Engaging the Church in Disaster

Introduction: Disasters - Challenge for Everyone 

Over the past decades, countries across the world – both rich and poor, have witnessed frequent natural disasters. The impact has been felt by every strata of humanity. OCHA had listed 13 large and deadliest disasters over the period 2000-2011, listed as follows: 

1. Japan earthquake-tsunami, March 11, 2011 - 18,812 deaths/missing and 329,852 affected

2. Haiti earthquake, January 12, 2010 -  222,570 deaths and 3,400,000 affected

3. Sichuan earthquake, China, May 12, 2008 - 87,476 deaths and 45,976,596 affected

4. Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar May 2, 2008 - 138,366 deaths and 2,420,000 affected

5. Java earthquake, Indonesia May 27, 2006 - 5,778 deaths and 3,177,923 affected

6. Kashmir earthquake, Pakistan July 26, 2005 - 73,338 deaths and 5,128,000 affected

7. Hurricane Katrina, US August 29, 2005 - 1,833 deaths and 500,000 affected

8. Mumbai floods, India July 26, 2005 - 1,200 deaths and 20,000,055 affected

9. Asian tsunami in 7 countries of S&E Asia - 226,408 deaths and 2,321,700 affected

10. Bam earthquake, Iran December 26, 2003 - 26,796 deaths and 267,628 affected

11. European heat-wave in 6 countries: 2003 - 72,210 deaths

12. Dresden flood, Germany August 11, 2012 - 27 deaths and 330,108 affected

13. Gujarat earthquake, India January 26, 2001 - 20,005 deaths and 6,321,812 affected

Note that out of 13 disasters mentioned above 10 were in Asia Pacific region. South Asia, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal is home of seasonal floods, affecting millions every year! In the Philippines an average of 28 disasters happens every year.  Indonesia in the recent years has experienced varied disasters - ranging from flood to volcano

Red Cross and Red Crescent has summed up in their report like this:

  • Earthquakes killed an average of 50,184 people a year over the period from 2000 to 2008. 
  • Floods affected the largest number of people – an average of 99 million people a year.
  • The deadliest disaster was South Asian tsunami in 2004, which hit 7 countries and killed 226,408.
  • Most costly urban disaster of the decade was the Bam Earthquake, Iran in 2003, which left damages totalling US$500m.

It may be noted that disasters can be outcome of natural forces such as mentioned above, and can be man-made too.  The activity of man, such as rapid forest clearing, mega dams and unbridle expansion of industrial areas may cause disasters in future. The situation is being exacerbated by effects on climate change. 

The impact of disaster on the poor is much greater, and the reality is that the poor die in greater numbers and endure higher economic losses during disasters. The poor has very little resource to face the challenges of physical and social impact of disaster.  They often live on steep slopes subject to landslides, in swamps and in flood-prone riverbanks of urban peripheries. Their houses are poorly built that they collapse easily when shaken by earthquakes or when flood water sweep through. Unlike the rich they have only one place to live. Often national disasters reduction schemes are lopsided and corrupted, because they are made to provide gain to the rich and powerful ones in the establishment. The United Nations Development Programme shows that people in countries ranked among the lowest 20 percent in the Human Development Index are 10 to 1,000 times more likely to die in a natural disaster than people from countries in the top 20 percent.

The cycle of disasters devastated poor men’s livelihood, and it does not give them time to recover. The poor landless Dalits  in the remote Terai region of Nepal struggle to survive with an income less than $75 in a year.  Landslides, seasonal flash-floods and Maoist insurgency movement disrupted their normal livelihood in the last 15 years, and they could no longer survive the hunger and deprivation. Many of them decided to move to India to be daily wage earners in many of the construction sites where all types of social evils are prevailing – cheating of wages, human trafficking, illicit liquor dens, prostitutions, drugs and AIDS/HIV.  If you study South Asia’s poverty, you will not miss a disaster at some point in the past

Initiatives of APBAid
General Principles of Involvement
Since 2004 APBAid has been involved in every major disaster across the Asia-Pacific region. The general principles of involvement that APBAid followed were: 

  • working together with the national Baptist Union or Convention, or where such body does not exist work with likeminded Christian institutions and NGOs;partner with the global Baptist bodies – fraternal organization, mission agencies, Churches and even with individuals; APBAid plays the role of information clearing house and coordinate the relief efforts;
  • focus on strengthening the national Baptist Union or Convention along with the actual relief and recovery efforts;
  • give priority to mobilization of resources and prayer supports among the Baptist communities in Asia-Pacific region;
  • continue the relief effort to recovery, then to development projects if resources are available and if there is opening.
  • wherever there is major disaster APBAid in consultation with global Baptist bodies and the host Baptist Union or Convention  conducted Round Table Conference to thrust out issues involved in the relief efforts; and  
  • wherever major relief or recovery project is implemented proper evaluation is initiated by qualified and external person.

