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.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

What’s new in Italy? Some notes on this October seismic swarm

Before starting: 
While I was writing today this piece about the Italian earthquake on 26th October, a new earthquake occurred in the same areas (Preci, Norcia, Ussita, Arquata del Tronto). Much information is yet to be confirmed. Some important pieces of cultural heritage, such as the Basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia, have collapsed. Places affected by the previous earthquakes in August and few days ago have been hit as well. The magnitude has to be confirmed at 6.5-6.6. It seems that some villages are isolated and at least three people have been rescued under collapsed buildings. No reported victims. All to be confirmed and updated in the next hours.

The seismic swarm on 26th October

A seismic swarm occurred on the 26th October in the Valnerina area (Umbria region) and in part of the Macerata province (Marche region). The list of affected places is long, including: Visso, Ussita, Camerino, Cingoli, Matelica, Norcia, San Severino Marche, Tolentino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera. These areas are just a few kilometres far away from Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, hit on 24th August by an earthquake which caused 291 deaths, hundreds of injured and thousands of evacuees. The environment is similar: settlements with centuries (in some cases one millennium) of history placed on, or perched upon, hills and mountains in the astonishing landscapes of Central Apennines. The social structure is similar, with villages usually host to a few hundred inhabitants with an elderly demography. The loss of centuries of settlements, history, cultural heritage, and human-environment relationships represents again an unfathomable loss for Italy and the world.

The collapsed Basilica of San Benedetto, Norcia, this morning. Source: Twitter
While damage has been severe, there was just one reported victim (a 73 years old man due to heart attack); few were severely injured, and rescues from collapsed buildings were not necessary. This appears to be because when the first quake of 5.4M occurred, people that were already worried after the earthquake in August were able to evacuate to safer areas, so they were safe when the strongest swarm of 5.9M occurred. The earthquake was felt in Rome, where people left their houses going into the streets; in L’Aquila, which is still recovering (and will do for decades) from the earthquake in 2009; as well as in Amatrice and closer areas, where other buildings collapsed. Approximately 4000 people have evacuated, in addition to the other 3500 evacuees after the earthquake on 24th August.

It would appear that the destruction of settlements is a sufficient, but not necessary condition, to draw attention by politics, media and general audience (but I have to admit, also by scholars). The smell of victims’ blood is necessary, together with the dust on the face of rescuers awake for 48 hours (better if helped by some rescuers dogs) in order to bring politicians in the affected areas doing portraits of themselves while hugging affected people, or press and television doing interviews or filming ruins, better with a heartbreaking soundtrack on the background. Easily touching our intimate nature as voyeurs, these kind of story are something widely and rapidly shared. Conversely, a part of two initial and “emotional” days, politics, media, and press very poorly covered this October event. Being not at a catastrophic level, it can therefore be declassified as a routine into Italian life and institutions. However, this earthquake is important like any other Italian earthquake. It serves to confirm the usual trends, to reject common and established narratives given, and to add hidden perspectives which are now urgent, as very briefly presented below.

A damaged building in Visso (Macerata province), 26th October 2016. Source: RT

Confirming the perennial emergency

When a disaster happens (flood or earthquake, does not matter) in Italy, we should always wonder what has been done in the past. For example, it is acknowledged that these areas have a great exposure to seismic hazards. Seismologists recognized that seismic faults are very active in these months, so preparedness is an important phase to be understood. Therefore, efforts should have been done immediately at least for improving preparedness among communities and institutions, for updating and sharing (when present) emergency plans, for assessing their usefulness, for improving the collaboration between City Councils and communities and between different levels of government. For the longer term, critical conditions in terms of buildings and slope stability (there have been some landslides) should have been monitored, assessed, and solutions implemented. However, it seems we live in a perennial emergency, whether an earthquake, a flood, or an induced “waste crisis”. Discussions start just after an emergency, Twitter becomes inundated of hashtags, the news occupy pages of media and of political talks for two weeks, the “state of emergency” is proclaimed for years deviating from normal administrative and transparent operations; then, all sink into oblivion until the next tragedy. Great part of politics and media stopped talking about Amatrice and other areas after three weeks, leaving those places alone and the affected communities with lasting physical and social disruption.

New bottles, old wine: confirming same problems

When an earthquake happens in Italy, the immediate reaction is to point the finger to the protection of cultural heritage. In my previous intervention on this blog after the earthquake in August, I tried to explain why reducing seismic risk is not just a question of safeguarding cultural heritage, but recalls questions of political commitment, risk perception, necessity of clearer focus by institutions, collaboration with local communities, and improvement of the everyday life of these places with jobs, basic and public services, transport, environmental protection. In this way, it is time to draw attention to the astonishing problem Italy has in terms of safety in public buildings.


Some hospitals have been evacuated few days ago, as in Cingoli, Matelica, Tolentino, and Norcia. Meanwhile, some patients from some Extended Care Units have been moved to other units. In 2009, in L’Aquila, the San Salvatore hospital, opened since 2000, was severely damaged and patients were evacuated. The same happened in some hospitals in Emilia. This serves to confirm the shameful conditions of the public healthcare system.

