When the tsunami washed over parts of South East Asia, many people sought refuge in their local mosque.

Psychologically, mosques offered a sense of security and safety. They were a place to both give and receive comfort from other survivors. Many people believed disaster was the will of God and so wished to be closer to Him by attending mosques. Their column-like structures meant the water passed through the building; importantly, therefore, among flattened buildings and debris, the mosques remained standing.

The theme of International Day for Disaster Reduction 2015 is the value of traditional, indigenous and local knowledge in reducing a community’s exposure to disasters. This, UNESCO says, can be anything from local understanding of the cause of natural disasters, cultural belief systems, and survival and coping strategies such as migration to higher ground. Understanding the Muslim community’s reasons for amassing at a mosque has been instrumental in designing our disaster risk reduction programmes in West Sumatra and West Nuga Tenggara, in Indonesia.

Equipping places of worship

Islamic Relief has just completed the second part of a project to help religious places respond to disaster situations. It was a continuation of a pilot project, implemented in 2013, to build capacities of religious places to better prepare, mitigate and respond to disasters in West Sumatra. In the initial project, churches and mosques received basic equipment and training for search and rescue operations and rapid needs assessment. Key messages about disaster preparation could be shared at religious rituals with large congregations, such as Jumma prayers, Sunday church services, Easter prayers, and Majelis Taklim events.

The project also enhanced social cohesion, bringing together various religious groups to serve the common interest of reducing disaster-related vulnerabilities, and political strength by integrating the disaster management work into the wider systems run by the government, and adopting their simulation exercises.

The second phase sought to consolidate the work completed in West Sumatra and extend the project into a new geographical area. In West Nusa Tenggara, mosques, churches, pagoda, and Hindu temples have been given training and equipment. Across the two areas, we have also been able to support places of worship to improve their infrastructure so better services could be made available to those seeking shelter following a disaster.

Komaruddin, West Nusa Tenggara area coordinator for Islamic Relief’s office in Indonesia, said: “We have been able to see a marked difference as a result of this project. The people we’ve spoken to feel more prepared for natural disasters as a result of the information they have been given as their local mosque, church, pagoda, or temple.

“It again shows the importance of faith and understanding how faith impacts of people’s lives and the decisions they make; this message is hugely relevant to debates on effective disaster reduction techniques, and the important of traditional, local and indigenous knowledge in accessing people, sharing messages and meeting need.”

Islamic Relief’s other faith-based work includes working with Christian and Muslim leaders to help tackle the Ebola virus, in Islamic and religious conflict resolution in Central African Republic, and in child protection training globally with World Vision International.