Monday, November 5, 2018

Embracing local capacity to deal with disasters

This is an English language version of an article published in Tia Sang magazine (in Vietnamese) on 06/10/2018 by Jason von Meding - original here


Disasters reveal the best of human nature. Most people affected come together in genuine displays of solidarity when the safety and security of their family and community is threatened.

In the first two articles (here and here) in this series we have explored this underappreciated aspect of human behaviour in disasters - deep down, people are GOOD. In a disaster, we often see a temporary halt to hostilities between people that do not see eye to eye. A window of opportunity opens, where something better can be built - not just physically but socially.

At the core of this phenomenon that we observe in the aftermath of disasters is human connection and relationship. People by their very nature want to help each other. Despite what our economists might claim, we are not born to compete but to share. But the narratives that we routinely accept from our rulers (and the media that serves them) tell us the opposite - they position us against each other (for example the narrative that young people are entitled) and against the planet that sustains life (for example the narrative that the environment must be sacrificed in favour of economic development).

These popular narratives are a major barrier if we want individuals and communities to be safer and stronger against threats, and if we want to avoid decisions that lead to the creation of risk (discussed in the previous piece). If we accept negative stories about each other, we choose to believe a lie about who we are. We choose to underestimate what we are capable of.

The result is that we can mistakenly believe that we need to rely on someone else to “save” us, because we cannot be trusted to help each other; that we need someone to provide for us, because we do not share; that we need someone else to make decisions, because we are uneducated; that we need help, because we are helpless.

But this is not the truth. Communities in Vietnam and around the world - often those with deep set vulnerabilities - can be dynamic and strong and possess knowledge and skills that “experts” often undervalue and belittle.

Why is local capacity so important?

Communities and the individuals that inhabit them often face risk, both chronic (everyday vulnerabilities) and acute (triggered by rapid onset hazards). External development actors (for example the government of Vietnam) must come to terms with problems that are mostly defined by local socio-economic, political and environmental conditions.

If the people that will experience the impact of development decisions are not consulted in the first place, there will be a lack of trust between local people and the government. The Vietnamese government has made efforts to enhance participation of local communities in governance at commune level. This can lead to successful outcomes when participation actually breaks down inequalities, injustices and power disparities.

But if true participation is lacking, invariably it is the voice of the local community that is drowned out. A bureaucrat from outside and above cannot usually understand these local conditions - and how important embracing local capacity can be.

Capacities are the individual and collective knowledge, skills and resources that are shared and combined in a community. Tapping into local capacities can both help a community prevent disasters occurring, and help them to recover from disasters that do occur. In the research literature, we see many excellent examples of this approach elsewhere in Asia; Taiwan and the Philippines come to mind.

Research shows that an active, empowered and connected community is a resilient one. When people have access to resources and opportunities, and a sense of belonging, they thrive. Humans crave connection. Well being - physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual - is central to how a community can become stronger in the face of 21st Century threats.

When we look at how disaster impacts are increasing in Vietnam, and how more and more people are in need of assistance, it might appear that community capacities are decreasing. But the factors that make communities thrive have often just been forgotten or neglected for a time. The idol of economic development has for many become a universal measure of the success of a society - a position it never warranted - and well being has been overlooked. We cannot afford to continue this delusion.

We must also acknowledge that in large part BECAUSE of rapid economic development, inequality is increasing in Vietnam. All communities have derived some economic gains - this cannot be questioned - but these gains have been distributed unevenly and this contributes to a decline in well being, especially in marginalized communities.

The government is of course not intentionally creating additional disaster risk. But in trusting in the economic status quo and the current development paradigm, it ensures that the strongest economic actors prosper at the expense of others. Building wealth always comes at the expense of somebody, somewhere. And where wealth is being accumulated, people are becoming more vulnerable to disasters.

Working WITH communities, not FOR communities

In the most marginalized communities of Vietnam, the government response is often paternalistic - bureaucratic decisions are made with the intention of promoting the best interests of the dependent community - while autonomy, true community participation and ownership of the process is not part of the prescribed development pathway.

