You are here

Can we really prevent a natural disaster?

Natural disasters are a major concern around the world. Head of Fundraising and Communications Adam Sach explains how Mothers' Union is adapting its policy in order to help build resilience in disaster-prone communities through Disaster Risk Reduction

19 Aug 2019

Although we all hear and use the term “natural disaster”, the act that causes the disaster is known as a “natural hazard”. Disasters follow immediately after natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes or floods. The reality is that these natural hazards can’t be prevented, but we can minimise the impact of any subsequent disaster.

The increase of natural disasters

According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, natural disasters kill around 70,000 and dramatically impact the lives of close to 210 million people worldwide every year. Right now droughts are threatening food security in east Africa; sea level rises are taking away the livelihoods of Small Island Developing States in the Pacific; and flash floods and mudslides inflict death and destruction on informal settlements and slums in cities like Chennai, Dakar and Freetown.

In recent years the effects have been seen closer to home, as severe heatwaves have swept across Europe; wildfires have destroyed hundreds of natural environments and homes and communities have been submerged under water due to extreme flash flooding.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) has reported that the trends of disasters are increasingly worrying in their nature, frequency and severity. Rapid population growth, environmental and climate change all contribute to increasingly worrying times. The threat of natural disasters is worse than ever and more and more people are at risk.

Since 1970, the world’s population has grown by 87 per cent. This population growth has to live somewhere, and this has resulted in the proportion of people living in flood-prone river basins increasing by 114 per cent and those living on cyclone-exposed coastlines by 192 per cent. More than half the world’s large cities are located in areas of high earthquake risk.

No country is immune from the threat of natural disasters. However, the vulnerability of communities and societies is closely and inversely related to the level of social and economic development.
It is anticipated that changes in our environment will contribute to an increase in severe weather-related events in the coming years and that poor urban planning, population growth, extreme poverty and weak governance will put even more people at risk globally. The reality is that the worst-hit communities are those in some of the world’s poorest countries and just one event like this has the potential to destroy the hard work and progress many communities have worked years to develop.

Reducing risk where possible

At Mothers’ Union we have always looked to support emergency aid and relief, and we know it plays a crucial role in disaster response, but it is complex, expensive and needs to be well coordinated. As a result, specialised international organisations and agencies, such as the Red Cross, are often best placed to deliver effective and timely responses. However, increasing attention is being given to the role of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) because, although it is not always possible to reduce the scale, intensity or frequency of a natural hazard, it often is possible to reduce the devastating effect it can have on the people it impacts. 

DRR has been recognised by the UN and other leading development agencies as being fundamental to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. These are 17 goals that 193 world leaders committed to back in 2015 in order to achieve the following by 2030: ending extreme poverty, fighting inequality and injustice, and fixing climate change.

Unlike emergency aid and relief, DRR is a longer-term intervention that is best delivered at community level, by grassroots organisations that are embedded in the community. Therefore local Mothers’ Union groups have a vital role to play in building resilience and helping communities to adapt to the increased threat of natural hazards.

Due to the high levels of trust Mothers’ Union members have built over time, we are uniquely placed to work hand-in-hand with communities to understand the short- and long-term risks presented by natural hazards and to work collaboratively to identify ways in which communities can respond. Emergency responses are short-term solutions that address the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but Mothers’ Union is there before the disaster hits and remains long after relief efforts have finished, in order to help rebuild communities and protect them from future disasters through DRR.

What Mothers’ Union has done so far

In Madagascar, Mothers’ Union has been working closely with communities to increase resilience. Every year, Madagascar is affected by cyclones that wreak havoc in the communities they hit, including flooding and devastation to homes, land and livestock, often resulting in the deaths of people and their animals. On the other hand, due to environmental changes, other parts of the country are suffering from repeated drought, with agriculture and livelihoods greatly affected and households struggling to survive.
In response, Mothers’ Union Community Development Coordinators and Diocesan Development Coordinators in the six dioceses of Madagascar were trained in building community resilience techniques in July 2018. They are now implementing further training in their dioceses, specifically in the areas where cyclones and droughts are most devastating.

In the Diocese of Mahajanga, for example, communities experience both drought and flooding. It is very difficult for them to face the two contrasting climatic conditions and this greatly impacts their quality of life and creates huge uncertainty. The diocese is therefore addressing the issue of environmental preservation. They have chosen a special plant called Vetiver, which is fast growing and preserves the soil during the rainy season. After the Vetiver is uprooted, trees are planted in the same place – specifically trees that fertilise the soil and which can store water in their trunks. These trees will also provide great barriers at cyclone time.

In addition, Vetiver has the potential to support livelihoods. It can be used as cattle food as well as material for roofing houses. Local communities can also use it to make various handicrafts to sell and it can clean water.

This is just one example of how Mothers’ Union is working with communities to prepare them for disasters, while at the same time continuing to help families transform their own lives.

We will continue to be hands-on, offering training and support to those communities who desperately need effective DRR in order to minimise the effects of increasing natural hazards around the world.

Conversation Starter:

You could discuss the issues raised in this article in your Mothers’ Union group:

  • How does emergency aid differ from DRR, and which do you think Mothers’ Union is best placed to deliver?
  • What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to delivering DRR in the countries that Mothers’ Union is working in?
  • Is DRR needed in the UK as well as overseas – how and where?
  • How can your local group get involved in DRR? As well as praying for and helping to fund overseas work, think about areas prone to hazards such as floods in this country.
  • Discuss the impact that your own lifestyles have on environmental issues.


Lord of heaven and earth,
who created the world to provide for all its people,
we pray for those in desperate situations
brought about by natural hazards and environmental change.
Where natural conditions have led to disasters,
where changes in weather have led to famine,
we pray for your mercy, O Lord of creation.
Throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out your blessing
on those who are suffering a drought of hope and a famine of faith,
as they battle with their extremities of hardship.
And show us the part we can play in being your solution
to the needs of our sisters and brothers.
May our plans and prayers be guided by you.