Students’ accommodations

Among the others, the historical centre of Camerino has been evacuated. Camerino is a small town of around 7000 people hosting one of the oldest universities in Europe (since 1366), and thousands of students from around Italy. Within the historical centre, most of the students lived in rented apartments, therefore leading to ask how owners prevent harm to students which often move into town with a low/nil perception of risk and sometime have to cope with financial constraints. Questions also arise about whether a public institution such as a university (University of Camerino in this case, but we can easily extend to most of the Italian universities) cares about the quality of the accommodations and the related wellbeing provided for their students, which also largely contribute to the local economy. In this case, we have to remember that one of the students’ accommodations provided by the University of L’Aquila, a post-war multi-floor building so-called Casa dello Studente, collapsed in 2009, and 8 students perished. Again, nothing new in this case.

Schools and university buildings

A damage assessment in the area is ongoing for school buildings, and schools’ operations are suspended. This is a very sensitive issue, as in past earthquakes several schools and university buildings sustained severe damages. Recalling recent episodes, in the Abruzzi region after the L'Aquila earthquake dozens of schools were considered unsafe for occupancy and moved into temporary school shelters called MUSPs (Moduli ad Uso Scolastico Provvisorio), still on the ground and hosting thousands of students. Also the University of L’Aquila buildings were severely damaged and operated for years out of temporary solutions such as industrial hangars. In Emilia and Lombardy regions, in 2012, dozens of schools were severely damaged. In Molise (31st October 2002, rightly 14 years ago), 28 out of the total 30 victims were in San Giuliano di Puglia (1000 inhabitants), where the rooftop of the primary school collapsed because of the earthquake killing 27 kids and one teacher. Last August, a wing of the primary school in Amatrice collapsed, among the others.

The collapsed school in Amatrice. Source
While some overlaps existing between cultural heritage and public buildings exists in Italy, we should therefore include in our discussions also which kind of public services are provided, and how.

Rejecting the mantra of a generalizable reconstruction model

Some of the aforementioned villages (e.g., Visso, Ussita, Preci, Camerino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera) were already affected by the earthquake in Umbria and Marche regions on September 1997, which left 11 victims and severe damages to important cultural heritage such as the Basilica of San Francis in Assisi, one of the most important sites for catholic religion and pilgrims. Therefore, important questions arise relating to whether these collapsed buildings benefited of reconstruction funds after 1997; who assessed and monitored the reconstruction process; how it has been done; and, therefore, how reconstruction funds allocated to “build back better” were really used.

A serious investigation must eventually reject the toxic narrative of the post-disaster reconstruction in Umbria and Marche (1997) regions as a successful and exportable “model” to be applied in other affected areas. The mantra of a generic -and generalizable- reconstruction model is still in fact a commonly accepted discourse in Italy (but not limited to it). Particularly, after the earthquake in Amatrice, the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi appointed the former President of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Vasco Errani, as Commissario per la Ricostruzione, a sort of Director appointed for managing the reconstruction process. Renzi choose Vasco Errani as he was called for the same appointment after the earthquake in Emilia-Romagna in May 2012. Strong criticisms remain on his outcomes in the region (Pitzalis, 2016), while some (like me) consider this appointment as purely an opportunity to give political office to a party member. Nevertheless, the Italian government justified this appointment, claiming that Errani was successful and effective in managing reconstruction and therefore is the “right man” for exporting the “Emilia reconstruction model” in Amatrice and surrounding areas. However, longstanding evidences from scientific literature report that reconstruction models never find application, and when these models are forcibly implemented in an affected area can contribute to worsen the existing conditions (Lizarralde et al., 2010).

In Italy, the complexity of politics and of governance structures strongly affects the reconstruction process, which therefore depends on a vast range of factors, such as the “political use” of earthquake and reconstruction by central governments (as during the Berlusconi mandate after L’Aquila earthquake, 2009); the role assigned to regional governments (after the earthquakes in Friuli, 1976; Umbria and Marche, 1997; and Emilia, 2012); the relations between central and regional governments (after the earthquakes in Friuli, 1976; and Molise, 2002), between politics and science (again in L’Aquila, see for example Alexander, 2014), and between politics and powerful corrupted elites (as after the Campania and Basilicata earthquake, 1980). It is also worthwhile noting that contextual factors at the local level are decisive in addressing reconstruction and its timeframe, such as the characteristics of the built environment (not just of cultural heritage, but also of post-war and recent buildings); the capacity of the affected communities to claim and enforce their will and rights; the skills, knowledge, and capacities by local institutions (e.g., Mayor and City Councils) in managing emergency, disasters, and related risk reduction. All these variables strictly interact and shape governance, resource management, interactions. All have to be evaluated case by case, Municipality by Municipality, sometime neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and therefore do not allow to generalize the successfulness -or not- of a post-earthquake reconstruction.

Adding something new: an “emerging” problem in prisons’ safety?

An emerging problem is related to prisons and should require immediate attention not just in Italy, and came on my mind after reading this article, unfortunately in Italian. The earthquake severely damaged the prison of Camerino. Detainees were moved to Rome, while three correction officers were injured. This represents a very sensitive issue as it proves how a social system contributes to the creation of individual and collective vulnerabilities, as detainees have not freedom of movement and are constrained into their cells in case of danger or when a hazard occurs. It also represents an institutional vulnerability as the governance structure of the prison system in Italy did not go through deep reflections on how to ensure safety for detainees requiring assistance in case of hazards. This is not the first time, as for example some prisons were evacuated after the earthquake in Emilia. 

