India: flood-damaged communities build back better


Sangeeta Devi and three generations of her family outside their newly-reconstructed house in the state of Bihar, India. (Photo: Jay Mandal/UNDP India)

“Sometimes in my sleep I can still hear the sound of the river gushing towards my village,” said Sangeeta Devi, recalling the terror she felt one night in 2008 when the mighty Kosi river breached its embankment and inundated vast tracts of land around her home.

Sangeeta Devi lives in India's poorest state, Bihar, where flooding from the river affected three million people and left another 150,000 homeless.

Highlights

  • A UNDP-supported initiative is helping flood victims in Bihar, India to take ownership of their community’s reconstruction.
  • The initiative is building 100,000 durable, sustainable homes following floods that affected over three million people in India’s poorest state.
  • India is extremely hazard-prone, with 68% of the country susceptible to drought, 60% to earthquakes, 8% to floods.

In the three years since the flooding, however, Devi and 130 neighbours from two villages in northern Bihar have rebuilt their homes in a more disaster-resistant and environmentally sustainable way. This progress was made possible by a community reconstruction initiative implemented by the Owner Driven Reconstruction Collaborative (ODRC) and supported jointly by the Government of Bihar and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In its pilot phase, the initiative provided flood-affected families with the equivalent of US$1,200 to rebuild their homes. These funds were transferred to joint bank accounts on the condition that at least one of the account holders was a woman.

For many recipients, this was their first experience with such a transfer, as nearly 60 percent of India’s rural population lacks a bank account.

Devi and her fellow community members then received help with the building process from ODRC, a network of civil society organizations, government representatives and international institutions that helps disaster-stricken communities access the support and resources necessary to meet their rehabilitation needs.

In particular, ODRC aims to enable local residents to participate in, and take ownership of, the sustainable reconstruction of their community. In northern Bihar, the Collaborative trained 262 local masons and bamboo workers to use indigenous, low-cost and disaster-resistant materials in the reconstruction process.

“In a country prone to multiple risks like India, frequent disasters pose a challenge to any progress in human development,” said Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP Country Director in India.  “The project demonstrates that lasting solutions are possible when enabling technologies and support are combined with empowered communities who feel they are part of the process.”

As a result of the reconstruction initiative, Devi and her neighbours now own sturdy houses built with strengthened bamboo, solar-powered lights and eco-friendly toilets. The above-ground waterless toilet in Devi’s home, which she purchased for an additional US$200, is a welcome convenience. 

“I no longer dread the long walk in search of privacy every morning,” said Devi. 

The waterless toilet technology is also essential to preventing water contamination in northern Bihar, where the water table is high.

Recognizing the success of this pilot phase, the Government of Bihar has expanded the project to three additional flood-affected districts, where it is facilitating the construction of 100,000 similar houses. This expanded phase of the project has been supported by a portion of the US$220 million that the World Bank committed to the overall flood reconstruction efforts.

"Experience shows that reconstruction is most successful and houses are less likely to be abandoned when communities themselves are empowered to participate,” says Wiesen