Priyanka Borpujari is an award-winning journalist, former Fulbright Scholar, and currently a Rotary Peace Fellow at the International Christian University, Tokyo. Between 2018 and 2019, she walked 1,200kms across India with two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist Paul Salopek on the Out of Eden Walk, which traces the path of human migration. (Twitter: @pri_borpujari).
To what extent can religious traditions and institutions be part of disaster risk and recovery (DRR) efforts? With a growing number of disasters caused by natural hazards, there is a greater opportunity to tap into an institution that usually commands significance in the everyday lives of a vast number of people across the world. This paper will thereby seek to understand the various ways in which majority religious institutions have so far been involved in DRR efforts, and in what way they can fill existing gaps. I argue that religious institutions can play a vital role in the immediate aftermath of disasters, while also proving to be the space for long-term healing. Thus, religious institutions can provide a road-map for resilience for communities, especially those that might find themselves facing repeated disaster risk. Through a literature review of instances where religious institutions have, in varied ways, stepped in to provide relief and eventually, succor, to members of the society at large, I argue that religious institutions can expand the scope for pluralism, by way of being the space for everyone, notwithstanding the religious affiliation to anyone who needs assistance when disaster strikes.
This first section will delve into the temporal understanding of humanitarianism, particularly from the view of religion. It will explore the ways in which ideas of recovery and resilience have come to be part of religious institutions’ roles.
The second section will detail the evolution of recognizing the role of religious institutions in DRR by international agencies. It then offers a brief literature review from various countries, where religious institutions have been instrumental in DRR efforts through its different phases.
The third section will explain the ways in which developing resiliency becomes a natural transition, in the activities of religious institutions. Often, because of the close ties that communities forge during an extended period of crisis, religious institutions take on many other roles for communities, facilitating transitional and sustainable solutions.
The fourth and conclusive section will look at the challenges in the larger scope of recognizing the role of religious institutions in DRR, and the implications for how successful societies are at reducing risk from natural hazards, and thereby influence attitudes and behavior, and ultimately vulnerability to hazards.
“The humanitarian project is not just a European tradition. It is rooted in the universal behavior to help other human beings in distress. It has been encapsulated in all faiths, from Dana, one of Hinduism’s and Buddhism’s vital practices, to Islam’s Zakat, and Christian charity. It is no coincidence that local religious organizations are at the forefront of providing relief.” (Oxfam, 2012).
Religious institutions are often central to local processes of identity and connection that comprise the social fabric of communities disrupted by disaster or conflict (Samuels et al. 2010). On the other hand, any society which does not display capacities for resilience is seen as “vulnerable and unable to cope, more or less fatalistically living under a continual reign of terror from the environment” (Oliver-Smith, 1996: 312). This is seen to apply particularly to “traditional” societies and their turn to religion is viewed as an indication of this lack of resilience rather than an expression of a constructive engagement with (the forces of) nature (Islam, 2012). However, this is because, religion and religious institutions have been marginalized in so-called secular Western discourse, specifically when discussed in the context of progress of the society. Rather, in India, the idea of secularism and pluralism is the coexistence of religions beyond mere “tolerance” of each other’s religious practices. As Oliver-Smith argues similarly, the assumption of vulnerability because of reliance on religious beliefs “has to do with a profound ignorance of the socio-cultural context in which traditional societies view and enact religion” (Oliver-Smith, 1996: 210).
Institutions serving religious or sacred functions may be the first port of call in practical terms (Shaw et al., 2010). It has been well argued that depending on how well these institutions are set up to respond, survivors may experience disaster stress in very different degrees (Islam, 2012). During a disaster, religious institutions are able to provide refuge and food since they have space and storage for member donations on regular occasions such as religious ceremonies or festivals (Ngin et al., 2020). Religion thus plays a positive role when it encourages individuals or organizations to behave morally; as such, religious people continue to donate. Religious beliefs almost function like disaster counseling during the various phases of disaster response (Ha, 2015: 1315). It thereby can be an instrument for resilience.
Resilience—the ability to anticipate, withstand and bounce back from external pressures and shocks—has become significant in shaping humanitarian strategy by the international community (DFID, 2011; UNICEF, 2011; USAID, 2012). As disasters shake the local and regional socio-cultural systems of communities, and increasingly so in the past few decades, a growing body of research looks at the social impact and perception of natural disasters (Oliver-Smith, 1996; Frömming, 2006). At the same time, the role of religion in the field of disaster management, when considering related topics in international conferences, related questions on the Internet, have also been explored (Gillard and Paton 1999; Ha, 2015; Taylor and Peace, 2015).
But how do these beliefs about disasters impact how people—especially those within religious institutions—react in the immediate aftermath of disasters? The responses “invariably involve the moral and ethical core of the belief system and include a deep delving into concepts of both social and cosmic justice, sin and retribution, causality, the relationship of the secular to the sacred, and the existence and nature of the divine” (Oliver-Smith, 1996: 308).
Religious actors also actively pursue pluralism, making use of human rights laws, codes, and discourses that operationalize the pluralist promise of recognition (Bramadat, 2009). In many ways, pluralism today “represents a powerful ideal meant to resolve the question of how to get along in a conflict-ridden world” (Bender and Klassen, 2010: 1).
I argue that disasters caused by natural hazards similarly need to be addressed in a pluralistic manner; and that both state and religious institutions can reduce disaster risk by embracing pluralism, by strengthening their capacities.
There are many examples from across the world how religious beliefs have played into a larger discourse of viewing disasters, and then responding to them. Many religious institutions have substantially supported disaster relief and recovery activities in communities (Batniji et al., 2006; Helms et al., 2012; Lo et al., 2012; Schipper, 2010, 2015). Chester et al. (2008) have maintained that disaster response is not independent from culture or religions at all.
A strong presence of Christian rituals is aimed at “protecting” against eruptions of the Vesuvius and Etna volcanoes in southern Italy (Chester et al., 2008). It was found that “what is remarkable about disasters in southern Italy is that a wide range of religiously-based responses has persisted and continues to involve a large number of people.” (Chester et al., 2008, 211)
In the Fijian islands, for example, 95 per cent of the population together follow Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. The high rate of practical identification with their faith goes hand in hand with a strong bond between members of religious groups and their respective religious institutions (Gillard and Paton, 1999). When the devastating hurricane Nigel struck in 1997, Fijians were no longer able to materially support their institutions; however, with overseas support specifically to the Christian churches, Christians in Fiji received adequate help from their church, and according to Gillard and Paton (1999), most importantly, lowered their subjective perception of disaster stress. On the other hand, Hindus and Muslims in Fiji both anticipated—and experienced—demands being made upon them by their temple or mosque.
In the immediate aftermath of the 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005, which killed 80,000-90,000 people, it was found that each mosque in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region (the worst affected) became an initial contact point for undertaking response and relief operations. Many emergency service providers approached mosques to announce their presence and establish initial contact with communities (Cheema et al., 2014: 2213). Mosques served as fertile ground for getting dedicated volunteers on the basis of religious motivations to please God to help in response and relief phases of the earthquake (Cheema et al., 2014: 2215). Thus, the multi-faceted and distinct contribution of the mosque in cultural, economic, social and political aspects of the lives of the earthquake-affected communities.
In studying the role of religious belief and institutions in disaster management in South Korea, Ha (2015) found that diverse religions, and not just one dominant religion, have had an impact in the field of Korean disaster management. When a disaster has hit the community, the church ministry has supported its members through a series of care-taking initiatives: emergency communication, staff policing, authorization of emergency action, selection of interim site locations, management control, and operational needs (Ha, 2015: 1320). Along with disaster relief measures in the recovery phase, the efforts of Christian churches have been “a typical case of care-oriented management, although less regard has been given to the disaster prevention/mitigation phase and the disaster preparation phase” (Ha, 2015: 1320).
Similarly, a care-oriented management is applicable to Buddhism in South Korea, with the collective 49-day ritual to mourn those who lost their lives in the disaster (Ha, 2015: 1321). Additionally, Ha (2015) has found that Confucianism is reflected in many principles of disaster management, such as the chain of command, span of control, etc. Similarly, Park (2011) has found that cultural variables, such as religions, may decide the degree of safety performance in the field of disaster management.
