Prepared Communities are Resilient Communities

Photo by Jusan Dovanovic for CRS

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It is April 2022. At the mouth of the Bosna River near the town of Šamac in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, it's unusually busy.

People dressed as firefighters, paramedics, and lifeguards move from one place to the next, seemingly in a well-coordinated fashion. In the middle of the river, a motorboat crew pulls someone from the water. The motorboat approaches the bank, and people on the shore quickly take the rescued man, swiftly transfer him to a stretcher, carry him to an emergency vehicle, and perform CPR. Nearby, a car lies wrecked, crushed under a massive branch.

The rush suddenly slows down as everyone congregates in one place and lines up. The man from the stretcher rises, appearing uninjured, brushes off the dirt from his clothes, and joins the group.

The site resembles a movie set, except there are no gaffers, no director's chair, and not many cameras—apart from those belonging to a group of journalists standing aside and taking notes. The event they are reporting about is a disaster simulation exercise staged as part of the Project for Increasing Resilience to Natural Disasters and Enhancing Preparedness Strategy (PREPS), implemented by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Serbia.

Photo by Jusan Dovanovic for CRS

The exercise—simulating underwater rescue, emergency flood evacuation, and medical triage—was intended to test the coordination and preparedness of local protection and rescue services to respond in disaster situations.

“While we hope that we won't need to apply what we practiced today in real-life situations, it's reassuring to know that Šamac has services capable of acting quickly, efficiently, and collaboratively to provide an adequate response to disasters,” said Zoran Bašić, the PREPS project manager for CRS.

Memories of the devastating floods that struck BiH and Serbia in 2014 are still vivid in the region. These floods, the biggest in the last 120 years, caused immense material and financial damage, and the loss of human lives. In BiH, the floods took at least 21 lives, with two people reported missing and thousands evacuated from their homes. Šamac was one of the hardest-hit towns.

Increasing Resilience, Enhancing Preparedness

In recent years, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters have increased worldwide due to climate change. BiH and Serbia are at high risk of natural disasters, which come at significant cost, affecting hundreds of thousands of people each year and harming the economy.

PREPS focuses on local communities at risk of natural disasters but with low disaster risk reduction (DRR) capacities. This cross-border project collaborates with 14 municipalities in BiH and Serbia, aiming to strengthen their disaster preparedness and mitigation capacities while reducing vulnerability to natural hazards.

Funded by the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), CRS works with partners Caritas Serbia and Philanthropy to implement the project.

Project partners in BiH include the Ministry of Security of BiH, the Federal and Cantonal Civil Protection Administration, the Republika Srpska Civil Protection Administration, Municipal Civil Protection Units, and the Red Cross.

Wide range of DRR activities

Employing a Community-Led Disaster Risk Management (CLDRM) approach, PREPS enabled local communities to identify disaster risks and define priorities within higher-level DRR planning and policymaking processes.

The project collaborated with towns and institutions through Disaster Risk Reduction Working Groups (DRRWGs) comprised of municipal representatives and local government officials, which prioritized community engagement and facilitated community‑level assessments.

To achieve its objectives, PREPS supported various activities, including simulation exercises, DRR awareness campaigns, small-scale mitigation projects, community-level assessments, revision of municipal DRR plans, improvement of early warning systems, and fostering collaboration among local communities, municipalities, and higher-level institutions.

Community action plans were tested in 13 emergency and disaster simulation drills involving 513 participants, while 327 municipal and local representatives received DRR training.

“All simulation exercises showed that the units responded much faster compared to the planned time, confirming the readiness of the protection and rescue units for a quick response,“ said Almir Zulić, project consultant and trainer.

Photo by Jusan Dovanovic for CRS

Through 54 small‑scale grants, local communities cleaned riverbanks and drainage canals, updated communication systems and firefighting equipment, as well as held training and demonstration exercises.

DRR is Not a Luxury, But a Necessity

The activities undertaken as part of the PREPS project have already begun to pay off.

In November 2022, when a severe fire broke out in Blidinje Nature Park in Jablanica, one of the municipalities participating in the PREPS project in BiH, local Civil Protection members promptly organized themselves to combat and control the fire until the municipal firefighting unit arrived 40 minutes later.

“The locals from the Doljani community knew what they had to do when the fire broke out and how to prevent it from spreading. They did 50% of the job before the firefighting unit arrived. They managed to keep the fire under control,“ stated a member of the DRR Working Group (DRRWG) from Jablanica.

The Civil Protection personnel were prepared to respond swiftly thanks to the firefighting training and equipment provided through the PREPS project. During the Capacity and Vulnerability Assessment (CVA), the local DRRWG identified an improved response to forest fires as a top DRR priority.

According to stakeholders, 85% believe that PREPS has increased their capacity to mitigate severe disaster consequences, while 87% anticipate the project will continue to have positive impacts even after its conclusion.

Recognizing the importance and benefits of DRR and encouraged by PREPS, many local communities have committed to continuing activities. For example, the town of Zavidovići announced future support for Community-Led Disaster Risk Management in nine non-participating local communities and allocation of additional funding for the Civil Protection unit in the 2023 municipal budget.