Posts Tagged ‘Disaster’

The Making of Disaster

June 16, 2009

“This week we’ve all been humbled by the awesome powers of Mother Nature”, George W Bush – 3 September 2005… “Today, America is confronting another disaster that has caused destruction and loss of life. This time the devastation resulted not from the malice of evil men, but from the fury of water and wind”, George W Bush – 10 September 2005.

One wonders whether Bush was acquainted with National Geographic Society’s 1986 publication ‘Nature On The Rampage: Our Violent Earth’, or whether he was being advised by lawyers versed in the common legal term ‘Act of God’.

These ‘natural disaster’ narratives share in their view an uncontrollable nature, sometimes even alluding to the divine, as the primary cause of disaster. They minimise, or even exclude, the role of human agency as a central determinant of vulnerability to natural hazards, and thus causal factor in the making of disasters.

The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)’s Emergency Events Database, in collaboration with USAID, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and UNDP amongst others, define a disaster as a (national) event which satisfies at least one of the following criteria:

  1. Ten or more people are reported killed
  2. One hundred people are reported affected
  3. A declaration of a state of emergency is made
  4. A call for international assistance is made

A little thought about these criteria reveals two components essential to an insightful conception of ‘natural’ disaster, and disaster risk. On the one hand there is no doubt that aspects of the natural hazard, such as frequency and magnitude, play a crucial part in determining the severity of a disaster. But on the other hand, the criteria of disaster can only be satisfied subject to particular patterns of human geography, demography, society and economy: Most clearly, people are only killed if they are present in or near the hazard impact zone at the time of the impact and are unable to protect themselves. Furthermore that people are affected by a hazard impact (defined as needing immediate assistance) reflects a failure in their preventive and mitigation efforts and a breach in their coping capacity. A call for international assistance reflects these same failures and limitations at a national level.

A further two perspectives on hazards can be contrasted. ‘Environmental determinism’, popular in theory until the late 1970s. takes into account human patterns in hazard assessments, but does this with a serious air of inevitability. The immanent behemoths of industrialisation, urbanisation, population growth and natural resource degradation are factored into models of risk, alongside spatial and temporal aspects of natural hazards. This, in its time, created an arena for heated debate between the triumphalism of modernisation theory and catastrophism of neo-Malthusianism and environmentalism. Surprisingly the deterministic, apolitical aspects of this perspective endured in practice well into the mid 1990s, halfway through the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

It has only been in the last  fifteen or so years that political economy and political ecology ideas first introduced in the late 1970s have played an increasingly central role in the way we understand the making of disasters. This ‘politico-centric’ perspective strives to identify root political determinants of the geographic, social and economic causes of disaster. Put an other way, the causes of vulnerability are finally being considered and addressed in disaster reduction strategy.

In terms of policy, this ‘politico-centric’ perspective aligns disaster prevention and risk reduction with the broader human development efforts. At the micro-level, NGOs and centres traditionally working on disaster prevention have increasingly been using sustainable livelihood approaches to help strengthen local capabilities, while at the macro level, the research literature exploring the relationship between the political economy of development and vulnerability to natural hazards is expanding.

Further Reading:

  • Wisner et al., ‘At Risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters (Second Edition)’, 2004 – An introduction to the ‘politico-centric’ perspective and sustainable livelihood approaches to micro-level vulnerability reduction
  • Asian Disaster Preparedness Center – Community-based programmes amongst other projects
  • Khan, M., ‘The death toll from natural disasters: the role of income, geography, and institutions’, Review of Economics and Statistics, 87(2): 271-284, 2005 – Macro econometric study