In a world where disasters impacts are growing, sustaining communities is becoming increasingly difficult. The UN Sustainable Development Goals include 25 targets within 10 of the SDGs “firmly establishing the role of disaster risk reduction as a core development strategy.” However, despite starting in the 1990s “decade of DRR” improvement in community disaster resilience is slow. In the US, FEMA indicates that there has been no improvement in 20 years.
This project examined a DRR process on the island of Simeulue in Indonesia which was sustained for 100 years, saving the entire population of 80,000 lives in 2004. The research involved extensive interviews with tsunami survivors in villages around the island. A combination of Grounded Theory and narrative theory analyses revealed a pattern of cultural practices that engendered strong personal commitments to appropriate disaster response behaviours.
The findings indicate a ‘soft power’ strategy where highly influential family and village members sustained a narrative tradition about ‘smong’ – (tsunami in Simeulue’s language). These influential people are not village potentates but rather respected older citizens and especially grandmothers. The narrative is combined with music including lullabies and ‘nandong’ folk songs.
The net effect of these practices is to provoke sustained emotional connection with past disasters and clear risk perceptions of possible future events.
All of this lay hidden ‘under the radar’ and despite the ’Simeulue strategy’ being known to authorities in Indonesia and elsewhere, government risk communications continue with the same ‘top down’ broadcast model. Some alternative approaches derived from Simeulue are suggested.