only a symptom of the problem of the deforested hills? 

Several times in the past 2 years we have tried to mobilize this community to reforest the hillside above their village.  We have tried a variety of participatory tools to engage them on this subject, but nothing has really worked.  They feel the problem of flooding from the hillside during the rainy season when their homes are getting wet, but their only solution ideas involve cement, not trees.  Now, however, I hope that we have a new hook to grab hold of.  The big leader told us that his village will not have a future unless something is done about the flooding.  We agree.  So what should be done?  His suggestion is an excavator and a stone and cement wall.  We have seen lots of these walls washed right into the river in the “bigger than expected” floods that this province is notorious for producing.  What we are going to counter-offer to him and his community is the concept of developing the entire catchment above the village into terraces and trees.  It would take time, and lots of effort, and plenty of maintenance and repair until it became mature and strong.  The positive, however, is that this is exactly opposite of cement structures; cement and other manmade structures weaken over time, tree roots only get deeper and stronger.  

The idea of reforesting the upper hill of this village will encounter resistance, because that hill has already been mapped and numbered for housing development.  We have known this and been concerned about this for a year, and finally we have an idea of how to counter this problem.  We are going to approach the elders of the 3 older, neighboring villages that send many migrant family members to build new homes in this newer village.  Those older villages have a vested interest in this newer, growing village, because it functions as an overflow for their families and villages.  We will approach them with the concern shared by the village council leader and us: that there is no future if flood risks are not mitigated.  We plan to host them in a well organized meeting and present them with as many facts, figures, and possibilities that we can come up with.  We will urge them to review their housing development map and decide which areas must be given instead for catchments, foresting, and drainage.  They will have to reduce the number of plots they planned, but that will allow a future for the number that do fit.  We will essentially be telling them that the best flood control is not constructed and cement hard, rather it is living, growing, and responsibly acting to plan for and prevent flooding. 

At the moment these are the grand plans.  It will take massive effort to pull off this change in this village.  If we accomplish it though, I think it will be the biggest community development project I have been a part of.