Furthermore, a very interesting witness is that of an ex-detainee in Poggioreale, the prison of Naples. He told that during the earthquake in 1980 (still the strongest and costliest earthquake in Southern Europe since 1980, 3000 victims in total, 53 victims in Naples due to a collapsed building), detainees were left into their cells as “trapped mice” while all the panicked guards left the structure. Of course, this occured 36 years ago; however, the issue of seismic risk for prison never emerged in Italy and only recently have some contributions been provided into literature (Gaillard and Navizet, 2012). The problem seems to be that no specific guidelines exist and all is left to the prison director, who has to provide safety measures for personnel and detainees, simultaneously minimizing the flight risk. Therefore, the option of opening cells is often impracticable.

It is certainly worth questioning the usefulness of jail detention for some kinds of crimes. In any case, detainees have the right to know the risks of the place and of the building, and to be put in conditions that keep them safe. Italian prisons have longstanding problems of overcrowding and of lack of basic human rights in terms of healthcare, hygiene, privacy, gender and sex disparities. The context, therefore, already reproduces vulnerability per se, for example in terms of mental health or heat- or vector-related illness. In this way, the issue of seismic risk may appear as naïve; however, it is necessary that a reflection starts now and involves decision-makers, military and civil personnel, and detainees in understanding risks and enacting adequate preparedness measures.


While the earthquake on 26th October luckily reported just one victim, it confirmed existing problems in the built environment, including the quality of public buildings. It also rejects the existence of a generic reconstruction model to be applied without considering very context-specific and local variables. It may also add a perspective, such as that of addressing the seismic risk reduction as a right of detainees, which have been underrated by now, but should find more space in scientific and public debate. Once again, these issues have to be discussed and stressed in "peace time", and not following the (genuine, but very often rhetorical) emotional mood  on social media or the political propaganda in the aftermath of a disaster. These issues have to be part of our everyday life, and should be improved through the individual and community everyday life, particularly of those which our social system make vulnerable, for a vast range of reasons.   

PS; I have to thank very much those Italian scholars with which I exchange ideas, impressions, and news about disasters and risks in Italy.  


Alexander, D. E. (2014). Communicating earthquake risk to the public: the trial of the “L’Aquila Seven”. Natural Hazards, 72(2), 1159-1173.

Gaillard, J. C., & Navizet, F. (2012). Prisons, prisoners and disaster. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 1, 33-43.

Lizarralde, G., Johnson, C., & Davidson, C. (Eds.). (2009). Rebuilding after disasters: From emergency to sustainability. Routledge.

Pitzalis, S., 2016, Politiche del disastro. Poteri e contropoteri nel terremoto emiliano, Ombre Corte.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Flood Disaster in Central Vietnam: The Need to Involve Experts

by Chinh Luu and Jason von Meding

From 12-15 October, 2016, Central Vietnam faced an all too common occurance - disastrous flooding. While meteorologists are not surprised by the intense 2016 monsoon season due to the El Niño phenomenon and warmer Pacific water temperatures, the impacted provinces from Ha Tinh to Thua Thien Hue are some of the most vulnerable in Vietnam. As is often the case, the root causes of this disaster have been overlooked.

In some areas in Quang Binh, total rainfall reached over 900mm in 3 days. Torrential rain led to rivers overflowing their banks. Flooding in mountainous areas caused landslides and across the region, roads were destroyed and residential areas were devastated. 

Ho Chi Minh Trail underwater (Source:
According to a report by the Department of Natural Disaster Prevention and Control (national level), the main impact of the floods included 34 deaths, over 100,000 flooded properties, over 300,000 animals killed and widespread damage to roads, agricultural land, canals, dykes and embankments. 

Boating through Phong Nha (Photograph by Mi Xu)
The severe consequences in terms of loss of lives and property in Ha Tinh and Quang Binh province cause us to look at preparedness and response from the national level to the local level (province, district and commune). What we find is that both those responsible for disaster management and those affected by disasters adopt a largely passive approach. 

Institutional framework for disaster management in Vietnam
The institutional framework for disaster management in Vietnam shows that the public administration apparatus is entirely responsible for disaster related activities and that expert scholars and scientists are not involved in decision-making committees. 

The approach of the Vietnamese government is almost entirely reactive. If we want to really understand the impact of a disaster, we must reject the idea that it is a natural event, or the notion that it has no political drivers. In this case, the lack of a proactive approach has all but ensured widespread death and destruction. 

Flood risk management approaches
In the aftermath of such destructive flooding, provincial and district officials have all laid blamed on the flood discharge of a small hydropower project. This has been reported widely in the media. 

We have a situation where the heads of committees and those with decision-making power either do not understand the cause of flooding, or are deliberately misleading the public. Either way, the current working of committees is clearly not effective for protecting people and property. Decision-makers do not possess expertise in disaster management, let alone disaster risk reduction. They are government officials with little accountability.

In May 2014 the Law on Natural Disaster Prevention and Control of Vietnam stipulated that disaster management activities must include prevention, response and remediation of consequences. However, after each event of this nature (which occurs every year and in many localities), we are left with fresh questions as to the effectiveness of the legal, organisational and operational framework. 

Action plans are prepared annually at each level. However, these are primarily administrative documents. They are prepared based on the flood risk management experience of staff working within the political system. 

