Tuesday, August 6, 2019

It's About Helping People Help Themselves

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I recently re-read a fascinating paper by O’Brien, et al., titled "Climate Change and Disaster Management," published over a decade ago in the journal Disasters [2006, 30(I):64-80].   

The piece is built on the premise that “climate change, though a natural phenomenon, is accelerated by human activities.” It opens by citing statistics that bear out that “disasters triggered by natural hazards are killing more people over time and costing more.” This is, sadly, a trend that has continued, not abated, over the intervening years since the article’s publication.

The paper’s authors profoundly underscore the notion that, while hazards are natural, disasters are man-made. This is something discussed on this site frequently.  The article describes situations in developing countries, for instance, where entire populations have no choice but to live in flood-prone areas. 

“Hazards, such as floods, are natural events; however, disasters are not natural.  In Latin America, it has been common for some time to define disasters as ‘failed development…’ Since risk is a function of both hazard and vulnerability, and hazards are, at least to some extent, known and constant, vulnerability appears to be the main factor that distinguishes between those who suffer loss and those who escape it.”

A comprehensive approach to risk management “would integrate natural hazards mitigation, routine development efforts,… and efforts to address climate change.”  So, the writers ask, “what approach to planning is compatible with all three and provides a bridge among natural hazards mitigation, sustainable human development and adaptation to climate change?" Their answer is that “climate change adaptation needs to become part and parcel of comprehensive risk management.”

“The underlying drive of disaster management is to reduce risk to both human life and to systems important to livelihoods. Risk to human populations is a function of the frequency of a hazard event, its severity, and people’s vulnerability. Vulnerability depends on many factors that influence the amount of damage and the loss of human life that a particular hazard can cause. These variables include exposure, physical susceptibility, socio-economic fragility, and lack of resilience.  Vulnerability, and hence risk, is socially determined… and vulnerability is made up of ‘the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, to cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard.’”

Definitions aside, what is important here is, in my opinion, that the decisions we make influence the severity of the impact of a natural hazard on our communities.  “Investments and development activities are almost never risk-neutral.”  The notion of defining a disaster as “failed development” raises a host of questions about why and how we often ignore (or minimize) the potential impact of a hazard event when, for instance, choosing a location for development or choosing how best to construct improvements in areas we know to be prone to natural hazards.

“Adaptation to climate change may involve some very difficult political choices. For instance, long-term changes to land use are likely to be required (affecting agriculture and forestry, the use of coasts, estuaries and river resources and settlement patterns and infrastructure).  It may be necessary to instigate a process of managed retreats from those areas that will become unusable, involving relocation to areas that offer security and opportunity. To deal with such serious matters, national decision-making will require strong, sustainable and accepted institutional structures and a population and civil society educated in the issues and alternatives.

For those who lack the choices populations in more developed countries enjoy, “risk management cannot, of itself, address the underlying causes of poverty. But if approached from the standpoint of resilience, it can help to build those structures that will enable a greater degree of self-help. It is about helping people to help themselves. The mechanisms, resources and capacity do exist.”

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