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Thalia Balkaran: Working to Protect Children in the Caribbean From Disasters

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Columbia Climate School, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

thalia balkaran headshot
Thalia Balkaran is a postdoctoral researcher. She is working at Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness on the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative. Her research will emphasize building child-focused resilience in post-disaster settings in the Caribbean.

When Thalia Balkaran was growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, her family could survive the hottest parts of the day using just a standing fan; nowadays, air conditioning is almost a necessity. Through her experience of carrying out research at the University of the West Indies and work on projects across the Caribbean region, Balkaran has interacted with locals in varying communities who have witnessed other changes over the years, including increased coastal erosion and rising sea levels. And although there have always been hurricanes, people perceive that the storms are becoming increasingly severe and more frequent.

Climate change is increasingly endangering people around the world, and Balkaran wants to help communities prepare for the worst. During a two-year postdoc position at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, she will lead the charge on bringing a community resilience program to the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. She will focus specifically on disaster preparedness among the institutions that care for children, one of the most vulnerable groups during a disaster.

In an interview with State of the Planet, Balkaran explained how she plans to help increase children’s resilience in the face of disasters. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What are the main goals of your research?

We’ll be looking at childcare centers, schools, emergency shelters, family childcare homes, foster care, hospitals, as well as other organizations that serve children, and understanding what plans they have in place to deal with disasters. For example, children spend a lot of time at school. If a disaster such as an earthquake were to happen during the day, is there a plan in place to deal with this? Is there a plan to reunite children with parents? My work is looking at the various organizations that serve children and helping them understand how they could better prepare for disaster events and create a resilient system.

Frameworks for disaster planning and response are usually generated at a global and national level. This means that communities and stakeholders who respond to disasters tend to have limited input, and they may not have the tools and information they need to plan and respond properly.

In order to deal with this problem, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness here at Columbia University designed the Resilient Children/Resilience Communities (RCRC) initiative to focus on building child-focused resilience from a community perspective. It brings child-serving institutions into the conversation, linking different organizations that are intertwined and letting them discuss their relevant roles and responsibilities. This places disaster management on the local level and allows implementation of strategies to improve the community’s ability to meet children’s needs in a disaster.

The RCRC initiative has been applied to four counties across New York, Arkansas and North Carolina, and in locations in Puerto Rico. The aim of my research is to take the project and apply it to the Caribbean context in Dominica.

Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean are exposed to hurricanes, earthquakes, and many other disasters. But one of the most devastating events occurred in 2017 with Hurricane Maria, which affected the island severely. It is estimated that 90 percent of the buildings were damaged. Increasing climate resilience is a key aim for Dominica, and this initiative fits into that goal.

thalia balkaran interviewing Alvin Douglas
For her PhD thesis, Balkaran examined the impact of hurricanes on tourism livelihoods in Tobago and Jamaica. Here she is interviewing a diving stakeholder, Alvin Douglas of Frontier Divers in Tobago, as part of her research. Photo courtesy Thalia Balkaran

What challenges do you face in this work?

The greatest challenge so far has been editing the RCRC instrument for a small island context. It uses a community preparedness index, which is an assessment tool, a questionnaire that helps us to understand how well children within a community are cared for when disasters occur. However, the structure and organization of disaster management differs in the small islands of the Caribbean, therefore not every part of the questionnaire will apply to Dominica.

To get over this hurdle, I intend to interview key local stakeholders that can guide me in editing the instrument to fit the context of a small island. They can tell me, “OK, this applies to the community, but we don’t have this.” Or there might be some aspect in their community that’s not captured in the questionnaire that I need to include.

What are your next steps?

I am currently in the planning phases, but it is my intention to focus on the Kalinago territory, an Indigenous community on the island that was particularly affected by Hurricane Maria. I had initial talks with the chief of the Kalinago and he has given his approval for the project.

Once I have adapted the community preparedness index, we can apply it to evaluate how well the community is prepared to deal with disasters, and where there are gaps. That gives us a baseline score. Then, after training from the RCRC initiative, which involves helping these organizations understand how to better respond to the needs of children, we apply the index again and there should be a higher score, which means a better level of preparedness.

My plan for the first year is to understand what is going on in the community and hopefully by the end of this year, be able to go there and do some training.

How would you say your work contributes to a sustainable tomorrow (the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day)?

Disasters and sustainability are intertwined. My research contributes to the theme of a sustainable tomorrow by contributing to several Sustainable Development Goals. These global goals, spearheaded by the United Nations, are a blueprint for achieving sustainable development. One aim of the RCRC Initiative is to lessen the time that children spend away from school after a disaster in order to resume normal educational activity. This will help in contributing to Goal 4, which is focused on quality education. Under Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, one of the main targets is reducing the number of deaths and persons affected by disasters as well as focusing on persons in vulnerable situations; by placing emphasis on children in areas previously affected by disaster events, this research aids in contributing to Goal 11. Under Goal 13 (Climate Action), one of the targets is promoting the capacity for effective climate-change related planning and movement in small island developing states with an emphasis on youth and marginal communities — by focusing on children in Dominica, this research helps contribute to Goal 13. The measures implemented for disaster risk reduction for the RCRC Initiative as it relates to children also contribute to climate-change related planning since climate change is expected to affect the intensity and frequency of climate-related disaster events.

How do you find meaning in your work?

As a female researcher representing the small islands of the Caribbean, I have the opportunity to champion the cause of island states and highlight their unique needs and vulnerabilities.

It has always been important for me to use the education and knowledge I have gained to enact real-world change. I am particularly passionate about issues surrounding climate change, disasters and small islands. I have always found it important to use research to aid vulnerable groups and disadvantaged populations, who tend to be disproportionately affected by disaster events. It is this desire that motivates me to continue research within the disaster field.

Contributing to the resilience-building process helps me to find real meaning and purpose in my work. With climate change, we know that the next major storm is brewing; to be able to help people and organizations that serve children to be better prepared for the next event — that is something that is fulfilling.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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