This is why “development” does not benefit everyone equally. Projects should not be proposed FOR marginalized communities but WITH them. This is the way to empower and strengthen. It is actually a great opportunity. Projects can build upon the capacity of communities to contribute - this can ensure appropriateness, long-term sustainability and stakeholder buy-in.

In a 2017 research project that we carried out in Dong Hoi, we investigated how urban flooding impacted schools in the city and how different stakeholders could practically contribute to making schools safer and ensuring that the education of children is not disrupted when a flood occurs.

Dong Hoi has suffered extensively from storms and floods in the past - and 2016 was particularly devastating. The floods in October of 2016 led to the deaths of 7 students in Dong Hoi, and extensively damaged school supplies and equipment. Local schools fell behind by several weeks compared to the national schedule. There were also severe socio-economic impacts on the community more broadly.

Our research highlighted why it is important to involve different groups and individuals in the process of preventing disasters. In our project, we talked to not only school administrators and those implementing government policy, but to students, parents and teachers. What we found was that even the people most at risk in Dong Hoi were able to leverage their capacities to lessen the impact of flooding.

In this example, schools plays an essential role in the life of a community. Not only do they facilitate the education of children and youth, but they are a social gathering place. They help to create connection and belonging between families.

In Dong Hoi, we found that the local community was able to mobilise support for post-disaster relief after the 2016 flooding before any other aid arrived. This mirrors the evidence from around the world, that shows that communities are first responders.

"Last year when our family did some charity work after the flood, some of the people we visited were 90 and 87 years old. When we visited them, they hugged us and cried.” [Parent, Dong My Primary School]

The community was able to support each other. We heard about families that shared their homes and their resources until they were able to recover. People were genuinely concerned for each other, confirming what we already know about human kindness.

Communities do act in solidarity. But many will ask, what is the role of government in all of this?

There are certainly improvements that can be made from a government perspective. It is essential that communication and coordination between different levels of the government and school stakeholders (administrators, teachers and parents) is improved. This alongside policy measures that promote the reduction of everyday vulnerabilities would go a long way.

But a conversation about vulnerability takes us back to questioning the economic status quo - in which inequality only increases - and which those in power are not interested in challenging.

While we wrestle with this - what we might call potential “system change” - and hold the government accountable for its policy decision within an admittedly flawed framework, communities can and do take action. Spontaneous initiatives continue to emerge from collectives of people with shared vision and values.

This action needs to be supported. One of the best things that the government can do is to locate these community-led initiatives, provide whatever resources are requested, and simply get out of the way.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Hurricane Harvey one year after: inequalities in Houston as the root causes of disaster

This is a post by Giuseppe Forino (University of Newcastle) and Tien Le Thuy Du (University of Houston) originally published on 6 September in Italian and English on Sismografie, the section on hazards and disasters of Italian blog Lavoro Culturale.

Hurricane Harvey hit Texas on 25 August 2017. It was the country’s first major hurricane since Wilma hit Florida in October 2005 and the first major hurricane to strike southern Texas since Celia in 1970. Hurricane Harvey became the second-most costly hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since 1900, with over $125 billion of damages and loss. In the weeks who followed, hurricanes Irma and Maria unfortunately left death and destruction among Caribbean countries and islands, including Barbuda, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. One year later, how is the recovery going in Houston, largely affected by Harvey? As mass media coverage and information about disaster-prone places decrease few weeks after the disaster, we wanted to know something more about the current conditions of people affected by Harvey.
One of the houses hit by Harvey, now abandoned and for lease, in East Houston. Photo by Giuseppe Forino.
Therefore, in August 2018 we met Magdalene*, one of the thousands of people living into African American and Latinx communities of East Houston, still struggling with the recovery after Harvey. We were introduced to Magdalene by the research team of Roberto Barrios (Southern Illinois University Carbondale), anthropologist with over 15 years of research experience in post-disaster contexts in North and Central America. Along these years, his work has been devoted to investigate not just how recovery worked in the affected areas but also how neoliberal institutional approaches to recovery contributed to worsen the impacts of hazards and to further increase the vulnerability of people.