But to what extent can religious institutions find a seat in the formal arena of disaster management? In arguing the untapped potential of the world’s religious communities for disaster reduction in an age of accelerated climate change, Wisner (2010) gives a brief history of how community or local participation in DRR was not a recognized international priority until half way through the International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction (IDNDR), which spanned 1990-1999. When a UN Secretariat for an International Strategy Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR) was created, “community participation” became part of the central discourse of DRR. Nevertheless, the UN system continued to emphasize technical task forces that involved experts from many specialized agencies (WMO, WHO, FAO, UNESCO, etc.) and academia and official channels focused on national so-called ‘platforms’ for DRR (Wisner, 2010: 129).
Civil society organizations continued to lobby hard for active local involvement, beyond being recipients of donor and national government schemes, but as partners who could bring local knowledge and resources to the task of DRR (Wisner and Walker, 2005).
When UN-ISDR convened the second Global Platform for Disaster Reduction in Geneva in 2009, a Global Network of Civil Society for DRR (GNDR) had been formed, and with the cooperation of 600 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 48 countries had conducted a survey of 7,000 local stakeholders concerning progress in risk reduction. This survey asked questions that mirrored those being asked at the national level by UN-ISDR and covered 100 measurable goals derived from the Hyogo Framework of Action (Wisner, 2010: 129). The GNDR found that little of the top down effort to implement the HFA has reached the local level (GNDR, 2009).
The GNDR report also found that people’s own knowledge and capacity can most usefully combine with the outreach of local government. Since 2000, many NGOs as well as many of the national societies comprising the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have pioneered participatory action research methods though which communities map local hazards, assess the vulnerabilities they face and capacities they possess (Haghebaert et al., 2008). This is where the untapped potential of faith communities becomes apparent. Religious institutions have, as I have shown above, the potential of joining with secular civil society in developing local risk awareness and self-assessment of hazards, vulnerabilities and capacities (Anderson and Woodrow, 1989; Wisner et al., 2004).
Based on extensive surveys conducted between 2006 and 2010 with affected communities in the Indian and Sri Lankan coastal regions, researchers at RMIT University’s Globalism Research Center in Australia found that “religious centers tend to become an important refuge for disaster victims and their role in this regard needs to be acknowledged” (Shaw et al., 2010: 10). The researchers argued the importance of establishing spaces for important cultural practices—such as religious rituals—as soon as possible after a disaster.
McGregor (2010) found that Muslims in Aceh wanted to build their ‘meunasah’ (local village mosque) before their own houses during the post-tsunami reconstruction. This was because of the critical significance of ‘meunasah’ as a center for psycho-social support and spiritual healing, essential for community recovery. It was not only a prayer place but a forum to share the happy (for example, conducting marriages) and sad (for example, interpreting tsunami destruction) feelings in their day-to-day lives.
In the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, psycho-social healing was facilitated by creating a shared meaning of life with the help of spiritual guidance by Imams through the platform of mosques. Counseling was provided through sermons, lectures and talks in mosques and other communal places such as markets where Imams interacted with their communities. Private one-on-one and family counseling was given when Imams lead funeral prayers and visited the houses of families who had lost their loved ones (Cheema et al., 2014: 2220).
But how far can religious institutions step in for disaster preparedness? Drawing on interviews with Cambodian and Thai communities in Auckland, New Zealand, Ngin et al. (2020) found that a committee secretary at a Cambodian temple has translated the Civil Defense’s Household Emergency Checklist and Household Emergency Plan into Khmer—the official language of Cambodia—and distributed the forms to member households to gather information on household preparedness and plan for an emergency (Ngin et al., 2020: 307). The temple also ran a regular Khmer newsletter, radio program and Facebook page, which could be used for announcements and communication about disasters. At the same time, some committee members of a Cambodian temple had bought a set of emergency kits for the temple and encouraged members to have emergency kits at home.