It is important to note the positive force with which all levels of government in Vietnam are mobilized in a disaster context, working with communities rapidly and in solidarity. This speaks to a strong existing community capacity. However, the presence of the public administration apparatus in flood risk management activities is just not enough. 

We call for the involvement of expert researchers and scientists in the flood risk management steering committee, shifting the focus to more proactive approaches, including mitigation and preparedness. Decisions must be made based on a combination of the latest scientific knowledge and a deep sensitivity to the local context. A solution to reduce risk in Central Vietnam must go beyond a technical fix; it must be economic, social, political and environmental. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Change, or the Same Old Thing?

Sometimes it appears that nothing is changing. The rich and powerful continue to find new ways to subjugate, oppress, control and generally get what they want. The injustice that we observe all around us can be overwhelming, a feeling enhanced by a rapid dissemination of information that is unique to our time. War, disease and greed are timeless. So too, though, are kindness, compassion and love. 

We may wonder, therefore, whether the age that we live in is really any different and to what degree we should be genuinely concerned for the future of humanity. In my writing, I argue repeatedly that we must reject the social/economic/political status quo. This is a status quo that has generated great wealth and has overseen remarkable progress in science, the arts and every aspect of society. If we are to advocate for a departure from it, we have a responsibility both to diagnose the problem and suggest a treatment.

Given this context, there are 5 key reasons that I believe that today is indeed different to any other time in history. This is why I think that we must consider radical alternatives if we are to protect life, health and human rights in the future.

1. Society/culture
- We are seeing a rise in nationalism and tribalism in politics. In more and more countries, society is driven by materialism, the quest for possessions. Externally, this manifests in displays of dominance and greed. Our education systems are producing robots rather than thinkers, lending their support to questionable societal and governmental objectives. A nuclear war is a distinct possibility, as the U.S. and allies further militarise and position themselves against Russia and China.

2. Environmental damage - We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, the so-called ‘Holocene extinction’. Last time this happened, the dinosaurs and most everything else died within 3 human lifetimes. We are losing species now at an alarming rate, and this is before we even consider the impact of ecological tipping-points due to climate change.

3. Consumption - Consider this; the global middle class is projected to grow to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. Our planet is currently coming apart at the seams as it is and imagine the impact if most people consumed like the average middle-class Westerner, which appears to be the objective.

4. A Global Cabal of the Powerful - We rely on whistleblowers, hackers and activists to bring truth, while the mainstream media promotes and protects the status quo, collaborating and conspiring with the corporations, billionaires, politicians and other powerful individuals and collectives that profit from the established order of things.

5. Corporate Dominance - Since the industrial revolution, we have seen a continuous effort to privatise profit to generate wealth for a select few that hold power and influence. At the same time, any negative impact (social, environmental, economic) is shifted onto the public. Nothing is sacred, everything is subject to privatisation. Political lobbying and corruption has destroyed any pretence of governance in the interests of the people. National governments are run as corporate enterprises.

Today we face new challenges, or exacerbated conditions that demand immediate attention. We do not have time to wait and see what happens; we must act on the evidence that is before us. There are powerful forces that will oppose any radical ideas for change. They will divide us in any way possible. They will ridicule us as naive 'purists'. They will manufacture consent for their agenda.

We must organise for a fight.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Transition Through Disaster: Christchurch

In April 2016, a group from UON visited Christchurch to learn more about the 2011 earthquake and the subsequent response and recovery efforts. The group wanted to meet some of the actors involved in the reconstruction process in Christchurch, more than five years after the earthquake which claimed 195 lives and left thousands injured in February 2011. We were able to meet with local government representatives, developers, community groups and local activists. We listened to their stories of recovery, both in rebuilding the physical environment and in participating in the renewal of society. In this blog, Giuseppe Forino and Jason von Meding share some of their thoughts about the reconstruction of Christchurch

Post-disaster reconstruction often leads to conflict. The interests of politics, business and citizens can easily collide; powerful forces (political, economic, financial) may attempt to monopolise control of operations (accommodation of displaced persons, materials management and logistics, procurement) and economic flows. Meanwhile, some individuals, local communities, or grassroots groups try to enact autonomy or engage in spontaneous initiatives of their own.

This is representative of the the reconstruction of Christchurch. In Christchurch a series of seismic swarms occurred between 2010 and 2011. On September 3, 2010 a strong earthquake of 7.1 M caused some damage to the city, but with no victims and just a few people injured. However, the 6.3 M earthquake on February 22, 2011 resulted in 185 total deaths and thousands of injuries, compromising at least 50 % of the city centre (CBD) and many suburban residential areas.

The powerful work together

Rebuilding Christchurch was a tortuous process. After the earthquake of September 2010, the Christchurch Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) was appointed to drive emergency operations. A few days later, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of an ad hoc Cabinet Committee on Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (CER), as well as a Minister for Canterbury Earthquake.

Besides providing emergency management, the creation of this ad hoc Committee led to the modification of the bureaucracy of development consent, which was “lightened” in terms of control and consultation obligations. After the earthquake in February 2011, the central government and the CER proposed a further change of legislation with the creation of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).

CERA was born with an agenda for collaboration between local and regional authorities, the market sector, and local communities. However, it slowly eroded the authority of local government, while leading to the marginalisation and exclusion of local communities, such as spontaneous initiatives, local associations and Māori groups, within the decision-making process.

