From shaky ground to shaking hands – harnessing civil society to enhance resilience in Bucharest

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Schoolkids in the streets of Romania
Civil society groups remind us that anticipating tomorrow’s disasters is a collective responsibility.
Photo: Marina Neagu

“There will be no warning. Dogs will not bark. Sparrows will not leave their trees. Nor will the calculations of those who claim to be able to predict earthquakes give us any clue as to what is about to happen.”

An extract borrowed from a Stephen King novel? Not quite. This is actually the gripping opening of an incisive article from 2017, entitled “Earthquake in a Vulnerable City,” written by Georgiana Ilie to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the tragic 1977 earthquake in Vrancea, Romania. In this piece, she depicts a fictional, post-earthquake scenario to remind us of the looming risk sitting right underneath my home city of Bucharest. Responsible for producing 24% of the country’s GDP in 2017, Romania’s capital is the 6th largest city in the European Union; it is also the most exposed European capital to seismic risks.

After reading this article, and seeing how it went viral, I decided to contact Georgiana to learn more about the vulnerability of this city.

Interestingly, our meeting on October 13, 2017 coincided with the International Day for Disaster Reduction. Our discussion took place against the backdrop of discussions between the World Bank and the government of Romania to kickstart a Disaster Risk Management (DRM) program as part of the emerging World Bank Country Partnership Framework for the country.  

As support to DRM and climate resilience efforts grew, with support from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), I welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with different volunteer groups focusing on these issues. As I encountered more and more initiatives – including some that were created as a result of Georgiana Ilie’s seminal article – my desire to to connect with people, hear their stories, and understand their missions grew stronger.

First, I met Matei Sumbasacu, an engineer and earthquake myth buster who founded ReRise – an organization dedicated to reducing disaster risk - who introduced me to his volunteer network. After meeting many self-organized citizens - who all cared deeply about Bucharest’s seismic vulnerability (and the people impacted), I reached out to Romania’s Department of Emergency Situations (DSU). In February 2018, I invited this diverse group of like-minded doers and thinkers to crowdsource scalable solutions – thus creating the Romania DRM Community.

“In movies and history, the day a tragedy happens seems special. In fact, it is a day like any other day, which unexpectedly becomes the moment when your life will never be the same again.”
Visual animation created by Ioana Șopov

This new community was driven by inspiring leadership and creative talent, including MkBT, which developed Alert project; the Bucharest Community Foundation, which launched “Bucharest Prepared”; and Civic Tech, that developed the “Fii pregatit” platform for the DSU. Other initiatives include Clubul Cainilor Utilitari, the Red Cross Romania, SMURD Foundation, Romanian Health Observatory, National Institute for Research and Development of Earth Physics,  4X4 Rescuers Volunteer Association, and ARCEN, which, together with ReRise, launched Antiseismic District, a community-oriented program with the aim of transforming one Bucharest’s most seismic vulnerable historical neighborhoods into a community informed and prepared for future earthquakes.

Anticipating disasters is a collective responsibility. What is truly admirable about members of this growing community is that they do not wait for a disaster to strike to lead bottom-up resilience actions. Community members are also keen to learn from other leading organizations. For example, Olivia Vereha from Code for Romania, has imported best practices from Mexico in terms of tech solutions to develop an ecosystem of open-source apps to boost awareness and crowdsource preparedness and relief efforts at a national level.

Neighborhood community meeting organized by ARCEN and ReRise
Neighborhood community meeting organized by ARCEN and ReRise in a seismic vulnerable district of Bucharest as part of the Antiseism District Project.
Photo: Alexandru Bușcă

I look forward to sharing a snapshot of these initiatives at the Understanding Risk Europe conference, taking place in Bucharest on November 27-29, 2019. A dedicated Community Engagement session will highlight a variety of different initiatives and tools for community-led preparedness, including ones by Daniel Homsey, from Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN), and Alina Kasprovschi, from Bucharest Community Foundation. Participants will also be able to test the DSU’s Resource and Volunteer Management app, developed by Code for Romania, along with other disaster-related apps showcased at the Technology Corner. 

Two years since its inception, the Romania DRM Community continues to form partnerships and friendships that can strengthen Romania’s future. This community has even informed the design of risk reduction investments financed by the World Bank and maximized synergies through new partnerships with the DSU.

Going forward, I hope that the Romania DRM Community will continue to thrive, starting with an action plan at the local level. I also anticipate a deeper engagement with local authorities. I believe that Understanding Risk Europe provides the necessary platform for sharing knowledge, exploring new ideas, and identifying creative partnerships. With Georgiana Ilie’s words in mind, together, we can help transform Bucharest from a vulnerable city to a community of resilience – proving that where there is will there is a possibility to move from shaking ground to a more secure environment by shaking hands and joining governmental and non-governmental efforts to prepare and protect in the face of the next natural disaster.

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