Equine role in humanitarian disasters often overlooked

Mules were used to carry building supplies to remote villages affected by Nepal's earthquake in 2015.
Mules were used to carry building supplies to remote villages affected by Nepal’s earthquake in 2015. © Animal Nepal/The Donkey Sanctuary

Working animals not only play an essential role in building resilience but also offer crucial support immediately after a disaster, research has shown.

The vital but often unrecognised role in rebuilding disaster-hit communities in low-to middle-income countries is being highlighted on the United Nations’ International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, which is focusing on international cooperation to help countries curb their disaster risk and subsequent losses in lives, livelihoods and health.

Following a disaster, aid efforts typically focus on people rebuilding the economy as well as damaged buildings, water supplies and communications after a humanitarian crisis but working donkeys and mules are indispensable in the rebuilding process.

New research by The Donkey Sanctuary has been published in Disasters, a peer-reviewed journal reporting on all aspects of disaster studies, policy and management. Cara Clancy, the lead author of Resilience and the Role of Equids in Humanitarian Crises, said donkeys and mules were a key part of the social fabric in many lower to middle-income countries (LMICs), providing an essential source of income for some of the most marginalised communities in the world.

“It is often these vulnerable populations, which suffer most when disaster strikes due to a lack of adequate housing, poor infrastructure and limited access to health services,” Clancy said.

Examples included the use of donkeys to transport people in and out of disaster-affected areas inaccessible by vehicles. They have been used to deliver life-saving aid to communities, and transport materials for the re-building of roads, homes and other damaged buildings.

Donkeys and mules were able to collect and deliver clean water and supplies after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. The earthquake, which cost the lives of almost 9000 people, flattened entire villages consisting of low-cost informal buildings that stood little chance of withstanding the devastating impact. It also cut off mountain communities when roads became hazardous or impassable for motorised vehicles.

More recently, donkeys have been helping rural communities in Africa during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

With funding from The Donkey Sanctuary and using local donkeys, the Meru Animal Welfare Organisation (MAWO) installed and filled water and soap dispensaries in medical centres across northern Tanzania to combat the spread of the disease.

MAWO President and Founder Johnson Lyimo said donkeys were crucial in helping to build resilience in the Simanjiro district of northern Tanzania.

“Local donkeys were crucial to move large quantities of water from distant sources needed to fill containers for patients to wash their hands before seeing a doctor.

“The project also helped to promote the importance of general good hygiene practices via the donkey-owning communities.”

Donkeys and mules also help their owners to get back to work, restoring income and social stability. An estimated 500 million people in the world’s poorest communities rely on working equids as a lifeline to support their livelihoods.

An estimated 500 million people in the world’s poorest communities rely on working equids as a lifeline to support their livelihoods.
Image by Jim Black

Donkeys and mules play an essential role ploughing and tilling agricultural land in rural communities. They often free up women to participate in economic activity, helping to elevate their social status; they may also liberate children enabling them to access education.

Tamlin Watson, a Senior Researcher at The Donkey Sanctuary and contributor to the article, said working equines must be considered in the wider context of international development and achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Ending poverty and hunger for all requires building the resilience of the marginalised and vulnerable to reduce their exposure to climate-related events as well as other environmental shocks. Donkeys and mules help build this resilience.”

Extreme weather events such as drought, fire and flooding are becoming increasingly common because of climate change. Disasters are not always sudden like earthquakes or hurricanes; they can also build up slowly, as in the case of prolonged drought.

The research found donkeys play a critical role in recurrent and protracted crises, such as prolonged drought. They are increasingly important to the evolving survival tactics of rural communities in east Africa’s drylands, where there is increasing reliance on donkeys as they can survive in areas of sparse vegetation and little water.

Cara Clancy, Tamlin Watson, Zoe Raw. Resilience and the role of equids in humanitarian crises. Disasters, July 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12501



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