Large-scale projects in CBD (all pictures by Jason von Meding)

There was widespread discontent, with citizens emphasising that the centralisation of the decision-making process in reconstruction allowed the government to accelerate the achievement of speculative goals.  Under “normal” administrative procedures, the potential for private profit not have been so extreme. CERA appears to have acted as the arm of the central government, working together with private speculators. This represented an unprecedented experience within the New Zealand democratic processes and was one of the main criticisms expressed by citizens.

Dispossession and Speculation

A few months after the earthquake of 2011, CERA identified a Red Zone, which consisted of both the CBD and many external residential areas. These Red Zone areas contained mostly small residential properties with gardens. Areas within the Red Zone were considered damaged or vulnerable to such an extent that their recovery was assessed as too risky, inconvenient, and expensive.

Avondale area, beautiful as a park
In response, a change in land use for about 8000 properties was proposed to the owners and an ultimatum given with 2 options: a) accepting the offer by the government, which would acquire the land, with owners relocated; or, b) selling properties exclusively to the Commonwealth Crown. Most of the owners decided to accept one of the offers; however, a limited number did not and disputes are ongoing. On our visit to the residential Red Zone in Avondale in April 2016, we were impressed by the solitary resident, John, still defending his property.

We did not venture onto the property, but we do love John
Avondale - apart from the roads, the area has largely returned to nature
Since 2011, a "game of zones" has been born, with the government spending $1.5 billion for the acquisition of great part of the Red Zone. The aim was to achieve goals of economic, social and cultural wellbeing, while avoiding economic loss to the Commonwealth Crown. Acquired land was to be sold in the near future for residential, trade, and tourism purposes. Local residents, associations and universities attempted to promote various alternatives for such land use change, for example the creation of a large urban river park in order to maintain water and environmental quality in the areas.

Preservation of Cultural Heritage

In a similar vein, speculative goals appear to have formed within the management of historical and architectural heritage, mostly located within the CBD. Since 2011 Ian James Lochhead, Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury and an architectural historian, struggled alongside local activists to prevent the demolition of central Christchurch Cathedral, a grade 1 heritage building, the symbol of the city and an Anglican building of great historic and architectural value.

The Cathedral was damaged by the earthquake, while the apse collapsed later. However, inspections confirmed that most of the structure was in good condition and its refurbishment was certainly possible and may in fact be desirable. There has been a 5 year struggle between advocates for demolition and new design, demolition and rebuild, and refurbishment and strengthening.

The interest by Lochhead and his committee for the Christchurch is part of a broader framework of struggle to preserve damaged historical and architectural heritage from speculation. According to Lockheed, community action to preserve the cathedral serves as a necessary prohibitor to speculation and predatory private investments on damaged heritage structures whose demolition would be unjustified. We certainly left with a lasting impression of the attachment to and value for place among the Christchurch community.

Our group visited New Brighton, where the main controversy involves the plan to implement the New Brighton Master Plan in what is still a somewhat sleepy seaside town. Whether this is justified and necessary, or whether it is simply opportunistic, is the subject of debate. This is particularly contested given the evidence of serious coastal exposure to hazards in the area. We also visited the epicentre of the February 22 earthquake, Lyttleton, and found a town that had lost much, in its historic building stock. Contributing to the contemplative atmosphere, large black and white photographs are positioned in front of where each building of significance once stood.

Lyttleton - photographs in place of most historic buildings
Repairs ongoing in Lyttleton port area
In addition to the historical building stock of Christchurch, there is one more recent building that has received special attention since the earthquake. The Christchurch Art Gallery only opened its doors in 2003 following a national design competition and is known for its spectacular glazed facade. After the earthquake, it functioned as the Emergency Operating Centre for the recovery. It remained closed for extensive and complex repairs until 2015, including the installation of 140 base-isolators that make it effectively float during tremors, making it one of the most earthquake resistant art galleries in the world. The private tour of the underground carpark to learn about the base isolation solution and see the flexible service provision was a great experience. 

Amazing base-isolation system RETROFITTED to existing building!

A Vibrant and Creative Community 

Small, bottom-up initiatives have sprung up with a vision to regain the use of public space for everyday life and sociality. In this sense, it is certainly worth mentioning Gap Filler, an initiative of urban regeneration that tries to fill the urban (social and spatial) voids through small projects and events for people in Christchurch. In an area of the CBD previously occupied by a damaged hotel which was demolished in 2012, Gap Filler created The Commons, a public space hosting local associations that were born after the earthquake to promote social initiatives such as music festivals, food and drink take away, kids playground, or such as a stage for dance and music, to be hourly rented at low prices, traveling around the city.

Impromptu dance, anyone?!
Learning about Gap Filler at The Commons

Exchange Christchurch is a creative organization developed through the reuse of a building hit by the earthquake and changed into a multi-function space for exhibition, bar, and co-working for professionals who need working affordable spaces. We learned that the creation of local networks constituted an added value that enabled users to develop common projects, spread publicity and gather more business. The atmosphere was vibrant and welcoming, as were all community led initiatives that we visited. Christchurch appears to have grown stronger by necessity and perhaps through the experience of loss.

Overall, the trip was informative and challenging for the students that attended. We are very grateful to our various hosts and we hope that a Newcastle group will be back again in 2017.