In his last book, Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction, Barrios focuses on the role of affect in shaping the ways people assign meanings to disasters and assess the impacts of governmentality (through planning, reconstruction, and policies) on their life. With the support of a National Science Foundation grant, Barrios is continuing his work by studying social after-effects of hurricane Harvey together with his research team, composed of two University of Houston anthropology students, Irene Martinez and Mayra Sierra, and one SIUC student, Grace Vargas.

Disaster response and recovery in the US, as New Orleans and Puerto Rico have also demonstrated, have always been based on the discrimination and segregation of the most disadvantaged or marginalized groups. Harvey has been praised as an equal-opportunity disaster that would not leave the poor behind. However, its recovery is replicating and exacerbating inequalities already existing in Houston, one of the most unequal and segregating cities in the United States.

The US Census Bureau calculated that 19.3% of families live below the poverty level, higher than the US average value of 11.3%. This rate has increased in the past five years, particularly among African American and Latinx neighbourhoods. The unequal distribution of and access to resources and opportunities – housing, healthcare, public facilities, education, safe environment – persists between majority white and higher income neighbourhoods and low income African American and Latinx people.

As it has already been written by the disaster scholar Ilan Kelman on this blog right after Harvey, also Roberto Barrios and his team are convinced that Harvey and its recovery highlight everyday spatial and social segregation in Houston, nourished by land use and development malpractices. “Houston – he says – is a city that floods by design. Collusion between real estate developers and local government have made existing flood control codes ineffective. Hurricane Harvey’s floods were primarily a political economic disaster, not a natural one”. 

Indeed, the rapid urban development in Houston has been accompanied by building decisions favouring developers and construction corporations rather than by an equal and sustainable urban planning. This further increased vulnerability of people already living into areas at higher flood risk.

One of the damaged houses. Photo by Giuseppe Forino.
Hurricane Harvey hit neighbourhoods that were already struggling with ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities, or those people who were in higher flood risk areas. As found by a survey reported on the New York Times (August 2018), 27% of Latinx people in Texans whose homes were badly damaged declared that those homes remained unsafe to live in, compared to 20% of African American and 11% of white people. Nowadays, those people who were already financially in need, vulnerable or marginalized, are facing longer recovery timelines. 

Harvey hit thousands of people with no home insurance, no assets or savings to be put into recovery, no transportation options alternative to flooded cars. Federal disaster response—including an underfunded National Flood Insurance Program— mainly support homeowners, those who either rent or live in public housing find even fewer options.

According to Roberto Barrios, the Harvey-affected neighbourhood of East Houston has been long chronically neglected of its drainage systems on the part of the City Government: “East Houston has always been “invisible” in the gaze of many Houstonians, even as it is considered the site of waste dumps and hazardous material storage that serves most of the city. In Harvey’s aftermath, media attention has focused on more affluent parts of the city that were also flooded catastrophically, but has continued a long tradition of underserving this historically marginalized minority area”.

Therefore, there is need to raise voices of the affected people such as Magdalene. Magdalene is deeply rooted in the community. She lives in East Houston since almost 40 years ago and is very active in the long-standing informal network created in East Houston to support the people most in need. We met her in early August. Too hot to walk around, Magdalene instead took a drive with us and Barrios’ research team into the neighbourhood where she has lived almost 40 years. She brought hands up to her chest and marked the height of the floodwater released by Harvey into her house. During Harvey, she spent one day and one night on her living room table, before rescuers arrived.
In front of many houses unusable furniture wait to be trashed. Photo by Giuseppe Forino.
She can tell you almost everything about each house in the neighbourhood, including a meticulous description of damages suffered by each family after the hurricane. She showed us the landscape of broken windows, scaffolding, doors locked with wood planks or temporary curtains, trashed furniture. A few houses have never been opened since the hurricane, and the devastation can be observed from outside. Other houses have been repaired with personal savings, but several houses will never be repaired. As East Houston is an undervalued neighbourhood, people are receiving fewer dollars on average for recovery, or have no compensation to recover as they cannot afford increasing insurance costs of thousands of dollars.

