Disaster project management - these skills are required for a project manager

We know that a disaster is a sudden, devastating event that significantly disrupts the functioning of a community or society, causing human, material, economic or environmental losses and further crises. Disasters exceed the capacity of society to cope with them using its own resources. Although disasters are often caused by nature, they can also have human causes, such as poor construction or poorly used technology.
Three firefighters extinguish a strong fire
We are aware that an experienced project manager can only work in such difficult situations if he has skills that are needed in that particular situation. A holistic approach, including both proactive and reactive strategies, can be applied in managing the impact of crises and supporting affected areas in both rural and urban settings. This also means that a project manager must be able to transfer his theoretical knowledge into practice. I am sharing in this article my experiences over the last three years with the ongoing floods and massive landslides in Kerala. Not only many people but also many animals lost their lives. Especially in my home state of Kerala, the floods led to the destruction of many livelihoods and the loss of crops.

Detailed case study and identification of the specific problem

In my opinion, and based on my personal experience with standard project management approaches, a project manager needs to rethink and adopt more collaborative and innovative approaches to implement humanitarian aid projects. This is especially true where the disaster has occurred. A project manager should know the detailed topographical information about the affected area and the communities living there. He should interact with the local authorities and conduct a rough situation analysis. After an initial analysis, the project manager can conduct a detailed situation analysis and prepare a report with all the information collected, similar to a project business case. If a project manager starts the project without having gathered information first, then the project will be delayed or it will fail.

Effective use of planning and implementation

As with conventional project planning, a project manager must plan accordingly for disaster relief projects. He must take into account the rapidly changing environment and include situational analysis. He must always plan on the basis of the local availability of commodities. This aspect plays a central role, especially in remote rural areas. A project manager can use different concepts, i.e. he can define the project objectives, describe results and activities, risks and assumptions, indicators and means of verification, introduce logical frameworks and write the project documents. A plan is necessary for action, funding and communication. In humanitarian crisis, planning should be based on a result-based management (RBM) style for getting better results.

Efficient use of the budget and cash flow management plan

When implementing disaster relief projects, the financial resources for the NGO come from different sources, for example donations from different countries or support from the government. This means that the project manager has to use these funds even more efficiently than in projects with other supporters. The project manager should clearly allocate the funds needed after consultation with all stakeholders involved in the project. The project manager must closely monitor the utilisation of funds with NGOs. More experienced project managers can prepare a cash flow management plan to deliver the project within budget, as overspending is not sustainable. Think carefully about what the actual needs are. Here, the work breakdown structure (WBS) should be implemented in a minimalist manner. This means that primary and emergency items, so to say, the most important and urgent items, such as water, food, clothing and shelter, are implemented.  A step-by-step plan with all integrated tools is needed to use the budget as planned.

Project manager will be a leader and a teacher

Yes, in disaster project management, in addition to being a leader, a project manager should also be a teacher and a good listener. Since a project manager is always working with the local people, he must understand the challenge and be able to integrate it into the project canvas. In areas in need of humanitarian support, a project manager must not only have his milestones in mind, but also the plight of the people affected in order to stabilise them. In addition, a project manager must work with local NGOs, the government and other aid organisations.

Skills for resource identification and their effective utilization

One of the most important skills of a project manager is the effective use of resources and the identification of resources according to his prepared plan. In times of crisis, the most difficult task is to use the materials and manpower on site instead of relying on external resources. The project manager must use local staff for project implementation and use existing (rural) machinery. He must not rely on external resources, as it may take a long time to provide them.

Think of the minimum requirements during execution

A project manager must think of the actual requirements of the people concerned and meet them rather than wasting the budget. For example, those who need a shelter, it's better to plan and build a small tent rather than a large building. Also think about future disasters if the site is in a prone area! This way we can avoid major disruptions in the future if a disaster does occur. Prepare an emergency plan for the next three to six major disasters - prevention is better than cure!
About the author: Mahesh EV is a project manager with more than 11 years of practical experience and the Senior Official of the IAPM in the metropolitan regions of New Delhi, Trivandrum and Calicut, India. Mahesh's implementation of many procurement and construction projects has broadened his experience. He has demonstrated his skills in the successful planning and execution of several projects, such as thermal power plants and renewable energy projects across India – from kick-off to handover of the plant.
He is a member and volunteer of various international bodies like Axelos-UK, affiliated member in OCRM-UK and he is a content writer for the IAPM Network in East Java (Indonesia).

Key words: Project management, Crisis Management, Guide

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