Note: Some of the presented contents can be also found (in Italian) in a piece by Giuseppe on Lavoro Culturale, an Italian blog of human and social sciences.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Why Study Disasters?

People often ask me how I got into research, and disaster research in particular. It was actually quite accidental. In late 2005, I was a postgraduate architecture student at Queen's University Belfast, trying to pin down a topic for my research thesis. The list of potential supervisors included a recently arrived academic with an interest in 'building performance in extreme events'. Just months previously, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast. I was concerned, as a citizen and as a budding designer. I knew little about disasters, and even less about research.

This, my very first research project, opened my eyes to the incredible complexity of disasters and piqued my interest, for good. I realised quickly that the wind, the storm surge and the flooding experienced in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, were only the most superficial factors contributing to this disaster. This was quite profound for me, and challenged the myth that I had so easily absorbed; that disasters are natural occurrences. They certainly are not. As I investigated the many reasons for death and destruction during my field work, I started to understand that disasters were caused primarily by humans living in vulnerable conditions.

Since that first research project, I have undertaken investigations in a range of diverse contexts around the world. I have become a part of the scientific community and seen the rapid growth of a body of knowledge related to the study of disasters. It is a research domain that has emerged in various fields, and one in which cross-disciplinary collaboration is absolutely essential, if not always enacted. It is a domain that naturally challenges silos; one that attempts to solve problems where shared expertise is vital to obtaining the right solution. I feel a great belonging in that space, and I deeply respect those who choose to spend time there. 

Now, that is not to say that my area of research is devoid of the 'academic' problems that challenge other research areas. It is not easy to secure funding for cross-disciplinary research, for one. Both funders and reviewers seem confused by the concept. As a result, many potentially high-impact projects are shelved. Perhaps more significantly, research for the common good is not seen as a worthwhile investment. The Australian government recently paid Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Centre $640,000 for their contribution to a report stating that investing in disaster resilience for poor people was likely to yield 'poor returns'. Somehow I'm not convinced that the poor would agree. You can always count on the elite to decide whose lives are 'worth it'. Funding is directed towards projects that comply with allegedly depoliticised agendas (I.e. Uphold and if you really have to, reform, the status quo). Such incremental change will not save us. 

Most scholars in disaster-related areas recognise that 'managing disasters', while essential of course in the event, is not going to prevent future losses. We must instead focus on reducing the level of existing risk and preventing the creation of new risk. As losses mount and our future becomes more uncertain, the call to deal with the root causes of disaster is gaining momentum. These root causes are not natural. We have a choice. Humans are in the driving seat of risk creation and reduction. 

There are many reasons that I do what I do. Of course, the disaster field captures and holds my attention intellectually, while I personally enjoy working in a domain that involves close interaction with a diverse group of people that represent a range of perspectives and ideologies. There are, however, a number of reasons that I think that the study of disasters is particularly critical and that motivate me to continue.

1) We are rushing headlong into a calamitous future - The future is uncertain and the evidence that we have predicts apocalyptic scenarios if we do not change course but rather continue to over-consume and destroy our only world. This gives a massive sense of urgency to the research field.

2) It is a pathway to protect the vulnerable - Disasters are about people at risk. Those most affected by disasters are the most marginalised, discriminated against, dispossessed and displaced in our society. They need to have a platform for their voices to be heard. A disaster researcher has a great opportunity to connect human IMPACTS to ROOT CAUSES, and make evidence-based arguments for change. 

3) Complex, extreme conditions are not well understood - Most conventional knowledge is built on what we can predict and, ever more widely, what we can model. Outliers are not recognised in our computations and as a society we are broadly ignorant of disaster risk. We need more complete, more straightforward and more challenging data. 

4) It is an outlet for activism - Disasters are political! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The biggest challenges in communicating truths about disaster are myths and misconceptions, widely held in our society. BUT people are interested, and they do care. Convincing arguments can be made and turned into action in this field that certainly grabs the attention. 

5) The current system is not working - The status quo is creating risk, not reducing risk. Our leaders are either blind to the dangers of maintaining the social/economic/political order or are owned by special interests in rejecting the consideration of alternatives. The study of disasters provides a perspective on this dilemma. 

6) Disasters highlight socio-economic inequality and injustice - This is a unique place from which to critique the many structural failures in our society. As we investigate why people are at risk, how they are impacted and how they can avoid future calamity, we have the opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines to develop more holistic responses to injustice.

I choose to express my deviance and my rejection of the status quo through my research activities. I want to spend time asking uncomfortable questions and challenging orthodox views. Within the disaster sphere there are of course many 'safe' subjects and my observation is that those asking the right questions are often a) young and idealistic (uncorrupted?) and likely to be dismissed as naive by more established peers or b) distinguished Professors that are likely to be dismissed as cynical and cranky. On both end, deviants have their ideas labeled 'too radical' and just 'unfeasible'.  I think what they mean is inconvenient.

I'm sure that there are many more reasons that the study of disasters is important. These are just some of my thoughts to get the conversation started. Why are you interested in this subject? Please feel free to share your thoughts, ideas and perspectives. I would love to hear what others have to say. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

We Must Democratise Disaster Risk Creation

As we know all to well, those impacted most by disasters are the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed. Base vulnerability underpins disaster risk. The most pervasive driver of risk creation is a political and economic system that operates for the benefit of the powerful, and to the detriment of the powerless. Those that face the greatest threats in the 21st Century have no voice, no representation and no justice.

