Using the disaster planning, relief and rehabilitation processes to build a more secure future for Thailand’s vulnerable communities 

Of all the poor and vulnerable groups in Thailand, those hit by disasters are often the poorest and most vulnerable of all.  Besides losing family members, houses and belongings, many also lose their livelihoods and support systems and find themselves facing eviction from their land.  As the frequency and severity of storms, floods, fires and land-slides increases in Thailand, so too does the number of poor communities facing these disasters each year.  Community networks in many parts of the country have worked with CODI to try to turn these calamities into development opportunities, in which the affected communities become the main actors in planning, managing and implementing their own relief and rehabilitation.


It started with the tsunami:  It is in the nature of great catastrophes that things are never the same afterwards.  And in the case of the Asian tsunami, there was plenty that wanted changing in the coastal communities of Southern Thailand that were hit by the waves on December 26, 2004.  Besides causing so much death and destruction, the tsunami exposed deep, pre-existing problems of poverty, social exclusion, land insecurity, commercial exploitation, profiteering, official indifference to indigenous groups and skewed systems of power.  The waves also created a whole set of new problems when people’s livelihoods, social structures, survival systems and ways of life were swept away, along with their houses and boats.

But with all that misfortune came an unexpected opportunity for those already imperiled coastal communities, to use the relief and rehabilitation process to begin tackling the deeper, more structural problems that jeopardized their future.  Unless those disaster-affected people could begin speaking on their own behalf and deciding what they wanted to do, they’d remain powerless objects of somebody else’s idea of what they need, what they should do, where they should go and how they should live after the disaster.



CODI and it’s NGO, civil society and community partners in the tsunami-hit areas – most of whom had no experience with disasters back then – set out to use every aspect of the relief process to organize and strengthen those coastal communities, and to make the tsunami rehabilitation into a very big, very urgent experiment in community revival.  Their idea was that if space, resources and support could be made available to help communities become the key actors in planning the rebuilding of their lives, settlements and coastal environments, in close collaboration with local authorities, NGOs and support organizations, then the rehabilitation process could be a community-builder, a local relationship-builder and an important step in correcting what was wrong before the waves hit.

Since the 2004 tsunami, Thailand has experienced many more disasters, in the form of floods, landslides, storms, fires and droughts.  And sadly, the frequency, scale and severity of these disasters – especially floods – is increasing as the planet gets hotter.  These subsequent disasters have allowed the people-centered relief and rehabilitation processes that were pioneered after the tsunami to be put into repeated use, and also scaled up, refined and streamlined by the community networks and CODI into a national process which is not only about responding to disasters after they happen, but also about planning before the disasters happen.

As with the tsunami, the role of horizontal relief and rehabilitation, which is directed and managed by coalitions of community networks and disaster-affected people themselves (especially the poorest and most vulnerable), has proven again and again to be a vital, efficient, fast, flexible and effective supplement to formal relief and reconstruction efforts.  And again, as with the tsunami, when the affected people take a key role in the reconstruction of their damaged houses, villages and livelihoods, the disasters have become opportunities for longer-term development gains for some of the country’s poorest rural and urban communities.

The vital role of community networks:  Since many of these disasters are happening in parts of the country that are already rich in varied community networks, the “horizontal” nature of the response has been much greater.  The immediate outpouring of assistance and goodwill by all these networks during the various crises has allowed CODI to take a back seat in the organizing process, and channel funds to a process which is now being managed almost entirely by community networks.  Today, many networks operate city-level funds, welfare funds and community funds at ward level, and one of the objectives of these various network-managed funds is to provide welfare benefits for those affected by disasters.   



The networks’ activities in disaster-hit areas range from surveying the affected areas, organizing relief and food centers, providing relief and survival tools and food, organizing the affected communities, linking with other sources of assistance, coordinating with other agencies and generally taking care of each other.  It is now common practice for community networks to mobilize funds from their own community members to support these national disaster activities and send in truckloads of food and relief supplies, and start organizing the affected communities, getting people together, setting up collective kitchens where people can come together to eat, share information and decide together what to do.  Many community networks with city-level and ward-level community funds and welfare funds also use their funds to provide welfare relief for disaster-affected communities within their constituencies – and sometimes outside.  This has become standard practice now in Thailand’s community movement.  So it seems clear that horizontal relief and rehabilitation, which is managed by communities and which makes the affected people the key actors, is here to stay.