I list down some of the experiences APBAid got in the last 8 years and the lessons learnt thereof; they are as follows:

2004 Asian tsunami 
In Andaman Islands it was heartening to see the Churches in North East India responded generously to the need outside their region. Nagaland Baptist Church Council and Baptist Church of Mizoram responded by sending personnel and mobilized over half a million Rupees. The willingness to partnership by the two Churches for the task other than mission was quite significant. At the same time the relief effort faced challenge when coming down to the details of relief outreaches, that  it became apparent that objectives varied and priorities differed.
In Aceh and Nias Island (Sumatra) of Indonesia, the same enthusiastic response in the beginning could not endure as the cutting edge practices of Credit Assistance was introduced too soon and rigours of monitoring and reporting set in. It was observed that capacity building process could not match the development practices. 

Both the initiatives in Andaman and Sumatra followed the usual practices of relief, then to recovery and finally to development projects. In Andaman Islands the relief and recovery efforts immensely helped the tasks of Nagaland Missions Movement and the local Karen Baptist Association while in Indonesia the challenges of tsunami convinced Union of Indonesian Baptist Churches to start a Relief and Development wing, entitled as “Rebana Indonesia”. In Sri Lanka too the Sri Lanka Baptist Sangamaya did the same by setting up “RASDA”, but its longevity was not known.  

2007 Flood Reliefs in Cambodia 
APBAid’s involvement in Cambodia started by assisting Cambodia Baptist Union in its annual flood relief supported by BWAid. After much consultation within the leadership APBAid helped CBU to start a department named as Community Development Ministry (CBU-CDM) and facilitated the support of Baptist World Aid Australia. Vision, mission and objectives were written and management structure organised, but it faltered soon as it was difficult to get qualified and committed person to head CBU-CDM. Though there was no dearth of fund to build its capacity and give every effort to train its personnel, the initiatives fizzled out as CBU could not mobilize local resources to sustain and there was lack of accountability. 

 2008 Nargis Cyclone, Myanmar
The cyclone that killed over 130,000 people in the Delta region of Myanmar affected 2.4 millions in 36 townships. Baptist churches in the area suffered much - over 7,500 of its members dead and 18,000 families left to struggle hard to recover their livelihood. Myanmar Baptist Convention did well in trying their best in mobilizing reliefs to respond well to the immediate need.

Though there was overwhelming response from Baptists around the world APBAid personnel could not entered the country immediately as there were hurdles in getting visa. There were also government restrictions in visiting the actual sites of affected area. APBAid in partnership with MBC organized Roundtable Conference in Bangkok on May 24 2008, and later mobilized series of consultations in Yangon to arrive at a package of relief efforts. However, the differences in perception and expectation on the proposed relief further delayed the tasks, and the actual implementation started only by mid November 2008. 

This delay hampered the smooth flow of mobilization for support, because in the dynamics of disaster management, the media response and donors’ attention tapered down as you move further away from the actual disaster event.  The delay in situation assessment, preparation of proposal and submission of request missed the crucial period of public attention.

APBAid had a good lesson of facing the challenge of varied administrative layers in the Baptist set-up, that there was the village level Baptist church where the actual impact of the disaster was felt, then the area level linguistic-regional Convention, and finally with MBC in which there were the special committee on Cyclone Nargis relief effort (entitled “NRRCC”) and MBC’s Relief and Development wing entitled as Christian Social Service Development Department (or in short CSSDD). 
In the subsequent implementation of the relief and recovery efforts, APBAid initiatives drew heavily on the recommendation of the Tripartite Core Group’s - “Post Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP)” for the medium term recovery needs in 3 years, starting from January 2009. The sectors covered by PONREPP were: livelihoods, shelter, education & health; WASH; disaster risk reduction; environment and the protection of vulnerable groups.  

APBAid conducted Disaster Risk Management training on November 17-19, 2009 in which 20 church leaders and development workers were trained. The training was followed by 2 phases of recovery projects through the 4 affected regional Baptist Conventions.

