human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Participation

Caritas empowering communities

The village of Dajc in northern Albania was flooded in March 2013. This was the third time within less than five years. Heavy rainfalls in the mountains and a bad management of hydroelectric power plants caused the river Buna to once more burst its banks and, within some hours, to transform the village and the surrounding land into a huge lake.

But this time something was different. Immediately after receiving the first flood warning, volunteers led by the local parish priest started to evacuate the most vulnerable, mostly elderly people and mothers living alone with their children. The volunteers had their own evacuation plans, indicating all houses where people in need of assistance for evacuation lived.

Soon the volunteers started also preparations to distribute fodder for the animals left behind in the village. Together with the priest and community leaders they prepared a list of more than 100 families and distributed about 6,000 kg of maize to them. They took the fodder from the community-managed storage, located on a safe place up a hill. The maize had been donated by community members after the last harvest.

“It was not the quantity of fodder we had in our storage that made our approach so successful, but that we could use everything very efficiently. When the need was greatest – in the moments after the flood – we successfully helped ourselves. People were very happy about this”, explained Father Marjan, the catholic priest of the community.

Two years before this flood, the community of Dajc participated in a project on community-based disaster risk reduction, implemented by Caritas Albania and other Caritas organisations in south-eastern Europe – the members of SEECEG, the “South Eastern Europe Caritas Emergency Group”. Supported by the Caritas team, the community leaders and volunteers learnt how to assess the vulnerabilities and capacities of their community and how to improve their community´s resilience. They started to organise themselves and created their own methods on how to deal with future floods. The group decided to focus on fodder for their animals, their main source of income. They arranged the storage in a safe place and organised a system of collection of contributions from the community members.

South-eastern Europe is highly susceptible to natural disasters, especially floods: due to climate change, extreme weather is becoming more and more frequent, many forests protecting human settlements and retaining water have been cut and state institutions are weak and underfunded. But often it is the lack of social cohesion that makes the communities even more vulnerable to disasters. The experience of state-ordered collectivism left its marks on local communities in the southeast of Europe and many people are still very sceptical to any ideas of acting together in the interest of their communities.

Introducing the concept of community-based disaster risk reduction in south-eastern Europe aims directly at strengthening the local communities. It helps community members to understand that having common goals and working together to achieve these goals will actually improve the situation of all community members. This is a long process and often starts with just a small group of dedicated people, but with first results of their work, more and more people will join the process.

In the autumn following the flood, the storage was filled again in Dajc. People had saved their animals and shared a part of their harvest of maize and other cereals. The community was ready for the next season. In case the village floods again, enough fodder is available for all animals to survive. In case, nothing happens, the committee administrating the storage will sell the cereals and use the funds to support families and persons with special needs. For example, two years ago they succeeded to pay the medical treatment for a boy from the village who otherwise would have lost his sight. Today, the community of Dajc is proud of what has been achieved. People discovered their own capacities and the power of working together. This makes Dajc not only a safer place to live, but also a stronger community and a model for many other communities living in a similar situation.

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author

Thomas Hackl

Coordinator Emergency Program with Caritas Romania and a member of Caritas Europa's humanitarian action group