01 March, 2010

There are no natural disasters, only social catastrophes

Sergio Abranches

Put together an extreme natural event, a vulnerable population and a reckless government and a social catastrophe is very likely to obtain. The cost: a large preventable death toll.

“Carelessness could be the biggest enemy. In the past, even if the waves were not so big, there has been great damage with 2-metre high tsunami,” prime minister Yukio Hatoyama said about the alert after the earthquake in Chile.

The government ordered 245,000 households along Japan’s Pacific coast to evacuate. Afterwards the risk may have seemed overstated. One should consider, however, that Chile’s was the sixth most powerful earthquake ever registered on a seismographer. Fortunately, only waves of up to 30 cm (12 inches) hit Japan’s northern Pacific coast and the town of Nemuro, 970 km northeast of  Tokyo, said Reuters.

Hatoyama is right. There are no natural catastrophes. Catastrophes are always human-made. They are social, not physical, phenomena. A catastrophe happens when a high-intensity or extreme natural event meets a vulnerable population, with a weak, unprepared or reckless government.

Natural events are largely unpredictable, uncontrollable and large-scale. It is not possible to avoid them. That’s why adaptation and preparedness are so important to reduce the death toll and widespread public and private property damage. Prevention requires urban and land-use planning, buildings adapted to the most frequent events, early-warning systems, preparedness measures, well trained, equipped and alert disaster rescue teams.

It is far better to apologize for overrating the risk of tsunamis, as the Hawaiian and Japanese authorities have done, than accounting for the deaths due to unpreparedness. On both countries, the memory of other actual extreme events justifies every precautionary measure. And we are talking about people of developed countries.

Poor populations are the most vulnerable to extreme natural hazards: they’re largely unassisted, there are no nearby disaster rescue resources. Such resources are generally deployed near the wealthier parts of the cities. Their homes are inadequate and highly vulnerable. They often live in high concentrations of people per square foot, increasing the social scale of harm. It is a tragic recipe for catastrophe all too common in large regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Add any strong natural ingredient to this recipe and human tragedy becomes a certainty: tropical storms, flooding, land and mudslides, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis will provoke a massive number of deaths.

A decade ago, an analysis of ‘natural disasters’ in Latin America already alerted that the majority countries in the region would rather adopt a policy of reconstruction and post-disaster international assistance, than a strategy of disaster prevention.

Rather than taking a proactive approach towards risk management focused on risk reduction and preparedness, the region continues to rely upon costly reconstruction processes and post-disaster international assistance. This reactive stance is not only costly in terms of lives and destroyed assets, but also appears largely unsustainable as worldwide international assistance decreases and natural disaster proneness increases everywhere. This is why the improvement of risk management appears essential to guarantee the protection and future progress of economic and social development in the region.

A study recently published by the Wilson Center shows that poverty is a central component of vulnerability to natural hazards.

The capacity to survive and recover from the effects of a natural disaster is the result of two factors: the physical magnitude of the disaster in a given area, and the socioeconomic conditions of individuals or social groups in that area. Vulnerability is differentiated by social groups in almost all natural disasters. Altogether, it is estimated that 90% of victims and 75% of all economic damages accrue to developing countries.

In Central America and a large part of South America, social conditions significantly increase the risk of catastrophes due to exposure to frequent extreme natural events. In richer countries like Brazil, social inequalities coupled with bad governance have the same effect: vulnerable populations are as exposed and fragile to natural hazards as the dispossessed from the poorer countries of the region.

In Central America, the relationship between socio-economic conditions and the impact of natural disasters can generally be expressed as follows: economic constraints force the poor to live in precarious homes, made of flimsy, nondurable materials, on the least-valued plots of land. The poor build their shacks on steep hillsides; on floodplains; in fragile ecosystems and watersheds; and on contaminated land, right-of-ways, and other inappropriate areas. Even government housing and urban-development policies tend to overlook environmental constraints and lack adequate information for land-use planning. Inappropriate location invites serious social and environmental problems, which are aggravated by deforestation as well as by inadequate management of rainwater and wastes. During disasters, inadequate services and infrastructure further complicate survival efforts.

An impact analysis of 1998 hurricane Mitch shows that in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, the most badly hit municipalities had the higher indices of poverty. In Honduras, the illiterate population had a relative risk of being affected my Mitch about 80 times greater than the population from the highest educational levels. Huge differences were also found between households headed by illiterate persons and those headed by persons with at least elementary education.

Haiti is just like that. Even worse. Look at Haiti’s death toll: more than 200,000. Chile is nothing like that. Its death toll will probably end below 2,00o people, in spite of having been hit by a much stronger earthquake and a larger tsunami. Chile has trained rescue teams that have already proved effective during other disasters of large dimensions. Concepción, the city that was directly hit by the earthquake and the tsunami this weekend, has faced other extreme events. In 1960, a 9.5 quake on the Richter scale, the largest ever registered by instruments, hit its southern coastal area.

After decades of continued growth, Chile has a US$ 14,000 per capita income.  The difference of the 10% highest earnings to the 10% lowest  has dropped by 21% between 1990 and 2006. The proportion of poor people in the population has dropped 64%, and the proportion of  people in extreme poverty, 75%, over the same period.

Chile’s social problems are not solved. There is still a lot to do. But the vulnerability of its population has been considerably reduced. This helps to explain to a large extent why the death toll is smaller today than it was when events of a lesser strength have hit the country in the past. Preparedness helps to explain another important part of the reduction of human losses.

Extreme climatic events will increase in frequency or intensity, or both over the next years and decades. Countries like Brazil, fortunate not to have severe earthquakes, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. In its urban centers and peripheries there are large numbers of people exposed to very high risks. The country spends billions of dollars every year on recovery and only a few million on prevention. Its housing policies do not consider environmental and natural risks and vulnerabilities. Location studies are inept. Application criteria lack transparency, and house distribution does not give priority to the people under higher environmental and climatic risk. A perfect recipe for disaster.

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