chapter  12
18 Pages

Responding to natural versus human- made disasters: lessons from Fiji

BySATISH CHAND

Introduction Disasters can be naturally induced or result from human actions, but under what circumstances might the latter be more damaging and why? What can be done to build community resilience to disasters? This chapter compares the economic effects of coups d’état with those of cyclones and droughts in Fiji to gauge the differing impact of human-made versus natural disasters, and the lessons for disaster relief and resilience-building emanating from the above. Our analysis using annual data from 1970 to 2009 shows that coups and cyclones have caused nearly the same level of losses in gross domestic product (GDP) in their immediate aftermath, but that the impact of the former lingers for years afterwards while that of the latter is not evident a year after the disaster. Investments in private dwelling construction rise in the year following a cyclone. In contrast, construction activity has remained subdued for decades following each of the four military coups, which occurred in 1987 (twice), 2000 and 2006. The lessons are many from a comparison between cyclones and coups d’état for disaster relief and resilience-building to disasters in communities prone to the above.1 Notwithstanding the impact of humans on the climate, communities can do little to avert a natural disaster such as a cyclone or a drought. Investments in disaster preparedness may be all that is possible; however, much can be done towards preventing the occurrence of human-made disasters. Building resilience of communities to conflict is one strategy, and the lending of prompt international assistance, including military assistance to restore law and order in the event of its breakdown in any locality, could be a complementary strategy. Local capacities are required for prompt response to disasters, be they natural or human-made. Absent such capacity, a natural disaster has the potential to trigger lawlessness, which in turn may exacerbate the impact of the natural disaster. Examples of this include the ransacking of shops in Ba, a town in north-west Fiji, following record floods in February 2009, and, in the United States, widespread looting and violence in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on 29 August 2005. A clear lesson emanating from the comparison of the impact on communities of human-made versus natural disasters in Fiji is that the first drives a wedge

between groups, while the second draws them together. This difference is observed given that neither of the types of disaster has struck together in any single year. The above is in contrast with the case of the economic effects of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March 2011. The earthquake and tsunami destroyed buildings and other physical structures that fell in its path. The effects of the natural disaster were compounded by the meltdown of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant belonging to the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO). The damaging effects of the nuclear disaster could outlast those from the earthquake and tsunami. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster is a case where the collapse of physical structures, in the form of the nuclear power plant, has exacerbated the impact of the natural disaster. It is thus impossible to separate the effect of the earthquake from that of the nuclear meltdown. Recovery from the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF ), are likely to be quick. The IMF estimates that real GDP for the calendar year 2011 will contract by 0.7 per cent after rising by 4 per cent in 2010, but forecasts growth of 2.9 per cent in 2012 (IMF 2011). The nuclear accident has eroded trust in the National Government, ‘whose reputation as a nuclear regulator has been battered by Fukushima’ (The Economist 2011a). This loss of trust and the ‘eroding [of] deference to authority’ following the nuclear disaster in Japan are consistent with the experiences following coups in Fiji (The Economist 2011b). Localized disasters such as floods and cyclones call for rapid, and often agile, and effective responses, particularly in cases where communications with the national capital are interrupted or broken. Resilience-building in disaster-prone communities may include investments in community organizations. In Fiji, traditional institutions such as village chiefs and religious groups have lent support during and in the aftermath of natural disasters. This could prove just as useful in helping build resilience to human-made disasters. A military coup d’état weakens the ‘political culture’ of a country (Finer et al. 2002); and the process of rebuilding civilian authority and restoring trust in constitutional procedures once they have been torn down by a coup d’état takes decades (Londregan and Poole 1990). The Fijian experience affirms the above and offers lessons on what could be done for resilience-building. This chapter will provide the settings and some of the stylized facts of the Fijian situation. It will also probe the methodology and the model to estimate the effects of human-made and natural disasters. Finally, it will draw the policy implications of the above.