Responding to disasters in the Asia- Pacific region: state and civil society relationships
Analysing disasters So far I have written of disasters chiefly in terms of media visibility and memory, both of them poor criteria for systematic analysis. ‘Disasters’ are events that have as their basis a natural or human-induced cataclysm of some sort (typically an earthquake, flood or cyclone, but the catalysts may include climatological, biological or socio-political events, such as droughts, epidemics, political coups or economic crises), and that wreak damage on human communities of such an extensive scale as to disrupt everyday life significantly for a considerable period. Trying to quantify these criteria is commonly done, and may have some utility as a device to trigger disaster-relief efforts for governments and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but is ultimately arbitrary and
contested. My primary concern is rather with the connection between the natural and the social dimensions of disaster: preparedness, relief and reconstruction. As David Alexander (1997: 289) noted in his review of 20 years of scholarly literature on disasters, ‘there has been an increasing tendency to regard disasters as caused more by the social conditions they affect than by the geophysical agents that precipitate them’. Consequently, we should ask whether a preoccupation with the ‘natural’ – and, on my rudimentary scale, ‘newsworthy’ – dimensions of disasters obscures the rapid social changes that are taking place within the Asia-Pacific region, and which may themselves be important ingredients in the recipe for disasters. Disasters may begin precipitously, but their gestation is a work of considerable time. They impact not only on the physical and social infrastructure, but also on economic development and health and welfare. The scale of a disaster is not captured adequately by Richter-scale measures alone, or wave heights, or numbers of dead, or dollars spent in relief and reconstruction. We should also consider, for example, the extent of slums and the availability of clean water. In this connection, the growth of urbanization in the Asia Pacific – at 29 per cent over the past two decades, more rapid than any other region (UNESCAP 2011: 7-9) – is one of its greatest social challenges; in many places, it is an invitation to disaster. Analysing the social dimensions of disasters has an estimable tradition. The problem of ‘vulnerability’ of human communities that ties a natural or anthropogenic cataclysm to a disaster outcome has been a part of the discussion since at least the 1980s (Hewitt 1983). ‘Vulnerability’ has been defined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR 2005: 1) as ‘the conditions determined by physical, social, economic, and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impacts of hazards’. To understand disasters better, this approach recommends that we should look to the social causes and effects of disasters, and especially at which sectors of the affected communities shoulder how much of the burden. This aspect was emphasized in the work of Piers Blaikie et al. (1994), and it resonates as we look at the effects and aftermath of numerous disasters where poor, ethnic minorities and the very young or very old are disproportionately the victims. It brings the analysis of disasters squarely within the realm of the social sciences. Alexander (1997: 292) developed a sixfold typology of ‘vulnerability’, which usefully reveals how different social factors affect the outcomes of a potentially disastrous natural incident. On his account, vulnerability is related to the social location (‘rich’, ‘marginal’ and ‘poor’) of those impacted by a natural incident, or the physical location of property and capital assets in proximity to natural hazards, or the subversion or poor observance of safety standards, such as building codes. Addressing the issues raised by ‘vulnerability’ informs a related debate on managing exposure to the risk of disasters. Traditional responses were conceived primarily in terms of protection – for example, protecting infrastructure by providing barriers to bushfires and floods. Bankoff (2006) has argued that with the rise of a ‘vulnerability’ approach,
the dominance previously accorded technological interventions that stress predicting hazard or modifying its impact have increasingly been called into question by an alternative approach that seeks to combine the risk which people and communities are exposed to with their abilities to cope with its consequences.