How Hazards Become Disasters

Dec 2012

English | اردو

The development-industrial complex ignores the structural inequality that turns natural hazards into disasters.

The state and global institutions of governance talk about disasters as a technical problem. They talk about disaster management using certain keywords and terms, such as vulnerability, risk reduction, and disaster preparedness. This techno-bureaucratic talk is rooted in an ideology that consciously and systematically tries to distract us from the real issue — that disasters are as much caused by structural inequality and poverty as by climate and weather based events. This ideology tries to sell quick-fixes or technological innovations to address issues that require deep, wide, and long-term political solutions. The maneuvor is not simply distracting, it ends up increasing the vulnerability of the people on the frontlines of these disasters.

When disasters strike, there’s a sense of urgency, almost on the same lines as in a car accident. There’s an urgent and very real need for quick relief and rescue operations, and the goal is to minimize the loss of life and long-term injury. But unlike an accident, disasters hint at the underlying cancerous sores and inner wounds that require stronger and more sustained treatment. The rescue and relief phases after disasters end quickly, within hours, days or weeks. But the long and gruelling process of recovery and rehabilitation can last several years, if not decades. The long-term nature of responding to disasters is not helped in any way by the misplaced sense of urgency that is associated with ‘disaster management’, be it in popular consciousness or policy planning.

In the technical jargon used by disaster management experts, the long-term focus is on vulnerability—i.e. the extent to which people are capable of dealing with environmental and social shocks. But peek under the hood and you’ll see that the policies designed by these experts don’t address underlying structural inequality that keeps a large number of people vulnerable.

Consider the example of the 2012 floods in Pakistan, which caused 500 deaths and affected several million people. The most vulnerable groups are the poor and the landless, who are often forced to live in flood-prone areas. The problems are further compounded by the various irrigation development projects that are designed for the benefit of the landed and wealthy elites. In the case of 2012 floods, development projects are responsible for transforming the seasonal hill torrents of Suleiman range into sources of large-scale flash floods. But the response by disaster experts does not engage with any of these issues of development, power inequalities, and the real sources of vulnerabilities. There’s plenty of talk about early warning systems, selling flood insurance to the poor, introduce schemes for livelihood often through micro-finance loans that do not work, and many other patch-work of ready-made solutions. Their hammers’ a-plenty, and all they see are nails — hitting hard at the heads and thumbs of the poor.

The development-disaster industrial complex

The hammer of disaster management is forged in the fires of the development industrial complex. The same global financial institutions and international organizations that set the agenda for disaster management also deal with issues of development and poverty. This development-disaster apparatus consists of IFIs, UN agencies, and some international NGOs whose annual budgets exceed that of sovereign nations. These global and local development sector organizatoin do not exist outside the structure of powers. Scholarly and activist work has shown for decades that redistribution of wealth and power is necessary to address structural inequality, which is the key source of vulnerability. But the development sector continues to ignore the real issues and thus continues to exacerbate the problem.

Unfortunately, recent changes in the outlook of the development-disaster complex have been for the worst. Large corporations and for-profit groups have started to dominate the development-disaster sector, which used to comprise mostly of non-profits, welfare organizations, and government agencies. The old actors weren’t saints, but these new actors with their shiny suits and profit motives are even better at turning the wheels of this development-disaster-moredevelopment-moredisaster-evenmoredevelopment-evenmoredisaster machinery. This has become a recurring nightmare.

This new development ideology has reduced the role of government to coordination efforts. Governments, in theory at least, are accountable to the people, and are also responsible for the people. But the new and shiny development-disaster complex responds either to donor pressures or to profit motives. Local NGOs and civil society actors are enrolled in the service of this complex, even if they are well-intentioned. Their role is reduced to local implementation but provides the façade of local participation, which makes the imposition of policies from outside-and-above seem less pernicious.

As a result of these policies, delivery on basic needs for the lowest strata of society is being privatized. This trend goes hand in hand with an infusion of cash into the hands of the poor through post-disaster cash grants, micro-finance, and micro-insurance schemes. This money is much needed by the poor. There is ample evidence which shows that cash grants are effective in the short-term, i.e. during rescue and relief phase of disasters. But the long-term effects, in terms of reduction of poverty, are non-existent.

The development-disaster complex siphons money from the lowest strata of society—good for business, but not necessarily good for people. People at the bottom are spending more of this grant and compensation money; corporations and for-profit firms that are in the business of development are earning profits; and nothing is being done about structural inequality—except perhaps increasing its magnitude.

Another alarming fact is that this business is actually subsidized by tax payer money.

Most of the money used to pay for development corporation profits and the salaries of experts, technocrats and consultants comes in the form of loans. And all of this is increasing our debt burden.

The loans for the relief-reconstruction projects after the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods add up to almost 7 billion dollars. Then there’s the debt incurred due to the massive investments in the remodeling of irrigation system for the sake of economic growth–which is linked to increased risk of floods. The World Bank’s own evaluations claim that these investments in irrigation projects have to do with GDP growth, not directly with poverty reduction.

Generally, we are sold the idea that in a democratic system people get to choose governments that make policies, and these policies must have a positive impact on people’s lives. In return, we pay pay taxes so pro-people policies are designed and implemented.

But now we keep paying taxes and playing the game of democracy through elections, but the state is withering away. There is no accountability of technical experts, consultants, NGO workers, and businessmen who are better off than they were before—thanks to our mega-disasters.

The misplaced sense of urgency and infusion of large amounts of money in the post-disaster context force these changes upon us without much deliberation and debate. We need to slow down. We need to think deeper, longer, harder. We need to loose this sense of urgency.

So let’s get rid of this sense of urgency and recognize that disasters are a permanent condition. Let’s talk about these floods within this broader debate of the role and responsibility of the state towards its citizens.

Ahsan Kamal teaches politics and history at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. He was involved in research on relief and reconstruction activities after the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods.

Pages: 1 2

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 Responses to How Hazards Become Disasters

  1. Divya on May 2015 at 4:16 AM

    Thank you so much. This is very usefull

  2. james franklin on Jun 2017 at 6:06 AM

    answer is not to the point it is totally different from the question

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *