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Meet India’s frontline local responders: the fishermen of Kerala

Seven Keralan fisherman
Disaster preparedness experts say the very communities affected by crises should also be equipped to respond. Fishermen in India’s Kerala State were credited with saving lives during severe flooding in August 2018. (Shawn Sebastian/IRIN)

The worst flooding in nearly a century swept across India’s Kerala State in August, killing more than 500 people and uprooting 1.8 million. Had it not been for hundreds of local fishermen, who drove their boats inland to rescue residents besieged by floods, the death toll would likely have spiked higher, government officials say.


It makes sense for local communities to be on the front lines of local disaster response, several of those fishermen tell photojournalist Shawn Sebastian in this video, “Kerala’s Rescue Fishermen”. Sebastian spent time with them after documenting the devastation caused by the August floods: nearly 24,000 damaged homes, extensive contamination of water sources and destroyed croplands, and a recovery process that could take months or even years.


Disaster management experts say residents such as the fishermen are key to boosting local preparedness for the next disaster. Kerala, like other coastal parts of India, is at risk of tropical cyclones and flooding, and climate change will make extreme weather more commonplace and unpredictable.


☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local


The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover 33 emergencies around the world. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


What is local aid?


The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


Why local aid?


The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills, they can often access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


Who are local aid workers?


Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, faith groups, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises. The global aid sector is also beginning to recognise the importance of so-called “informal” humanitarians, including the everyday volunteers that are the first to respond to emergencies in their own communities.


The government has drafted guidelines on how to place local communities at the heart of disaster response, though Santosh Kumar, a professor at the National Institute of Disaster Management in New Delhi, says such plans are not yet in place in most states, including Kerala. The guidelines outline roles in disaster response for everyone from fishermen to religious groups, rural child care centres, and even veterinarians.


During the August floods, Kerala’s fishermen were able to complement official rescue efforts because they knew the lay of the land and the local language, Kumar says. They pushed into isolated areas, dove into submerged homes, and transported stranded residents to higher ground.


“We can deal with any situation at sea,” one fisherman tells Sebastian. Even so, the floods were especially tricky: “We had never seen currents as strong as this.”


Hear more from them on the August rescue missions and why they believe they can play a greater role in preparing for the next emergency:


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