Some families are already leaving the neighbourhood. Magdalene says that the price of the houses drastically collapsed. Houses with previously average value of 80,000 dollars can now be bought at 20,000 dollars. Speculators are now coming around, offering residents less than 20,000 dollars for the damaged houses. Later they sold them at more than 100,000 dollars for newcomers. Real estate’s posts for renting and selling at a ridiculously discounted rate are gradually showing up. Developers took advantage of people’s misfortune. Insurance companies took opportunity to force people to buy higher insurance.
One of the many trailers that are utilized still now as temporary housing. Photo by Giuseppe Forino.
Regulations to access to funds allocated by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government agency by US intervening in case of disasters across the country) are always unfavourable to marginalized people or those with no insurance such as in East Houston. This makes these people ineligible to any funding support program. Compared to “richer” neighbourhoods, they had no alternative immediate support, such as trailers for temporary stay. Some of them have already built unstable elevated mobile homes because they are scared of future flooding. Perpetual trauma with rain will follow for the rest of their life.

Hurricane Harvey just mirrored and exacerbated social and economic inequalities shaping the everyday society in Houston. Looking at the stories of the people who are most vulnerable when a disaster occurs reveals, once again, disaster as a political construction, deriving from historical paths of environmental and social injustice.

* Magdalene is a fake name to ensure her anonimity. The neighbourhood of East Houston has not been identified too, and it has been generally referred as East Houston. We warmly thank Magdalene for the time spent with us, Grace, Mayra and Irene for their kindness, and Roberto for giving consent to access to his research.

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.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Challenging disaster myths and destructive narratives

This is an English language version of an article published in Tia Sang magazine (in Vietnamese) on 09/07/2018 by Jason von Meding - original here

In the Vietnamese language, when we talk about a “disaster” we generally refer to it as a “natural disaster”. But there is an important distinction between the two. A failure to differentiate leaves us discussing people’s loss, pain and suffering in a certain way. Often, we think of it as a result of the “wrath of Mother nature”. Perhaps we even call it “the will of God”.  

When we focus on the “natural” we often neglect to discuss the social, economic and political parts of disasters.

My work investigating the root causes of disasters has led me to argue that they are actually quite unnatural. They are the result of human decisions about risk in society, about consumption, about rights and about ownership.

Sadly, disasters are inevitable in a world of increasing inequality.

Disasters aren’t natural
It is not a new concept to say that disasters are not natural. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first person on record to make this observation in 1756, after an earthquake and tsunami devastated Lisbon, Portugal. He argued that the casualties were due to the decisions and behaviours of people rather than nature.

Over the next 200 years, disasters were nevertheless discussed as natural or as acts of God. In the 1970s, scientists in various fields began to challenge this orthodox narrative. Since then, there have been constant challenges to the dominant position, but the terminology has only become more entrenched. There are now hundreds of thousands of references to “natural disaster” in the scientific literature.

So, what does make a disaster? Disasters often have natural triggers, and that is where we get this popular phrase “Natural disaster”. Hazards such as tsunamis, typhoons, bushfires and earthquakes do of course occur naturally. But disaster risk is determined by a combination of 2 things - 1) the hazard and 2) the vulnerability of the people in harm's way.

The truth is that around the world the victims of disasters are disproportionately impoverished, live in low-income countries and are marginalised in their society based on class, gender, religion, ethnicity and disability. And this is the way that societies are designed.

The most vulnerable suffer
Disaster impact is shaped by levels of human vulnerability. People are vulnerable for many reasons, but not because they choose to be. More often than not, someone else has made the decisions that determine their level of risk.

