Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Causes Disasters?

When you picture a disaster, what comes to mind? The Asian Tsunami? The Haitian Earthquake? Hurricane Katrina? What about the Syrian Civil War? Is it a disaster? Most people think of disasters in terms of the natural hazards that act as the trigger; earthquakes, cyclones, floods and tsunamis are some of the most widely perceived hazards. The prevalence of this outlook produces a myth of disasters as natural occurrences. This masks the fact that disasters occur due to complex social, political and economic choices and circumstances.

Certain cities, countries and regions are undeniably more exposed to natural hazards than others. Residents of New Zealand and Japan understand and accept the likelihood of earthquakes impacting on their lives, just as residents of the Philippines and Caribbean island nations understand and accept the likelihood of destructive typhoons/cyclones. In many cases, relocation away from a hazard is not a possibility.

However, not every individual or community or nation that faces a high likelihood of natural hazards occurring due to location is equally affected. Impact is determined by factors other than the strength or the frequency of the hazard.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have witnessed significant changes in every aspect of our society. Much is made of the "progress" of the human race since then. However, as much as the wealth and health generated has allowed our species to flourish, more people have been the victims of this progress than have been beneficiaries. Billions of people today suffer from hunger, thirst, poverty, discrimination, conflict and other injustice, often stemming directly from the "progress" of others.

Disasters are simply inevitable in this world of deep injustice, where the majority have been left behind (and in many cases left worse off) as the privileged few have moved ahead.


We can analyse people that have been left behind at different levels. Certain countries benefited greatly from colonisation and more recently, globalization. In both cases, the majority are left to serve the minority from a position of powerlessness. This translates into a widening divide between the rich and the poor. Rising inequality is not only a growing issue between countries, but between communities and classes in most nations. At the scale of the individual, personal characteristics and circumstances are key.

Right now, in 2016, it feels as though we are hurtling towards catastrophic collapse. From the refusal to take real action on climate change (and in many cases outright denial of the problem) to the power-grab by reactionary political elements, strengthened by public discontent with the neoliberal status quo. Rhetoric is becoming more divisive, more hateful, more intolerant.

Our finely tuned ecosystems are breaking down. The "progress" of the human race has resulted in great losses for all other life on earth. Our coral reefs are dying. Our oceans are being emptied. Our forests and jungles are being destroyed. Almost all agricultural diversity is being lost. Species are becoming extinct at 1000 times the background rate (without our influence). We treat everything (living and otherwise) on earth as a resource to be exploited for profit.

We are in the middle of a mass extinction and we carry on as if things have never been better. Hubris. Blissful ignorance. Dangerous delusion.


When I started on my research journey in this field, I wrongly assumed that the best I could do was discover how to manage disasters more efficiently, competently and sensitively. Of course, I quickly realised that this approach is based on a highly reactive ideology that does not offer real hope for reducing losses in the future, particularly in a world changing in the way that it is. To commit to only managing disasters seems to assume that we cannot do more.

My view is that we need to advocate for an approach based on a deeper understanding of and concern for the reasons why disasters happen, why people are vulnerable in the first place and what the human and non-human impacts of disasters are.

We must respond to the needs of our planet and all forms of life on it. We should not accept disasters as natural, or associated losses as an inevitable outcome. A disaster risk reduction approach is committed to addressing the socially constructed root causes of disasters. Scholarship in this field asserts that pre-existing vulnerability is always the main predictor of disaster impact, and efforts to reduce risk begin invariably with root causes rather than symptoms.

By finding ways to help people become less vulnerable, and opposing the political, economic and social norms that hold them back, it is still possible to envisage a world with less disasters.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Scientific Evidence: Generated today, ignored tomorrow

by Jason von Meding and Giuseppe Forino


Habitat III (The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development) in Quito, Ecuador, took place from 17-20 October. It brought together over 35,000 participants to discuss sustainability, inclusiveness, and resilience in cities. While the text was adopted at the UN General Assembly in September, Habitat III shifted the focus on to implementation.

Source: UN Habitat
Cities are very much a central theme of the 21st Century. In the next 30 years, explosive growth will occur, particularly in developing world’s urban centres. Our major problems, from climate change to increasing inequality can be addressed most rapidly by understanding and harnessing this trend. On the other hand, rapid growth in cities on the current trajectory will simply exacerbate the exploitation, marginalisation and deep rooted vulnerability that the most at risk sections of society face.

This largely unplanned growth of urban areas places limits on efforts to reduce risk, while creating additional problems with which future residents must contend. Habitat III is the latest UN-led conference that touts inclusivity of stakeholders, empowerment of minorities and a global consensus. The University of Newcastle is eager to be heard as part of the highly visible UN platform, participating in both the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and Habitat III.

At each global forum the latest research is presented and the evidence is drawn upon to chart a path forward. The question is, what happens after the photo-op, the press release, the new framework, the policy paper?

