Youths at the forefront of rehabilitation efforts

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The importance of locally-led youth initiatives

With Bangladesh as the chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), all eyes are on the nation to pave the way towards effective locally-led solutions for climate change adaptation. The notion of impending loss and damage persistently looms over the heads of the local communities due to the recurrence of natural disasters. It is this notion that motivates local community members, especially the youth, to take an active stance in both disaster preparedness, and post-disaster rehabilitation efforts.

Earlier this year in May, when the landfall of Cyclone Amphan caused massive damage to coastal communities in Bangladesh, locally-led initiatives acted as the beacon of hope. More than 70,000 volunteers across the coastal belt played a pivotal role in ensuring cyclone preparedness through early warning announcements and assisting in transportation to cyclone shelters.

Similarly, Nijera Kori’s (NGO) Coordinator Khushi Kabir narrated how the locals of Polder-22 in Deluti Union, Paikgacha, Khulna rallied together to repair breached embankments and planned for community rehabilitation in the aftermath of the storm in a blog post on their website.

The embankments surrounding the polder got breached due to a lack of operation and maintenance by the authorities. As a result, 12 villages that had previously withstood both Cyclones Sidr and Aila went underwater for the first time. The landless groups within the polder came together to divert the saline water out of the polder, repaired the breaches, and also drafted a petition to the local government requesting accountability for the funds allocated for disaster preparedness.

When viewing the subject from an international perspective, Mauritius comes to mind. The nation was recently subject to a terrible oil spill, which caused extensive ecological damage, including the death of at least 40 dolphins.

The damage, however, could have been much worse if it were not for the volunteer groups, primarily composed of thousands of community locals, both young and old, all activists to the core. Homemade booms were created by the dozens, which were then deployed all along the coast with success, halting the expansion of slick and soaking up the oil; volunteers also transported at-risk marine life to the nearby island Ile aux Aigrettes.

The consensus by the community was that the government officials’ response to this disaster was slow and inefficient, leading to communal protests. The authorities ended up being a deterrent for the cleanup response, through the restriction of volunteer access to the beach. The mitigation efforts could have gone more positively if there was more co-operation involved.

The above incidents highlight two key details: the urgency and diligence a community-led initiative brings to the table in the face of disasters, as their personal lives are at stake. And the power a community has to push for effective disaster management to minimise loss and damage from future events. The National Plan on Disaster Management (NPDM) 2016-2020 gives a strong emphasis on community-based efforts for reducing risks during disasters. The government of Bangladesh in association with various NGOs and donor agencies has successfully implemented multiple community-level Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programs ranging from basic first aid training and knowledge building on evacuation practices to enabling protective measures such as tying down the roofs of homes.

Community-based early warning systems are one of the focus areas of Priority 4 of the NPDM. Strengthening these systems improves lead time before a disaster, helping to reduce livestock death and harvest loss; and allowing relevant stakeholders to prepare the necessary response, including rescue and relief operations.

Not only are early warning systems competent in the case of cyclone preparedness but also floods and other disasters such as earthquakes and landslides. Some initiatives by the government include the training of Urban Community Volunteers in search-and-rescue and first aid, training on safe construction to masons andconstruction workers, and school safety and evacuation drills.

“Over the years, community-led and youth-led initiatives have significantly reduced the impacts of natural disasters in Bangladesh’s climate-vulnerable communities”

What these capacity building initiatives amongst locals try to do is create a social movement within the community to come together and work cohesively towards a common goal through meaningful participation. Over the years, community-led and youth-led initiatives have significantly reduced the impacts of natural disasters in Bangladesh’s climate-vulnerable communities.

It is not just those at immediate or ongoing risk who are carrying out such activities; urban youth groups also play a massive role in raising awareness on environmental issues. The importance of the social outreach of youth in today’s climate is immeasurable. With social media tools and networks in place, youth-led initiatives are proving to be game-changers. Bangladeshi youth have been at the forefront of community rehabilitation, be it through grassroots level activism, or fundraising for relief efforts.

This Covid-19 pandemic alone saw hundreds of youth-led initiatives reaching out to the most marginalised communities ensuring food, hygiene, and protective equipment, and raising awareness on safe practices. Youth-led organisations like Bidyanondo, Resource Coordination Network Bangladesh (RCNB), and Pashe Acchi Initiative became popular names through their innovative relief efforts not only for Covid-19 victims but also those affected by Amphan, river erosion, and flooding. 

Bidyanondo was one of the first youth-led organisations within Dhaka to rush to the frontlines to sanitize public transportation, alongside distributing face masks and sanitizer to the public and measuring their temperature to check for fever. They also distributed cooked food amongst underprivileged communities. 

RCNB used its vast network both within Bangladesh and abroad to better allocate monetary resources for grassroots initiatives. Through their fundraising efforts and virtual concert ‘Music Against Hunger,’ they assisted in funding a plethora of projects such as distributing oxygen cylinders in local hospitals, providing food relief to sex- workers and transgenders, and rebuilding houses affected by Amphan, and supporting victims of river erosion and flooding. 

Similarly, Pashe Achi Initiative’s project Gronthomohol helped to support booksellers in the capital’s Nilkhet affected due to lockdown by creating an online marketplace for books.

Another example of the youth’s resilience was seen in May and June this year when the local community and youths rushed to assist farmers in Haor areas during harvesting as there was a shortage of labour due to movement restrictions.

Why these small-scale local initiatives are particularly crucial in this pandemic context is because they filled the gaps that larger institutions like NGOs and the government could not fill. Their solutions were creative and tailor-made to the community’s needs, and the community-centric approach allowed for these efforts to be more mobile even in lockdown conditions.

Even in disaster management, youth initiatives play a large role. Perhaps the best example of what the youth can do once given the responsibility and the tools to face disaster management is the World Organization of the Scout Movement. A multinational organisation, Bangladesh is one of its more sizable constituents with over 1.5 million members. Globally, these Scouts receive training in disaster preparedness and management techniques through routine drills. During the annual floods, these Scouts are called in to help with flood control efforts, and relocate citizens to shelters; It also underlines how far these youth initiatives can go once backed by their respective governments.

UNICEF’s Children and Disaster Risk Reduction report found that putting children and youths at the centre of DRR planning efforts allows for more creative and enthusiastic solutions. They also tend to be more persuasive, with adults becoming more receptive to their opinions. Thus the youth have been given a valued voice in decision-making, with local committees now encouraging youth leaders to be integrated into planning processes.

Be it taking to the streets demanding climate action or bringing the community together in the face of a disaster; the youth are acting as catalysts for positive environmental practices. Such community-centric initiatives should be given the spotlight in creating a nationwide movement to inspire and reach the proverbial tipping point in shifting mindsets towards more environmentally-conscious practices.

Sharnila Nuzhat Kabir is a youth activist and a second-year Environmental Science student at the Independent University, Bangladesh. Her interests lie in WASH, community development, and youth empowerment.

Farzad Abdullah Khan is a third-year Environmental Management student at the University Of Toronto. His interests lie in environmental policy, wildlife conservation and solid waste management.

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