Injustice is built into our societies. In Vietnam we have only to look at how profoundly disasters impact on ethnic minorities. Flooding and landslides affect northwestern Vietnam periodically. In the past week, more than 20 people lost their lives, while in August 2017 dozens were killed.

These disasters cause severe hardship across provinces like Son La, Dien Bien, Yen Bai and Lai Chau. 80% of the population there belong to ethnic minorities. The poverty rate among ethnic minorities is unusually high in the region (73% - compared to a nationwide 2.9% for Kinh majority).

This is an example of how disaster risk is largely man-made. Ethnic minorities are often forgotten people in Vietnam. Attempts by the government to design policy measures to improve living standards often fail to recognise the diverse socio-economic development experience of ethnic minorities. Many ethnic minority communities have indeed benefited from development, but compared to the Kinh majority they have overwhelmingly been left behind.

Policy must therefore become more nuanced and targeted towards the specific socio-economic needs of each ethnic minority. Only then can the government start to address deficiencies in access to education, infrastructure, transportation, health care and other services. Inaction, or a simplistic and bureaucratic approach, has consequences. It is people that create disasters.

Every time a disaster occur, few people look into the role of poverty, marginalisation, environmental degradation or land use decisions in their analysis. This needs to change.

The injustices that people face define their day to day living conditions. This is how they end up living with a high level of risk. If we really want to understand the root causes of disaster, our starting point needs to be this - political, social and economic disadvantage.

These conditions are imposed on the vulnerable. It’s as simple as that. And this is where calling disasters “Natural” can be so dishonest and misleading.

Myths about disaster are commonplace
The “natural disaster” issue is not the only problem that we are facing in terms of how the public understands disasters. Society is shaped by certain prevailing narratives that are so often misleading.

Myths are widely accepted as truth. Here is a prime example. Around the world it is widely held that people behave negatively in crisis; selfishly, without compassion, irrationally and in panic. However, this simply does not fit with the available evidence. Disaster sociologists have been telling us for decades that we always see the best of human behaviour in such times. The reality is that communities come together in a disaster.

In the midst of trauma, we see the best of human "nature". People demonstrate solidarity. They give generously. They serve each other. They sacrifice not only for their family and friends, but for complete strangers. After a disaster there is a decline in crime. Victims do not loot, rape and murder. They come together.

Neighbours become first responders - something almost never picked up by the media as their stories follow international rescue teams. Communities organise and mobilise and utilise their incredible capacity to protect and assist and serve.

Sometimes when the authorities and so-called “experts” finally arrive, they actually disrupt a recovery process that is already well advanced. They often fail to recognise the importance of local capacity.

Importance of language
The words that we use are important. If a disaster is “natural” then nobody is accountable. We don’t have to think about uncomfortable root causes. Explaining disasters away as “natural” can actually prevent action to address the real root social, political and economic root causes.

In Vietnam, who benefits from this language? Which powerful interests would be unhappy if we were to speak more about the root causes of disaster rather than “nature”? Vietnam’s rapid development is not benefiting everyone equally. Inequality is growing, causing fractures in society, while the ecological impacts of rapid growth are profound. Disasters are often preceded by poor development decision-making.

One way to keep decision-makers accountable is to question the dominant narrative and language. Every time that we talk about any disaster we should be talking about vulnerability and injustice and rights. This rarely happens when we use the language of “natural disasters”.

Of course, there is always opposition to any suggestion to change the status quo. But in my experience, the opposition to abandoning the falsehood of “natural disaster” comes from those in positions of power and privilege. Some (for example academics and journalists) derive benefit from maintaining the language, because it is central to their vocabulary and they claim that it is all that the public understand. Others (for example politicians), because they might be challenged by any discussion of disaster root causes.

Although the public also commonly use this language, they are not invested in it. Most people are actually quite interested to discuss why disasters are not natural and they understand quickly.

Role of science communication and the media
So why are we so misinformed about disasters? The language is important, but it is only one factor. The media are also out for sensational stories and headlines. Disasters rarely make the news unless there is a large death toll. Rich countries are prioritised over poor ones. Consider the relative coverage of the impact of the Atlantic hurricane season on the United States to the 2017 monsoon impacts across South-Asia. Most of the media focused on the U.S.