Role of Science in Providing Input and Shaping Awareness in Society


In the case of the ‘New Urban Agenda’, the scientific community continues to build upon the knowledge base in diverse disciplinary areas, contributing to our understanding of every aspect of urbanisation. We learn more and more about the problems we may face and the solutions that human innovation may offer.

What is also clear is that without considerable political will at the very top level, structural social and economic problems will persist and worsen. Meanwhile, the environmental impact of accelerating growth in urban areas is likely to be dire. Without a clear and feasible mitigation strategy, it could be catastrophic.

The scientific community is at the forefront of identifying and helping us understand important issues in society that must be responded to. We cannot ignore the impact of economic and political decisions on the most vulnerable, even when pursued for the greater good of building ‘resilient cities'; for example through gentrification; land grabbing, displacement and genocide; growth of unplanned settlements without tenure, health or safety issues; environmental degradation.

Besides telling us what the problems are, science should champion progressive change. We have become accustomed to celebrating new technologies, better policy recommendations and more efficient management process and frameworks to follow. In the meantime, risk among the most vulnerable multiplies and we avoid the uncomfortable truth that our solutions do not help everyone. We try to depoliticise disasters.

There are numerous barriers that prevent the scientific community from achieving maximum impact in society. Research funding often comes with strings attached. Universities and research institutes - consciously or not - play the neoliberal game and scholars are herded towards projects that have a financial imperative. Research much fit with the government agenda.

The relationship between science and the media is often unhealthy. This can be as much about scholars under pressure to perform as about journalists looking for a story. The 24-hour media cycle and now a truly global platform means that the unique and sensational sells.

The scientific community often fails to communicate its ideas clearly to the public. In some areas of research, virtually nothing is understood by the public and in others, widely held myths are not challenged often enough to be displaced. In the absence of a simple explanation, anyone can write almost anything they like and sound informed.

Has Science been Stifled by the ‘International Community’?


All of us read and use policy documents produced and promoted by international organizations for disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and climate change agendas. We know that often their contents and outcomes can be widely criticised, they are nevertheless useful as a background to develop our ideas.

While 2015 was marked by significant global agreements in Sendai, New York and Paris, very little was demanded in terms of accountability for the failures of previous agreements to curb our excesses, slow environmental destruction and protect the most vulnerable. Of course, there are many success stories of the previous decades, but to continually focus on these alone is somewhat disingenuous. Who is responsible for failures in implementation? Of course, most negotiators are able to say, ‘the previous government!’

Each of the ultimately non-binding pacts is highly aspirational and difficult to implement, with much left open for interpretation. Often they leave a sense of vagueness and incompleteness, failing to address the systemic root causes of today’s problems, choosing rather to rely on a particular kind of science which limits analysis at the present without understanding how communities, places and society evolve through their particular history in their capabilities, trajectories, and disadvantages.

A watering down of each agenda at the negotiation table was a far cry from where each dialogue began, often with the close input of the scientific community. In the end, it is not necessarily scientific evidence that shapes the final document but the agenda of national negotiators (and of course their corporate partners).

We end up wondering whether the knowledge being generated for these events really does anything beyond legitimising the status quo? If our calls for radical change in economic and development imperatives are ignored or compromised, it is difficult to see how our diligent engagement actually prevents in any way the continued marginalization of already disempowered people around the world, by the economic system that is backed by the UN itself.

Implementation and Political Will


Why are the best and most revolutionary ideas ‘not feasible’ when it comes to implementation? Often it is because a powerful interest would be left worse off. In global negotiations, much has been said about the lobbying power of the United States to veto any proposal. This was certainly the case in 2015, when much of the fine tuning was done by the US teams.

In addition, we observe a narrow scope of acceptable policy and practice. Rarely do bureaucrats discuss root causes of poverty, or hunger, or disaster risk, much less ways to solve such pressing issues. We are told to believe in the ‘invisible hand’. We are sold PPP’s and re-insurance and free trade agreements.

The most celebrated science at these forums does not rock the boat. Rather, it aligns perfectly with a religiously neoliberal worldview, and the government bodies, NGOs, philanthropic organisations and (sometimes discretely) the corporations that call themselves the ‘international community.’ Furthermore, science that cannot be monetised is sadly not a high priority. This is leading to an increasingly corporatised UN conference circuit.

In the implementation of the agreements on climate change, sustainable development disaster risk reduction and cities, there is little pressure to implement progressive change because what that looks like is not widely understood. The public often do not know whether their leaders are taking action based on evidence or not. They do not understand the science, the historical context or the hidden agendas. The media is generally committed only to reinforcing pre-conceptions among its viewers, listeners and readers. This destructive cycle fosters both ignorance and misunderstanding about science.

We cannot blame only the lobby groups and the private interests and the powerful states for the lack of real change. We must reflect on the failure of the scientific community to force the hand of politicians through watertight evidence, communicated not only at UN conferences but to the public in a way that they can understand. Some scientists are not asking the right questions, but many are and do not communicate effectively. Politicians more often than not bow to public pressure, and one way that we can stimulate transformation is through knowledge. Only under intense pressure will there ever be any ‘political will’ to change.
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