This system is inherently undemocratic. There is nothing that the powerful fear more than empowered peasants. Western democracy has become little more than a show, having been bought and paid for by special interests. In the United States we are told to choose a 'lesser evil' candidate from the ruling parties, while the dying two-party system fights to ensure that progressive change can never take any real hold. The great global institutions, the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, despite a pretence to represent democratic ideals, fight largely to uphold a status quo that enables continuing neo-imperial conquest and accumulation of private wealth at the expense of those least able to defend themselves. If we are hoping for neoliberal institutions to save humanity, we are still asleep.

The more that we invest in and perpetuate the injustice of this system, the more rapidly risk is created. The public are largely unaware or ignorant when it comes to disaster risk, particularly in consumer-driver societies where immediate self-gratification has replaced any sense of community responsibility. Politicians skirt the issue so as to avoid spending on core risk reduction solutions (may demand more health, education, welfare, science spending!), preferring to save the day in the event of a disaster rather than take any proactive action that may not 'pay off'. Re-election is generally more important than service.

The actions of a political class that has gone all-in for a neoliberal system based on economic myth, 'legal' corruption and global corporate dominance, are creating endless new risk, faster than people can be drawn out of risky starting conditions. Whether it is taking away social safety nets in Australia to 'help' people discipline themselves, or assisting developing countries with unrepayable loans that primarily serve the lender and its collaborating countries and corporations, there are few glimmers of hope WITHIN the system. It is easy to see why voters in the UK, the US and around the world are determining to 'burn it all down', whether or not they support the extremist demagogues that are leading such movements.

Will we survive the challenges that this Century will bring? It's possible. I hold out hope that we can still deviate from this destructive course, that democracy can be saved and that most people actually care about each other. We must, however, democratise disaster risk creation. No longer can we allow those in power to create risk, reap the financial reward, and socialise the losses. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The US Presidential Election: Lesser Evil for Whom?

Trump or Clinton? Who will America choose?

This is the question on everyone's lips, from Brooklyn to Bangkok. The U.S. Commander-in-Chief represents a position as close to complete power as exists in the modern world.  The global economy hinges on U.S. interests, and its President is head of arguably the largest and most dominant military force the world has ever seen. The relationship between the economy and the military is unmistakable, and dictates foreign policy. The choice to be an economic ally of the U.S. is hardly a choice at all.

Source: CNBC
During the month of July, we witnessed the circus that was both the Republican and Democratic Conventions, where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were nominated as Presidential candidates by their respective parties. Trump's key message was that America is in deep trouble and that he is the only one that can save it. With a message that echoed Ronald Reagan, he insisted that he will restore law, order and greatness. He argued for a withdrawl from the global community, an 'America-first' position, ignorant of the face that America is indeed the primary beneficiary of globilization. "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect, the respect that we deserve. The American people will come first once again." (Trump acceptance speech)

Hillary's message, as expected, was much more focused on 'issues' but rather cliched, leaving many sceptical. There was not really a central theme to the speech, or the Convention, bar that voters need to save America from Trump, and that Hillary is that saviour. "America's strength doesn't come from lashing out. Strength relies on smarts, judgement, cool resolve, and the precise and strategic application of power. That's the kind of Commander-in-Chief I pledge to be." (Clinton acceptance speech) 'Strategic application of power' indeed. Among the massive protests from within her own party, the walkouts, the heckling and a DNC coffin over the fence, the 4-day show served more to alienate progressives rather than unify.

Even as Noam Chomsky, the darling of the left, threw his weight behind the idea of Lesser Evil Voting (for Hillary), Andrew Smolsky countered that in Clinton we have a candidate with a "clear record, from Serbia to Libya, from Honduras to Paraguay, of supporting coups, militarization of authoritarian regimes, breaking international law, and genuinely following the neoconservative playbook in trying to make the 21st Century another century of American hegemony and empire". Her demonstrated 'experience' advocates for exactly the ideology and practical application that Chomsky has spent decades fighting.

There is something entirely flawed in our acceptance of a flawed hegemonic political system, and it inevitably leads us down the path of lesser evil voting. Will Clinton be better than Trump? Ben King argues that 'it doesn't make the threat of fascism go away with Trump losing, it makes the the eventual fascism likely to be even worse.' The amount of anger now directed at hackers, protesters and conscience voters has intensified, largely from the left. Self-professing liberals are smearing Green candidate Jill Stein, even though she is campaigning on a revolutionary platform that more Americans identify with (well, they would if they knew about it) than either of the two main-party candidates.

If Trump does become president, there will be an inevitable wave of progressive insurgency mobilised by the left and in 2020 the challenger for the White House will likely be rooted in this insurgency. If Clinton becomes president, she will continue with a strictly neoliberal agenda, while the insurgency will rise up from the far-right. Progressives will have been widely co-opted by the Clinton campaign as a lesser evil and will be more disillusioned than outraged.

So, where do we want to be in 2020? Perhaps it's time to rethink the political system before complete meltdown. A great start would be opening the presidential debates to 3rd parties so that at least voters are aware that they have options.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Disasters of Imperial Power

Power, in the wrong hands, leads to disaster. 