2011 Japan earthquake-tsunami
The triple effects of Japan’s last earthquake (8.9 on Richter scale) now known as “Tohuku Great Earthquake” was overwhelming in its impact. It triggered tsunami waves of up to 35 metres that devastated communities in the coastal areas and severely damaged atomic power plant in Fukushima. The radiation leak thereof then affected great suffering and caused high level of stress among the people residing within the affected 20-30 Sq km zone. It unravelled so much of social issues that the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission called it as "a profoundly man-made disaster" and stated that the accident was "made in Japan".

In working together with Japan Baptist Convention and Japan Baptist Union, besides in partnership with several fraternal Baptist bodies APBAid gained much experience. APBAid organized Roundtable Summit on September 30-Oct 1, 2011 and both the Churches had set up centralized Committees to supervise the relief and recovery efforts, named “Disaster Relief Headquarters”.
As Japanese were much advanced in all sphere of life, including in disaster preparedness the focus of the Church’s response was more on mental and spiritual healing through social care, support and counselling. It is something that the government could not give, but the Church with the message of love could offer. 
It was heartening to see that the Churches, especially those of JBC took the opportunity to launch out its relief outreach with the motto, “Reconciliation between God and mankind, among mankind, and between mankind and creation” - working toward the creation of new relationships based on the gospel.  Volunteer teams went out to be with the displaced people in the shelter homes, give massages, listen to their stories, give them place to fellowship, give tuition to the affected children, and even support them in times of rituals performed for those who were lost during the disaster.
It was also strongly felt that there was need for care and support to the caregivers, because the ministry to mental and emotional healing itself was energy consuming. JBC has conducted retreat from time to time for the pastors, development workers and volunteer leaders so that they may share their concern and debrief their experience. 
Situations where there was no partner Church
2005 Kashmir earthquake: Though it was a major earthquake in the Pakistan area with the official death toll of 75,000 APBAid was not able to take initiative as there was no known Baptist church or organization in Pakistan. Besides the event occurred in the sensitive remote area bordering with Afghanistan and Indian administered Kashmir, very little information was available and there were no contacts so far from inside the country. However the Baptist Churches in Malaysia and Indonesia were kind to raise fund and APBAid facilitate in donating to BWAid’s relief effort.
 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China: Earthquake in Sichuan, China was a major disaster with 87,476 deaths and affected 45,976,596 people. As there was no partner church available inside the country, APBAid joined the relief efforts by contributing to the effort of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   
Pakistan floods 2010: When there were floods in Pakistan heartlands in 2010, in which 20 million people were affected and official death toll 2000, APBAid joined Cyan International (BMS) in helping the affected people. It is noteworthy that Christian relief assistance is not limited to fellow believers alone, but to all who are in need irrespective of creed, caste and gender.

Challenges of working during ethnic conflicts
APBAid’s experiences in social conflicts were - ethnic conflict in Karbi Anglong, Assam (NE India) in 2006; violence against Christians in the Orissa in 2008; Rabha-Garo ethnic conflicts in Assam in 2010, and armed conflict in Kachin State, Myanmar in 2011.  
It was great challenge to work during social conflicts, because in such situation logistics were normally difficult and restrictions were often imposed by the local authorities. Often the local churches were composed of one or same ethnic congregation, thus relief assistance could be biased and sometime such effort might not help peacemaking process. It was thus necessary for the Church to integrate the relief efforts with initiatives to rebuild shattered relationships. The leaders of the Church have great responsibility in peacemaking, and reconciliation among the communities.
2008 Violence against Christians in Orissa: Atrocities on Christians had been going on for decades in the Indian state of Orissa, but large scale violence against Christians was triggered on 23rd August 2008 by the murder of a Hindu leader, first in Kandhamal district and then it spread throughout the state. In this frenzy of violence over 5000 Christian homes and institutions were looted, burnt or destroyed. Some 60 Christians, mainly local pastors and evangelists were killed (official death toll stands 38). Sporadic incidents and intimidation to reconvert back to Hinduism continued till end of September.
The situation was such that it was nothing but the faith of Christians was severely tested with the mandate of “love your neighbour as yourself” and “love your enemy” on one hand and on the other side the cry for justice. The issue became more urgent as the persecuted Christians were mainly constituted of Panos, socially outcaste Dalits - whose homes were burnt, expelled from the villages, their children not allowed.