Another potential post-disaster role of the Cambodian temples in Auckland is to serve as a venue for sharing livelihood ideas and support, which would be useful to help people recover from damage and move on (Ngin et al., 2020: 308). Even though most Imams in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan did not engage in economic activities, including pertaining to assisting with livelihood, people who gathered at the mosque for prayers, as well as socialize and coordinate relief activities, shared information and made livelihood decisions to support each other at the local level (Cheema et al., 2014: 2216).
The ability to practice religious rituals aids in the possibility of emotional recovery in the aftermath of a disaster. Creating such spaces, even when devastation looms in the air, allows for a sense of resiliency and coping mechanism, and opening the possibility for long-term recovery of communities.
The major finding by Ha (2015) is that religion has a role to play in supplementing care-oriented management, with mitigation-oriented management approaches, by better grasping the nature of a disaster and its effective management while responding to regional culture. In the case of Fiji, because 95 per cent of the population actively practice a religion, Gillard and Paton (1999) had two decades ago already asserted that religious organizations are well placed to provide disaster education, plan and implement mitigation programs, and disperse aid. Channeling aid and preparatory activities through religious organizations would optimize dissemination, ensure that relevant information is translated appropriately for each group, and facilitate the implementation of mitigation strategies in a culturally appropriate manner (Gillard and Paton, 1999).
Is it the lack of resources and expertise that limits religious institutions playing a more active role in DRR? Where there is less activity by faith communities is in the areas of preparedness and prevention (Wisner, 2019: 129). Gillard and Paton (1999) had found that religious organizations had a limited input into practical mitigation and preparation for hurricanes, with only 17 per cent Hindus, 7 Christians and 7 per cent Muslims reporting receiving information on preparation for hurricanes.
A number of barriers exist to fully utilize the resources of religious institutions in DRR and long-term recovery. Religious institutions are already, to considerable extent, meeting international standards in delivery and their levels of access and engagement with humanitarian coordinating mechanisms (Ager et al., 2015). State, civil society and private sector actors involved in disaster management need to understand complex relationships involving people and their religious institutions, and their impact on the social dimension of recovery (Cheema, et al., 2014: 2207). Thus, there is a need to strengthen “religious literacy” within the humanitarian sector—an area in which the UNHCR has become significantly active following the 2012 High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Faith and Protection—as well as building local capacities (Ager et al., 2015).
At the same time, other challenges exist: conflicting secular and religious worldviews, and concern over lack of independence from local political dynamics. Ager et al. (2015) and Ngin et al. (2020) have found when politicization and internal conflict exist among religious institutions it could impede their role in DRR.
In Auckland, even as the Thai Buddhist temples were a primary conduit for disseminating disaster preparedness, response and recovery messages and services for Thai communities, Ngin et al. (2020) found that Thai Buddhist temples excluded the participation of Thai religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. These religious minority cohorts are not large enough in Auckland to have Thai churches or Thai mosques (Ngin et al. 2020: 310).
Finally, the involvement of religious institutions could provide an opportunity for the religious fundamentalists for political mobilization. Bhattacharjee (2016) found that disaster relief operation, in the aftermath of the 7.7 magnitude earthquake in 2001 in the Kutch region of western India—which killed close to 20,000 people—enabled Hindu organizations to disseminate and consolidate their ideology of “Hindu-ness” (Hindutva) and recruit new members.
The care and compassion was immanent through the deep involvement of the Rashtriya Seva Sangh (RSS) with the local communities’ immediate needs, their volunteers stepping in for rescue and relief operations before even that of the formal state. Long after the period of reconstruction was over, members of the RSS continued to maintain a cordial relationship with the communities; with the RSS acting as a conduit between the village and the government and even as a sounding board for deciding on important social issues. However, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in the region became increasingly fraught after the disaster (Bhattacharjee, 2016.
While the physical and social infrastructure of religious institutions can be harnessed in care-oriented disaster management, the challenges they pose are not merely limited to capacity, but also the larger implications on the society at large. Inasmuch as they can extend their resources and vast base of volunteers to manage disaster relief and recovery, the role of religious institutions—especially given the role they play in the society across the world—needs to be recognized and be accounted for in DRR policies.
Sincere gratitude to Professor Naoko Obi of International Christian University, Tokyo, for her guidance in developing this paper.
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