Hollywood depicts a rescuer/victim dynamic in disaster narratives and focuses on the need to maintain law and order. Think of any disaster movie that you have watched. The people affected are panicking, selfish, irrational, helpless. This couldn’t be further from reality - but it serves a purpose to sell such a story.

Those in power have a lot to gain from perpetuating these myths. If the wider public believes that communities affected by disaster are behaving antisocially, they will not complain when force is used to “keep the law”. In the U.S. in particular, there is a history of authority-led violence after disasters. There is panic after disasters - but it comes from those afraid to lose power and control, rather than from affected communities.

Ultimately, what disaster science tells us just doesn’t square with the way that disasters are portrayed in the media or by Hollywood. Policy-makers know this and are not concerned. Therefore the rest of us must demand better.

So the next time you hear someone say “natural disaster”, inquire as to what the real cause of the disaster might be. If you see it in writing, challenge the author. We can all be a part of something positive here and shift the public discourse.

Most important of all, we need to be having the right conversation; one that is about root causes and shakes the halls of power.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Resilience vs Vulnerability

I recently read a very insightful paper on resilience and it stirred up a lot of thoughts like- when researchers refer to resilience as a societal trait for adaptation, what do they mean?; Is it an individual trait or for a whole group?; can it be measured objectively (can a community totally lack resilience or be 100% resilient)? And so on.

A good number of scholarly articles have pointed out the shortcomings of resilience but does that mean that the concept should be neglected? According to Barrios (2016), the use of the term has gained too much ground to be gotten rid of but what is most important is the appropriate use of the term. Some authors have argued that the widespread use of the term can be attributed to political interests in the use of the term which sometimes in literature places the responsibility for recovery on the affected communities.

Barrios (2016) argued that the focus of disaster researchers should not be on resilience building but on vulnerability reduction. He added that the notion of resilience seeks to maintain structures that create vulnerability and risks; hence, although resilience is all about capacity to cope with risks it seems to ignore systems that create risks and force people to adapt despite the system. It is not okay to emphasize the need for resilience to a vicious cycle of risk creation when efforts are not made to change the systems that create risk.

I posit that resilience is an important term in disaster discourse, however, its usage ignores the root causes of disasters. Barrios (2016) explained that:

“If resilience in the context of climate change becomes adaptation to the atmospheric and hydrometereological conditions created by an anthropogenic process, then resilience means ignoring the root social and development causes of this particular slow disaster. Becoming resilient, in the context of climate change, then, goes hand in hand with the social production of vulnerability rather than vulnerability reduction.” (Barrios, 2016. pp 32)

Although resilience is important because the impacts of climate change are already evident in the increasing frequency of climate-related hazards and undoing this change cannot be achieved immediately, not focusing on mitigation is like postponing the onset of the disaster. A wealth of literature have stated that disasters are products of hazards and vulnerability. Since some hazards (natural hazards) cannot be avoided, our focus should be addressing vulnerability.

While some resilience literature see resilience and vulnerability as opposites, the relationship between the two does not seem that simple because building resilience can in fact indirectly create vulnerability. If careful attention is paid to the quote above by Barrios, building resilience can give the impression that the risks cannot be controlled and that we have unlimited capacity to defeat nature.

Why transformation?

To reduce vulnerability, a significant change and deviation from the status quo is required. Although transformation is concerned with building capacity but more importantly concerned with changing systems that create risk. This concept addressed the shortcoming of resilience while not totally ignoring the need for resilience and adaptation. Transformation is the creation of fundamentally new systems when ecological, economic, social, and political conditions make the existing system untenable (Walker et al, 2004). Scientific research has revealed that a significant change in consumption is necessary to stop the drastic climate change. Likewise, we need significant changes and re-evaluation of socio-economic and political systems for vulnerability to be reduced.