The United States-led 'war on terror' has made the world anything but more safe and secure. Australian journalist and activist John Pilger asserts that rather than a war on terrorism, this particular war IS terrorism. Indeed, in the deeply divided Middle East, the resentment of western influence and repeated resource-related intervention solidifies. The bombings, invasions, war crimes, attempted regime change and 'state-building' have not made the powerful western backers of the destruction a whole lot of friends in the region. Suicide attacks in Iraq were unheard of before the US invasion, and are now commonplace. ISIS has arisen from a web of western-backed militia, in the grand design supposed to overthrow non-compliant leaders but now beyond control. Although terrorist attacks are still uncommon on western soil, we have seen well-publicised revenge attacks, of course most recently with France as the target. While desperate people flee the region, the West secures her borders. How willing we are to support regime change, but not take responsibility for the unthinkable losses inflicted on local populations.

Destabilisation of nations and entire regions leaves millions displaced, unemployed, hungry and thirsty, without education opportunities or any kind of security. In terms of disaster risk, imperial power continues to compound the problem. 

This power, wielded by western nations and corporations and intended to devour the resources of country after country, is something that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi defied. Of course, the brutality of these dictators is well documented, but their countries were ultimately targeted for regime change for refusing to bow to proposed imperial masters rather than any human rights agenda. To retain any credibility for a 'humanitarian regime-change' premise, the US/UK and allies would need to not only come clean on their own human rights record, but respond appropriately to the abuses of their friends and not only their enemies. This is simply not going to happen, as weapons and goodwill continue to flow to the blatantly abusive Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. Consolidated imperial power is 'as old as Columbus', as Pilger puts it The New Rulers of the World (p. 4), but it has taken on new robes for the 21st century. How much more destructive is this powerful club than any threat posed by ISIS, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram?

Allied political and corporate power cares little for the vulnerable of the world, so long as they are grateful for the handouts that they receive. Decisions are purely economic, and human rights are not considered (bar as an inconvenience). The vulnerable are generally left worse of than before they were 'liberated'. 

The threat and illusion of 'necessary' endless war (remember Dick Cheney predicting 50 or more years of the 'war on terror') has been used to justify state repression and increased social control. The profiteers of disaster capitalism are gleefully rubbing their hands. Western 'patriots' say that we must blindly follow the instruction of the political elite for 'national security' and wreak eternal carnage on those countries that do not agree to serve our interests. Indeed, carnage in itself is the end game. Peace would not be profitable to the arms industry. The military industrial complex is now part of western psyche. Why are we so compliant? It does not have to be this way. Do we really subscribe to an ideology that says our lives are more valuable than those of Iraqis or Syrians? The horrors of the illegal Bush/Blair/Howard invasion of Iraq (now sold to us as a mistake rather than the obvious war crime and business decision that it was) have somehow fogged the memory of the brutal UN Security Council sanctions regime that killed half a million Iraqi children under Bush Sr. and Clinton, while barely affecting Saddam's rule. These children are the un-people of the world, and today the children of Syria and Yemen face a similar fate as collateral damage. Their deaths are 'worth it' in the scheme of things, as Madeleine Albright infamously reminded us. The delusion of imperial power is supreme.

Those annihilated by imperial power no longer face disaster risk, given their untimely demise. However, those left behind are tortured by the psychological, physical and economic impacts for generations. This risk creation runs deep. 

Richard Nixon called Indonesia 'the greatest prize in South-East Asia' and the World Bank lauded its pro-western 'reorientation' from 1967, going so far as to call it a 'model pupil' of globalization shortly before Suharto's resignation in 1998. The grisly details of another 'worthwhile' regime change are less well known, but were wholly acceptable to imperial power brokers that included the US, British and Australian governments, the IMF and World Bank and countless western corporations. Starting with a US-supplied kill list of 5000, up to a million Indonesians were murdered by the pro-western Suharto regime, while accolades flowed in from the press and western foreign offices. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt clearly approved. "With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off," he said, "I think it's safe to assume that a reorientation has taken place." In the wake of this genocide, the World Bank and IMF were happy to create unrepeatable debt, turn a blind eye to corruption and divide the resources of Indonesia between western corporations. A second western-backed horror in East Timor finally turned the tide on the Suharto regime in 1998.

The fate of both Indonesia and Iraq, mirrored around the world throughout the 'American Century' and today, demonstrate the destructive potential of imperial power and conquest. The human cost is unfathomable and is demonstrably far more devastating than what the west calls terrorism. 

Modern imperial power games not only kill immediately, but they significantly increase disaster risk for the most vulnerable in the societies affected. Minorities are marginalised. Inequality is actually designed to increase. Poverty is entrenched and indeed demanded under this system. Have we, as argued by the advocates of western imperialism, really witnessed such remarkable 'progress' to justify the great cost of crushing all cultures that stand in the way? When our ideas of progress include skyrocketing consumption, a throw-away consumer mindset and culture of entertainment, perhaps we have ceased to represent progress. When we measure the success of a country by GDP growth, perhaps we have ceased to represent progress.

When we see the world's most vulnerable people as collateral damage, cheap labour, a security threat or simply as 'unfortunate' (given our actions that have made them so), perhaps we have ceased to represent progress. 

Maybe we should consider the possibility, uncomfortable as it may be, that our idea of progress is as hollow as our justifications for atrocities that have enabled it.