Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sacred Cows of Cancun (and some elephants in the room)

The Sendai Framework for DRR, like the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, represents a successful global negotiation leading to a commitment to address pressing issues for humanity. This week we gather at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun to talk about the move from "commitment to action."

While we should appreciate the goals that are aspired to, and the intention behind them, it would be remiss of us to exclude the promoted strategies to achieve success from critique. Shouldn't we be willing to listen to and respond to criticisms, particularly with such vital outcomes at stake?

We have heard a lot about action this week. Have we really taken action though? Is it the right action? Private sector engagement. Innovation. Technology. Entrepreneurship. Growth. 

Certain assumptions and voluntary blind spots are required in order to promote this approach to "taking action" with little or no debate. Therefore I have put together the following (slightly tongue in cheek) list of issues that I feel a) are simply out of bounds in polite DRR conversation or b) we ignore for convenience.

Sacred Cows of Cancun
  1. Economic Growth - we are still attached to the idea that economic growth is essential. Should we measure success differently? Particularly when we consider 2.
  2. Limitless Consumption - we deny the reality of a finite planet and put all of our eggs in the "decoupling" basket.
Elephants in the Room
  1. Absolute Corporate Power - we have seen a great transfer of power to the private sector. Is this the world that we want to live in? We will see some gains through philanthropy perhaps, but is it worth it? 
  2. Neoliberalism is Failing - 2016 showed a dramatic loss of trust. The public can see that mooted solutions require magical thinking. The rise of reactionary politics is putting more people at risk.
  3. Usually, the Powerful Simply do Not Care - By and large, those in power demonstrate over and over that they do not care if people die, starve or suffer. This is not changing, as much as we might like it to.
We frame our collective action as a force to reduce the impacts of disaster; and more broadly to fight against poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change. But what if we are still not getting to the root causes? The structural injustices? Why are people poor, hungry, marginalised and vulnerable to disasters? 

We might approach these problems with the assumption that our solutions must honour the Sacred Cows and ignore the Elephants. We might double down on failed strategies because we are afraid of challenging the status quo. The academic community has become as inept as the political class at working for the common good, when it demands radical thinking. That cannot continue.

This week we should be having a frank discussion about the uncomfortable issues. Everything is NOT going great. We do NOT have it under control. Radical thinking IS required. 

We need to resist before it is too late. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Christchurch, a Man Made Disaster?

In April this year, I was member of a group from UoN, looking at the impact on and recovery from the disasters of 2010 and 2011 that impacted Christchurch, New Zealand.

My interest was why a modern vibrant almost sister city, could be unexpectedly laid flat by a series of earthquakes, and how it handled the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction.

On the first morning, I stopped in my tracks outside my hotel viewing the desolate scene, my previous experience with hazards had been on TV.   I did feel numbed wondering what happened to the people who had worked in the invisible buildings.   They would still have their families, mortgages, ideals and aspirations but no workplace.

And that was my first handshake with Christchurch!   The people of Christchurch we met did not complain about losing their jobs, they did comment about: no community consultation; the Red Zone; the stressful insurance negotiations, and the inadequate settlements; the escalating cost of rebuilding, (where is a builder when you want one).

Christchurch had found “the eternal elixir of job creation”, it was called “post disaster building boom”.   It also unfortunately found “upper middle class poverty”.   Family, mid early forty’s; kids at Uni; good jobs; manageable debt, ---The DISASTER --- house deemed unsafe; alternative accommodation; office demolished, got job???; home site acquired unilaterally; home insurance under half expectations, takes 4 years; depression; anger; hopelessness; no assets; bank wants its money, takes insurance and government money; kids university fees???; divorce expensive; admittance to mental health facility.   The Newspapers continued to publish wellbeing surveys (the traumatised are the surveyed), all is well, Christchurch is rebounding.   Which is the truth?

Sorry for that side-track into Christchurch’s real world.   Back to our itinerary, the Anglican Cathedral, its carcass lies in the heart of Christchurch, having been struck a solid blow by the 2010 hazard, suffering a more severe blow through the bishop of Christchurch initiating and then staying demolition early in 2011, in the intervening years suffering an almost fatal blow by dereliction.   Whilst the bishop wants to pull this grand historic building down, the community and the government are fighting her decision in the courts.   Lets all hope that she is vanquished.

We then visited the beautiful Christchurch Art Gallery, reopened in December 2015 after a NZ $ 58 millions refit, including the implementation of a base loading mitigation facility.   A mitigation strategy against the impact of horizontal acceleration during an earthquake.   Unfortunately, it did not address the vertical acceleration that also impacts Christchurch during earthquakes.   Does that mean that the art gallery is half resilient?

Onward to The Exchange (EXCH), a great example of resiliency evolving from a community drop-in centre, a pleasure to visit and to experience such a successful resiliency program in action.

Then to Cultivate Urban Farm, ‘a saint in sheep’s clothing’, offering a sustainability program selling herbs and vegetables to local restaurants and collecting their green waste.   Its real objective, being to nurture and make better troubled youth by engendering self worth whilst they are employed in the gardens.   The unusual method of achieving this goal is to treat their charges as peers, with dignity, respect and purpose, strange isn’t it!

Onward to Resilient Organisations, an enterprise established on the extensive research by academics at Christchurch University into resiliency.   The resiliency referred to, being the resiliency of businesses to survive systemic hazards, a completely different definition of resiliency then we would use in the DRR context, but essential for sustainability.

Then The Lyttelton Project, a community organised and supported project with sustainability the driver of each individual program, we experienced their Saturday farmers market, our support and enthusiasm well demonstrated by the extra kilos we carried back to the bus (and not in carry bags).

Enter the Twilight Zone, in Christchurch called the Red Zone, I had never been in a ghost town, where there were no houses, or any other indication other than the drives across the footpath, that there were once over 8,000 homes in what was a major liquefaction area of Christchurch.   Everyone was somewhat suppressed after our stroll through “nowhere”, Christchurch.

A quick walk around the city area, showed construction, and also the lack of construction.   After six years I thought Christchurch would be a mini Dubai, with cranes everywhere.

My observations 

Was Christchurch a disaster waiting to happen, has it stopped: pre-disaster, irrefutable advice that mitigation was required was ignored; post-disaster, it ignored the community and their reconstruction, another disaster?   A man-made disaster?

Hazards: unpredictable in occurrence and scope; indiscriminate in the social structures they impact; do not adhere to their human assessed “return” periods; leave devastation in their wake; but they do not cause disasters.  

Humans: predictable in their pursuit of profit and self-interest; discriminate towards those who are vulnerable; respond rapidly after a hazard; leave confusion and desolation in their wake; and they do cause disasters.