Transformative adaptation addresses the root causes as well as the symptoms (disasters) and it does not place the whole responsibility for change on just a particular group; in fact, everyone is responsbile for transformation. If the issue of increasing disasters is to be addressed, transformation is needed.


Barrios, R. (2016). Resilience: A commentary from the vantage point of anthropology. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 40(1), 28-38. doi:10.1111/napa.12085

Walker, B. et al. (2004). Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 9(2).

Monday, October 2, 2017

UON Disaster Research Updates

So much has happened over the last few months - it is time for a post to mention some of the highlights! If I miss anything that you would like to add, please let me know.

New grants: 

1. Council on Australia Latin America Relations (COALAR): Disaster Resilience Education Capacity Building in Latin America - The project establishes partnerships between UON and Universidad Diego Portales, Universidad Javeriana and Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. This project will build regional capacity, share knowledge and create synergy in disaster resilience and risk reduction education/research. CI - Dr Sittimont Kanjanabootra. Project Personnel, A/P Gajendran, A/P Mackee, A/P Brewer, Dr von Meding, Dr Giggins and Dr Ahmed.

2. Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Understanding the opportunities and challenges of compliance to safe building codes for disaster resilience in South Asia - the cases of Bangladesh and Nepal - This project will explore the opportunities and challenges to compliance of safe building codes for disaster resilience in South Asia, focusing on two countries of the region, Bangladesh and Nepal. UON will partner with the University of Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Tribhuvan University (Nepal). CI - Dr Ifte Ahmed. Project Personnel, A/P Gajendran,  A/P Brewer, Dr Maund and Dr von Meding. 

3. SABE Research Impact Acceleration Grant: Resilience and Resistance in the Upper Hunter Valley - This project will engage directly with communities in the Upper Hunter Valley (primarily Muswellbrook and Singleton) around themes of resilience and resistance in the post-carbon future of the region. Focussing on issues of resilience, post-industrialisation, land rehabilitation and social equity, we will host a series of events in partnership with Upper Hunter communities that are under threat; a community workshop, a public seminar and a research exhibition including creative practice and traditional research. CI - Dr Jason von Meding. Project Personnel, Prof Chapman,  A/P Brewer, Dr Tucker.

Science journalism:

In Vietnam poverty and poor development, not just floods, kill the most marginalised, The Conversation, Jason von Meding & Hang Thai

Religion is not the only reason Rohingyas are being forced out of Myanmar, The Conversation, Giuseppe Forino, Jason von Meding & Thomas Johnson

Vietnam’s typhoon disaster highlights the plight of its poorest people, The Conversation, Chinh Luu & Jason von Meding

Show Up, Stand Up and Step Up: Bold Action in the Wake of Storms, Common Dreams, Jason von Meding & Heidi Harmon

Why natural disasters aren't all that natural, openDemocracy, Ksenia Chmutina, Jason von Meding, JC Gaillard & Lee Bosher

In the media:

Jason on BBC World Service and Morning Marketplace Report speaking about vested interests in Myanmar.

Jason speaks about Typhoon Doksuri on 2ser radio, Sydney, 21st Sept.

Jason interviewed by Aya Bayrawy at the Associated Press for this article about the Rohingya, 21st Sept. 

Jason on 2ser radio, Sydney, discussing the Rohingya, 18th Sept. 

Jason on WMNF, Florida, to discuss the political aspect of the recent hurricanes to strike the US, 14th Sept. 

Jason on 3 CR radio Melbourne talking about the Rohingya crisis, 13th Sept. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disasters

Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, University of Newcastle; J.C. Gaillard, and Ksenia Chmutina, Loughborough University

Decades of gentrification in London and other European cities (including Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul) have enacted a form of social cleansing. This has pushed away low-income and marginal residents, divided the rich from the poor, and generated inequalities among citizens.

The Hammersmith area, where the Grenfell Tower is located, has been gentrified. This previously working-class area has been transformed into a vibrant middle-class neighbourhood. Just a few residential social housing tower blocks remain.

