The politics behind 'natural disasters'

Floods in Thailand, volcanic eruptions in Java, earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, mudslides in Sri Lanka… We have become used to the notion that we live in a world made (yet more) dangerous by the forces of nature.

Extreme weather events connected with global climate change are only adding to this sense of collective exposure to natural hazards.

In its Annual Disaster Statistical Review, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters reported a total of 330 naturally triggered disasters in 2013, killing a total of 21,610 people.

The world may be ever richer and more technologically sophisticated but, it seems, we are still held hostage to the forces of nature. We are tempted by such events to come to three problematic assumptions.

The first is that these are "natural" disasters. They are, as it were, acts of God.

The second is that such events and their effects are indiscriminate; if countries as wealthy and technologically advanced as Japan or New Zealand can be affected, so can anyone and any place.

The third assumption, especially in the poorer world, is that when people expose themselves to such hazards, ignoring the warning signs, it is due to a combination of fatalism and ignorance. Let's take each assumption in turn.

It's about humans

To be sure, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are natural hazards. They would occur in the absence of humans. Only, however, when people are involved, through loss of life or limb or assets, do they become "disasters". It is at this point, when a hazard connects to humans, that it stops being natural.

A hazard becomes a disaster because of the ways that social, political and economic environments and processes make people vulnerable, exposing them to a hazard in the first place.

In the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, of the 4,000 people who were killed in the Thai coastal province of Phang Nga, around one-third were Thai, one-third were non-Thai, and the final third were never identified. Most of this final group, it is thought, were unregistered migrants from Myanmar.

Why were they residing there on that fateful morning? The explanation lies in Myanmar's long-term developmental failure, the permeability of the Thai- Myanmar border, the demand for cheap labour in Thailand's fishing and construction industries, and the Thai state's willingness to countenance the presence in Thailand of hundreds of thousands of unregistered migrants, the majority from Myanmar.

The hazard may have been natural; the disaster that it fashioned for these individuals and their families back in Myanmar was not. It is all too easy to combine "natural" with "disaster" to forge a term that pushes to the margins the root causes of vulnerability.

In October to November 2011, Thailand experienced its most serious floods in recent memory, with 730 deaths and a bill of US$46 billion (S$59 billion) as a quarter of the main season's rice crop was lost. Ten thousand factories employing 660,000 workers were temporarily closed.

Not everyone, however, was equal in the face of the flood.

Certain areas and people were de facto protected or compensated due to their greater value, greater knowledge, influence and more effective networks. The central plains generally, and Bangkok in particular, got more attention. Those employed in the industrial and service sectors were advantaged over those in agriculture. The Bangkok elite and middle classes were better prepared than the poor and, especially, migrants, who were expected to adapt to the circumstances thrust upon them.

The Thai state's response to the floods reflected deep-seated social and spatial injustices where, even in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime flood, not everyone was equal.

Not so indiscriminate

When confronting events on the scale of the 2004 tsunami or the Thai floods, it is all too easy to overlook the causes of vulnerability and to think, therefore, that their effects are indiscriminate.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert McFadden wrote, two days after the 2004 tsunami, that "the killing and destruction were brutal and indiscriminate".

This was a common sentiment; not only can a tsunami wash across the shores of Japan as much as those of Indonesia, but its victims can be rich tourists in Thailand or poor fisherfolk in Sri Lanka.

But individual disasters reveal a "signature" of casualties that is far from indiscriminate. A study by Oxfam in Aceh following the 2004 tsunami found that almost 80 per cent of the fatalities in the study sites were female. The tsunami struck at around 8am when women were more likely to be at home and exposed to the wave, while men were out working in their fields or on their fishing boats. A different risk calculus

Perplexing, seemingly, is why people choose to live in hazardous locations in the first place, exposing themselves to their effects.

Partly, it is because the poor have little choice; hillside communities of poorly constructed houses in landslide-prone sites are a reflection of poverty and inequality.

Between 1971 and 2010, 4,327 people were killed in landslides in Nepal and over half a million displaced or otherwise affected.

And yet, people continue to move from off-road settlements where they are comparatively safe from landslides to risky roadside locations. It is tempting, in such circumstances, to see a combination of ignorance and fatalism at work.

But in the scheme of things, landslides come a long way down migrants' list of concerns. Proximity to markets, health care and schools trumps exposure to landslides - and these are best accessed from the roadside. Their risk hierarchy is often very different from that of governments and experts who conclude that such roadside migrants are "ignorant" of the risks they are taking.

Hazards are often framed as physical problems requiring technological solutions. Disasters, however, require that we think politically about hazards.

To recognise that poor people's multiple vulnerabilities are also reflected in their exposure to hazards; that there is usually a keen logic to their living with risk; and that social injustice often underpins vulnerability in the first place.

Katie Oven and Jonathan Rigg are, respectively, from the geography departments of Durham University in Britain and the National University of Singapore.

This article was first published on November 10, 2014.
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