chapter  1
14 Pages

Coping with disaster: agency and resilience in the Asia-Pacific context


In this book, we focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Considering the scale and diversity of the region, it would be ambitious, or rather controversial, to think of the ‘Asia Pacific’ as a political, social or cultural entity.2 We follow Hewitt’s notion of the ‘geographicalness’ of disasters, which interconnects geography or place with human actions and experiences (Hewitt 1997: 40-2). In climatologic, geologic and geopolitical terms, the various countries in the region do share a common characteristic: their exposure and vulnerability to disasters. A recent UN report found the Asia Pacific is the world’s most disaster-prone region. According to the report, between 1970 and 2011, the number of casualties caused by various disasters in the region was around two million, accounting for 75 per cent of the total global disaster death toll. In 2011 alone, the human losses caused by disasters in the region amounted to 80 per cent of the total disaster losses globally (UNESCAP and UNISDR 2012: xxi). This situation puts national and local governments, businesses, military institutions, civil society organizations and community groups – whether from more or less developed countries – on constant alert. Considering that the region accounts for more than half of the total number of disasters in the world, building capacity and resilience to mitigate the devastating impact of disasters is a pressing task for local actors. In the context of the UN ‘Roadmap to the implementation of the Millennium Declaration’ of 6 September 2001 and similar international initiatives, many lessons can be learned from how Asia-Pacific communities and states are adapting and responding to the massive effects of the casualties, material losses and social trauma caused by disasters.3 This volume contributes to the growing field of disaster management and community recovery processes in three different ways. First, we focus on the

interconnection between vulnerability and resilience. As Manyena (2006) has rightly argued, studies that address disasters predominantly in terms of hazards and risk reduction tend to decouple vulnerability from resilience, sometimes completely ignoring the latter. Our book, on the other hand, sees the nature and magnitude of disasters as influenced by social conditions, and aims to contribute to policies that prioritize ‘development opportunities to enhance resilience’ (Manyena 2006: 445). Resilience here refers to the human capacity ‘to withstand loss, the capacity to prevent a loss occurring in the first place, and the capacity to recover from a loss if it occurs’ (Buckle 2006: 91). The case studies in this volume (see Map 1) demonstrate that the Asia Pacific is not just an area that is most vulnerable to disaster, but also a region that shows considerable resilience at both the national and the local community levels. This volume’s focus on resilience is informed by, and contributes to, a growing body of literature discussing the theoretical and practical implications of social capital in post-disaster recovery. Social capital is a concept that has many definitions. Putnam (1995: 67) views it as ‘features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’. This implies that high levels of social capital are linked to proactive and resilient communities. The strength of solidarity networks and shared resources reflect the capacity of communities to organize, respond and recover when faced with disaster. In the absence of a proactive community, government public awareness efforts are unlikely to succeed in promoting community preparedness (Paton et al. 2006). Low levels of social capital and vulnerability to disasters are often attributed to high levels of social inequality and limited capacity for resilience and recovery. In a series of studies, including cases from the Asia Pacific, Aldrich (2010a, 2010b, 2011, 2012) highlights the important but double-edged role of social capital in disaster recovery processes. He points out that in the post-recovery process, rebuilding the social infrastructure of locally affected communities is more urgent than reconstructing physical infrastructure and assets. In the aftermath of a disaster, restoring social capital such as trust between residents and between local people and governments can significantly speed up the recovery process of the affected community (Aldrich 2010a, 2010b). Aldrich (2011) also cautions, however, that high levels of social capital concentration within certain privileged groups can negatively impact on disadvantaged groups with a relative lack of social capital, such as women and migrants. Other studies have illustrated how the resilience and post-disaster recovery processes of affected communities are influenced by the social and demographic contexts in which disasters occur (Berke and Beatley 1997; Neal 1997). For instance, people’s resilience in tornado-prone regions of the United States is partly determined by location, where urban areas, with greater institutional and infrastructure capacity, seem to be less vulnerable than rural areas (Cutter et al. 2010). In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) in New Orleans, lower-income residents found it difficult to access social institutions and collective networks needed for recovery (Chamlee-Wright 2010; Elliott et al. 2010).

The various cases in this volume confirm that the degree of vulnerability and resilience depends on the level and distribution of social capital in local communities. At the same time, various authors in our book demonstrate that in areas where state capacity for disaster relief is insufficient (see Bryant-Tokalau and Campbell, and Thornton et al.) and/or even the state itself is a source of disaster (see Rao), the existence of a proactive community at the local level is critical in disaster mitigation and recovery. Some of our cases show that even significantly vulnerable communities with unfavourable social and demographical backgrounds often demonstrate strong resilience and capacity to cope with disaster. In line with other studies on the impact of disasters in various spatial and socioeconomic contexts (Cutter et al. 2003; Cutter and Finch 2008), we argue that standardized approaches to recovery efforts are not effective and should be complemented or replaced with more localized approaches. Some of the existing studies (Aldrich 2012; Berke et al. 1993; Berke and Campanella 2006; McCreight 2010; Liu et al. 2011) rightly highlight the importance of social capital, community networks, and relationships and cooperation between local communities and outside groups, including governments, in building resilience and post-disaster recovery. This links to the second, innovative contribution of this book – namely, its focus on ‘agency’ as the key factor affecting resilience. The concept of agency here encompasses both the more general sociological notion of ‘the capacity to act in a given social structure’ (Berger 1995: 135-43) and the ideas and activities of specific actors or ‘agents’, such as government institutions, the military, civil society organizations, the media and community groups. The various studies in this volume seek to explore the complicated and multifaceted role of ‘agency’ in building resilience. The studies show that conflicts and miscommunication between different agents often undermine the resilience of affected communities and cause ineffective responses to disasters. At the same time, they also provide examples and recommendations of how constructive interaction and collaboration between various agents can foster and enhance resilience embedded in local cultural and social practices. In this respect, we specifically examine how ideas and activities derive from and impact on local society in times of crisis. The third contribution of this volume is its comparative framework for analysis and key findings from the Asia-Pacific region. Most of the policy recommendations and scholarly analyses in disaster management and subsequent community recovery processes are ‘lessons learnt from’ single disasters (for instance, Pulser 2007; Clarke et al. 2010; da Silva 2010; McGilvray and Gamburd 2010). The focus of these publications is on providing timely snapshots of disaster management and risk-mitigation processes, and the socioeconomic impact of particular events. A key concern in disaster management, however, is how different socio-cultural environments impact on the effect of disasters. To address this issue, Özerdem and Jacoby (2006) offer a comparative framework to evaluate the roles of state and civil society in earthquake relief in three different countries (Japan, Turkey and India). Our