As a cosmetic measure, the Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2014. The choice of cladding material that appeared to fuel the fire is now subject to scrutiny, but with no understanding of the social dimensions of the building’s design regulation and safety measures.

Repeated warnings from the Grenfell Tower residents that this was a disaster waiting to happen were ignored.

There has been an outpouring of grief and anger from the affected community and beyond and tensions remain high. While certain elements of the media rebuke those seeking to hold the ruling class accountable, it is important to emphasise a simple truth: disasters are socially – and politically – constructed.

Root causes of disaster

Disasters are often misunderstood as “natural”, or simply assumed to be extreme and tragic events.
This view draws on a century-old paradigm that puts the blame on rare and inescapable natural phenomena, an “act of God”, or technological breakdowns that lie beyond the everyday social fabric.
But there is nothing natural about disasters; disasters usually have root causes of vulnerability that we don’t speak about and that reflect the day-to-day make-up of society – inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations.

These root causes are similar in London, New York, New Orleans, Port-au-Prince and Manila – a few of the world’s cities that have been stricken by major disasters in recent times.

The Grenfell Action Group couldn’t have been clearer in its warnings of disaster – this one is from November 2016. Grenfell Action Group

Disasters as experienced today are often rooted in the historical development of societies. The impacts of colonialism, slavery, military conquest and discrimination based on class, gender, race and religion are visible today.

Billions of people around the world, in both wealthy and less affluent countries, are at this moment suffering under structural injustices. As demonstrated at Grenfell Tower, this is a recipe for disaster.

Structural injustice creates vulnerability

This disaster is quite a shock to British society. Although the contributing sociopolitical drivers (while sometimes not explicitly discussed) are perhaps more visible on this occasion, having struck a centre of wealth and power in London, we need to recognise that injustice lies at the core of almost all disasters.

At the Grenfell Tower and around the world, the poor and the marginalised suffer the most from disasters.

This injustice is not an accident – it is by design. There is no disaster that kills everyone in a particular locality nor one that knocks down all buildings in a single place.

Normally the resources to overcome the impact of natural hazards are available locally. The privileged have access to these resources while those at the margin do not.

Vulnerability to hazards, and related disasters, therefore mirrors how power and resources are unequally shared within societies. More often than not disasters affect people not because of a lack of knowledge about disasters, but because this knowledge is not applied.

Political decisions also put lives at risk. MP Chi Onwurah summarised appropriately when she wrote:
The residents of Grenfell were poor in a rich neighbourhood. They were those the market rejected, a burden on a borough apparently determined the rich should not pay to lift the constraints of the poor.
The British political class has failed to adequately represent the interests of its most vulnerable citizens for decades. That people are consigned to live in such conditions in a wealthy country is at best a betrayal of the vulnerable by the state. Some would call it criminal. It is not only the Tories who must swallow this bitter pill.

Cities are battlegrounds

Cities tend to greatly magnify inequality. The Grenfell Tower disaster is a product of a deep societal divide in Britain, where wealth is increasingly concentrated among a small minority.

Gentrification is pushing already marginalised people out of sight and out of mind. This kind of urban development is a boon for housing market profiteers and supports the ruling class agenda, but neglects the needs of the most needy in society. Marginal people become resourceless, invisible to public policies, and disempowered in public life. This increases their vulnerability.

If cities are to reduce the risk of disasters like the Grenfell fire, we must focus on social justice in urban development. The benefits of development or redevelopment should prioritise the have-nots and provide dignity to people regardless of income or background. Cities that are able to provide opportunities for all citizens are also able to appreciate diversity rather than homogenisation.

The ConversationThe Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disaster, and this terrible moment must be learned from and acted upon. Pushing people to the margins and deeming them worthless is ultimately what causes them to perish.

Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle; Giuseppe Forino, PhD Candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle; J.C. Gaillard, Associate Professor, School of Environment, and Ksenia Chmutina, Lecturer in Sustainable and Resilient Urbanism, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.