What natural disasters can teach us

1 November 2012

Learning about surviving disasters, a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), has resulted in a unique bank of research data which provides insights into what makes an effective community response at this critical time. Community responses are key to helping children and young people who survive major natural disasters.

The study, led by Professor Lena Dominelli of Durham University, was conducted in Sri Lanka in 12 villages recovering from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The research involved people and groups who responded to the needs of these villages after the tsunami struck and throughout the years after – including volunteers and international organisations funding humanitarian aid, students, and staff from universities.

The researchers gathered survival stories generated by children survivors of the tsunami who are now teenagers and young adults. "The voices of young victim-survivors are seldom heard, yet they have messages of hope and resilience – and adults who determine what should happen in such situations should listen to them.

They have valuable insights, good suggestions for how to rebuild their communities to be more resilient in the future and they will grow up to make important and active contributions to the future well-being of their communities," Professor Dominelli comments.

The stories demonstrate how well-targeted, but not costly, interventions can successfully help a young person to make the transition from victim to a thriving member of the community during the 'reconstruction' period – the time when the village or community is being rebuilt.

"These stories show that there is no one-size-fits-all response but that success in promoting resilience and well-being involves constructive, helping relationships that are both specific to the location and are culturally relevant", says Professor Dominelli.

As part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science , Professor Dominelli will present a one-day workshop - 'Survival Stories: Learning from narratives about surviving disasters'. It will focus on the stories from the young survivors of the 2004 tsunami. The event will also show how practitioners worked to ensure the children were safe and able to cope in the aftermath of the disaster.

Professor Dominelli says, "Our study contains a rare bank of data which enables us to learn how young people have survived immense suffering and hardship caused by natural disasters. This helps us better understand how to develop their strengths and resilience as they grow up and become active members of their communities and contribute to their community’s renewal. British practitioners and service users can derive lessons about developing resilience for disasters such as flooding that occur in this country."

For further information contact:

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Notes for editors

  1. Event: Survival Stories: Learning from narratives about surviving disasters
    Organiser: Professor Lena Dominelli
    Date: 3 November 2012
    Venue: Laurel Avenue Community Centre, Laurel Avenue, Durham, DH1 2EY
    Audience: Event for young people and general public; practitioners in emergency, health and social services; humanitarian aid workers; policymakers and researchers.
    For more information: Survival Stories: Learning from narratives about surviving disasters
  2. A short interview with project researcher Professor Lena Dominelli is available at http://www.esrc.ac.uk/publications/audio/festival-2012-events.aspx.
  3. This release is based on the findings from a three-year ethnographic study of responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by Professor Lena Dominelli of Durham University. 
  4. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place from 3-10 November 2012. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. This year’s Festival of Social Science has over 180 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full list of the programme are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on twitter using #esrcfestival.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.