In Conversation with IRHA Board Member Sálvano Briceño

by Rachel Nisbet | 7 January 2019
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Rachel Nisbet: Sálvano, you have spent a career working in nature conservation and environmental planning at the international level, focusing latterly on how communities can develop their resilience to natural hazards. We are very fortunate to benefit from your expertise as an IRHA board member. Thanks for your time in a few questions about your vision for IRHA.

What motivates you in supporting IRHA?

Sálvano Briceño: I believe IRHA performs an important function in promoting sustainable water resources management. My experience of working in several environmental fields within the UN influenced my decision to assist in this valuable effort.

Rachel Nisbet: How important is rainwater harvesting in helping communities to respond to natural disasters?

Sálvano Briceño: First of all, 'natural disasters’ is the wrong term. Despite its popularity, this expression misrepresents natural events, implying they implicitly cause disasters. Within Development Studies, we prefer the terms 'natural hazards’, 'events’ or 'phenomena’; we refer to disasters in describing the adverse consequences of natural events on people’s lives. An earthquake in the middle of the ocean is not a disaster. Disasters occur in social contexts; accordingly, they are social events. Usually, disasters arise as a result of vulnerable communities being located in the vicinity of natural hazards. I digress, but with good reason: the term 'natural disasters’ has led people believe that if disasters are natural, they are largely unavoidable. On the contrary, anticipatory environmental and construction practices develop the resilience necessary to reduce disasters. Now, back to your question! Rainwater harvesting is extremely helpful, in particular when used by communities located in arid- or semi- areas; in areas that experience drought and desertification processes, and also wherever water is a scarce resource. It contributes to assuring a reliable or sustainable flow of a vital natural resource for people and any livestock or crops they cultivate.

Rachel Nisbet: Can rainwater harvesting also help communities mitigate against disasters resulting from natural phenomena?

Sálvano Briceño: Absolutely, in all types of disaster, whether related with natural hazards or other hazards (health, financial, civil unrest, terrorism, etc.) and in particular in response to drought processes, having access to water is essential to cope with, and recover from, a disaster. The process of harvesting rainwater causes people to reflect on the variable rate of water supply in their locality. Becoming aware of the variable flux of a vital natural resource, like water, enables people to develop an anticipatory attitude; thus, they are able to prepare for recurring natural events, such as drought. Fostering people’s ability to reduce disaster risk needs to be a key aim of sustainable development projects.

Rachel Nisbet: Why do you think 'low tech', integrated development solutions are becoming increasingly popular?

Sálvano Briceño: Because they are accessible to the majority of people living outside urban areas, since they do not require expensive infrastructures. It is the famous 'small is beautiful’ approach. The high number of inhabitants in urban areas occasions a low per-capita cost in implementing high-tech, sustainable development solutions. In more sparely-populated, rural areas, it is 'low tech’ solutions that enable people’s natural resource needs to be met.

Rachel Nisbet: How would you like to see IRHA develop in the next five years?

Sálvano Briceño: I would like to see IRHA gradually become a central reference for rainwater harvesting at the international level, advocating for worldwide rainwater harvesting. Accordingly, the NGO should prioritize the development of its communications capacity, while using its extensive project management capacity to develop representative pilot projects and acquire and develop rainwater harvesting knowledge and contacts in the field.

Salvano Briceño is the former director of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (formerly International Strategy for Disaster Reduction secretariat). His career spans several decades, during which he has focused on the management of environmental and sustainable development programmes at the United Nations, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Government of Venezuela.

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