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1 May 2015 Considering Vulnerability in Disaster Risk Reduction Plans: From Policy to Practice in Ladakh, India
Virginie Le Masson
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In Ladakh, India, a mountainous region prone to natural hazards, particularly floods, it is critical to adapt disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures to the local environment. The floods that struck Ladakh in 2010 created momentum for local authorities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to engage in DRR initiatives in order to better prepare people to cope with and recover from emergencies. This paper analyzes the way DRR approaches in Ladakh, from the central government to the district level, take both vulnerability and capacity into account. National and state policies are integrated and reflect the vulnerability concept quite well. However, as the case of Ladakh shows, establishing policies does not guarantee that appropriate practices will follow. Although NGOs' relief efforts in 2010 were praised for building on local communities' context and capacities, most practitioners still view DRR through a hazard-focused lens. Likewise, the policy framework for DRR does not yet address the socioeconomic construction of disasters and is not translated into adequate interventions that build on lessons learned during the 2010 emergency. Development obstacles, such as corruption, may also compromise efforts to translate DRR policies into appropriate and sustainable practices. However, local development projects that enhance the resilience of local mountain communities exist and could be valued as effective DRR. Emphasis should be placed on the practical integration of DRR in sustainable development efforts in order to better tackle disasters.


In the 10 years since the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action to build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters (UNISDR 2005), disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies have gradually come to acknowledge the need to address the underlying factors that turn extreme events into disasters. In contrast to the common emphasis on predicting, controlling, and mitigating hazards, DRR aims to reduce causes of disasters linked to societies' vulnerabilities (Wisner et al 2012). This approach recognizes that the impact of a shock is affected by the vulnerability of the people who experience it and their capacity to survive and recover from it (UNDP 2004).

However, this shift to addressing the social, economic, and political construction of disasters, as inscribed in international policies, has yet to fully come into force at the national level, as many countries' DRR strategies are still essentially hazard centered (O’Brien et al 2006; Gaillard 2010). National policies typically consider disaster management through postevent response rather than mainstreaming DRR in development planning according to people's vulnerabilities and capacities (Schipper 2009).

Using the case of the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India (Leh, 34.10°N, 77.35°E), this paper investigates the extent to which vulnerability is integrated in the policy framework for DRR, from the central government to the district level, as well as in DRR practices and local development projects that seek to enhance the resilience of local mountain communities.

Context and analytical approach

This paper conceptualizes vulnerability to disasters as the combination of geographical exposure to hazards and socioeconomic and political factors that lead to increased exposure and prevent people from acquiring the resources to protect themselves and recover from shocks (Hewitt 1997; Wisner et al 2004). DRR frameworks, revisited in Wisner et al (2012), highlight that effective DRR must not only reduce the impacts of hazards but also:

  • Achieve safe conditions by strengthening people's livelihoods and implementing disaster preparedness;

  • Reduce the pressure to live in hazard-prone areas by addressing the root causes of people's vulnerabilities (eg challenging unequal power structures and political-economic systems that cause vulnerability;

  • Involve local communities in designing interventions appropriate to their cultural, socioeconomic, and political contexts, and build on their capacities.

This analysis thus focuses on the following questions: Do policies acknowledge the importance of taking vulnerability into account when mitigating disaster risks? Has this commitment been translated into practice? To what extent have previous hazards' impacts and people's vulnerability and capacities guided DRR interventions? And to what degree are local communities involved in DRR?

The study relies on secondary and primary data collected between 2010 and 2013, through a combination of qualitative methods including document reviews, observation, and semistructured interviews. In total, 23 representatives of development organizations in Ladakh were interviewed about their perspectives on DRR. Efforts were made to achieve gender balance among these interviewees—field workers and senior managers from 3 international and 3 national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and 8 Ladakh-based organizations (including 2 informants close to the government). In parallel, 89 semistructured interviews were conducted with residents of 3 different sites to explore potential differences between rural and urban settings: 1 remote rural village affected by floods in 2006 (Phuktse), 1 peri-urban village that was heavily affected by the floods in 2010 (Saboo), and 1 suburb of the capital Leh (Chanspa), also hit by the floods in 2010. In total, 45 men and 44 women were interviewed about their daily challeng