Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Beyond “Managing” Disasters - Reduce and Stop Creating Risk!

This is an English language version of an article published in Tia Sang magazine (in Vietnamese) on 29/08/2018 by Jason von Meding - original here


So far in 2018, over 75 people have been killed or are missing in Vietnam as a result of so-called “natural disasters”. The loss of life is devastating, and affected communities are further disrupted and disadvantaged by damage to housing, agriculture, infrastructure and services.

In the remaining months of the year, Vietnam will likely be affected by several more destructive typhoons. Last year almost 400 people died from disasters in a very extreme season - and people are wondering if this is a sign of a new, terrible normal.

In the first article in this series, we explored why the term “natural disaster” is inaccurate and misleading. Disasters are always socially and politically charged.

The Vietnamese public therefore deserves to have access to information about the human decisions that led them to this point. But this often remains hidden from view. People have been conditioned to see disasters as events to be managed, rather than manifestations of social and economic injustice.

It is important to confront this danger of concentrating on “managing disasters”, while failing to deal with root causes or trying to prevent disasters from from happening in the first place. Perhaps our best attempts to “manage” disasters have been misguided all along.

From Disaster Management to Risk Reduction
The Vietnamese government adopts a command and control approach to dealing with disasters. Decisions are made in a bureaucratic fashion and implemented at all levels.

There is a certain strength to this approach, in its consistency and uniformity. But it means that the focus is also on disasters as isolated events rather than long-term processes. The ability of communities to participate is often overlooked. It is a traditional strategy that we see it in many emergency and disaster management agencies around the world.

Governments often adopt management approaches that could be called “top-down” or “bottom-up”, or some combination of the two, with regards to disasters. Disasters are “managed” either by the state, or by communities. But this “management” approach to disasters belies a shared ideology.

In a “management” framing, the disaster “event” is something to be battled against. Often, “combat agencies” respond to emergencies and disasters. The focus is on protecting people from the hazard. Disasters are construed only as a public security and safety risk. In a bottom-up approach, communities ready themselves to respond to and manage disasters themselves.

In both of these cases, the social, political, economic and environmental root causes of disasters are prone to being ignored.

If a command and control response to emergency keeps the focus completely on the external threat, local communities are sometimes neglected. Meanwhile, when a community organises itself and taps into its own capacities, there is value created and resilience built - but it can still be all about “management.”

Both approaches fall into the trap of blaming nature for disaster impacts. You only have to look at the media coverage of recent disasters in Vietnam - devastation is attributed to nature; to typhoons, storms, floods and landslides.

As long as we try to manage disasters, even using the latest frameworks or technology, we will not deal with the real reasons that people live at risk.

There have been major shifts in scientific research and public discourse in the past two decades. From “disaster management” has emerged “disaster risk management”. This has humanised the field to some degree and moved away from an event specific management idea to a long-term view of how risk occurs in society.

In the 2000’s, some scholars shifted to a language of “disaster risk reduction”. The idea is that by working to reduce the vulnerability of the communities most affected by disasters, we reduce the potential impact of disasters on them.

What does it take to reduce risk?
In the first article in the series, we discussed how we often fail to consider the capacity of communities affected by disaster. Vietnamese society is strong and resilient. Families and individuals are connected and engaged in acts of solidarity - in the best of times of course - but especially in the worst of times.

Communities often do not fully understand their own potential to inspire change, to organise, to make themselves stronger together. Under threat of disaster, they are routinely convinced to focus on the hazard as the problem, rather than on the challenges they face daily.

This is achieved through societal conditioning - disaster myths and misleading language are powerful tools to disempower communities. Narratives of “natural disaster” keep the focus away from issues that may lead people to question the status quo. Away from discovering their own political power.

It takes an activated community to reduce risk. The state can intervene through the funding and implementation of structural and non-structural measures. Policy change can indeed be significant. But progressive policy change so often follows a fundamental shift in the expectations of a society. And these expectations are formed in the experience of everyday life.

Believing that a better world is possible is the first step in making that world. We need to critique and learn from the past in order to clearly see the opportunities of the present when they arise. And we need to be ready to act.

Despite efforts of the government, many Vietnamese people live with acute everyday risk. The more marginalised and isolated individuals and groups are, the greater their risk. This is because marginalisation leads to losing access to the resources and social connections that can reduce vulnerability. 

And an alarming truth is that many disaster affected people believe that it is just their fate to be victimised.

But it is not their fate. If they are victims then they are the victims of poor development; greed, exploitation, corruption and abuses of power. They are the victims of discrimination and marginalisation in society. They are the victims of historical injustice and sometimes simply circumstance. By struggling for change in their day to day conditions, people can reduce their risk of being affected by disaster.

Reducing risk is essential in the vision of a more free, just and equal world. Simply undertaking a process of “disaster risk reduction” inevitably challenges structural injustice in society. Many victories have indeed been won. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction gave the issue global prominence and made nation states accountable.

But while gains have been made by people becoming less vulnerable, another aspect of risk has been largely ignored. That is the fact that while we have been busy reducing existing risk (or trying to), development has taken place that has created new risk and resulted in a more risky world overall.

Future generations demand that we stop “creating risk”
Most people on the planet are now aware that our very existence is becoming fragile and tenuous. We see daily headlines that herald impending doom and destruction. The planet is warming with unprecedented speed. So much of life’s diversity is becoming extinct or endangered. The oceans are dying. The Northern hemisphere has literally been on fire.

All of this damage should be understood by looking at the relationship between humans and our complex and intrinsically beautiful planet earth. Since the industrial revolution, man has sought to tame and utilise nature. We have reduced something wonderful and sustaining to a collection of resources to plunder.

The brutal truth is this - the planet that we call home can no longer regenerate and keep up with our rampant consumption. We have overstepped many ecological boundaries and we cannot be sure of what the consequences will be.

And all of this rapid development has not brought equality, freedom and happiness. On the contrary, wealth inequality continues to deepen and we see unprecedented forced displacement of people within and across borders. And this is before climate change really bites.

In this context, it is important that we strongly oppose the continuation of the systems of exploitation and oppression that have got us into such a planetary and humanitarian mess.

Disaster risk is “created” when we continue in the same development paradigm, in search of economic growth above all else. People are exploited, displaced, forced to the margins. Living and breathing communities are reduced to a labour force that can be discarded at will.

Look at the Laos dam disaster a few weeks ago. Similar to much dam development in South East Asia, local communities did not benefit significantly from the project - benefits were mostly reserved for private and state actors - but local people bore the terrible cost of disaster.

Stopping disaster risk creation means opposing poor development decisions. It means confronting social injustice. It means thinking deeply about overconsumption and environmental degradation as something that affects us all - and then educating others. Finally it means discovering our political power and mobilising for a better world.