Disasters and the traps of poverty and wealth

UN HQ in Haiti after the earthquake

Today’s post is contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY

We like to categorize disasters into two types – natural and man-made. 2011 has begun with massive flooding in agricultural regions of Northeast Australia causing shoppers to brace for the inevitable increase in food prices that will soon follow. Just one death so far though and no doubt the rugged Australian farmer will get through this latest assault by Nature.

In 2010 we had a very well publicized example of a disaster of the man-made type in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico where 11 workers were killed and an enormous drilling structure incinerated and crumpled onto the sea floor causing an oil spill of historic proportions that threatened the Gulf coast. Pundits kept upping the drama of the event from the worst environmental disaster ever, to Obama’s Katrina, Obama’s 9/11 and even Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis! None of this proved to be true and given the scale of the event itself – more oil released into the ocean than ever before – the scale of environmental damage seems to be not so great, not compared to what we all thought might be the consequences. We were all expecting thousands upon thousands of oil soaked seabirds but there were relatively few and just days after the seafloor gusher was finally plugged there was hardly any oil to be found anywhere.

On Boxing Day the New York Times published an extensive analysis of what went wrong 50 miles offshore Louisiana, the mistakes that were made many from inaction by workers on the drill rig though disaster was staring them in the face. The Times did not say so outright but it does seem that disaster could have been avoided. Certainly people will be held accountable. Someone will be blamed; perhaps many people will share the blame.

Who do we blame for the earthquake in Haiti earlier in the year on January 11th that killed around a quarter of a million people? (more…)

Again the phantom city burns

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY and Elisabeth King, a political scientist researching conflict, peacebuilding and development in Sub-Saharan Africa and postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

How much do the tent cities forming around Port-au-Prince remind us of the camps set up to shelter those who have fled the violence of civil war?  How much do the ruins in the streets of that city remind us of the destruction of violence?  The scope of the casualties, perhaps more than 200,000 (we’ll never know the true figure), certainly echoes numbers we hear from war zones. To the Haitian President René Préval the similarities are stark.  A few days after the earthquake he said “The damage I have seen here can be compared to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days. It is like in a war.”   Such similarities between disasters and violent conflict are often noted superficially, especially by the news media in the immediate aftermath, and this has certainly been the case in reports about Haiti’s earthquake.

Perhaps we might expect remarks of this sort in reference to places like Haiti that have a history of conflict but such analogies are common, even in places that do not have a history of violent conflict.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters commented on how that scene appeared like a war zone.  When the National Guard arrived in New Orleans, the disaster relief operation transformed into the military operation of restoring and maintaining order and images of soldiers in armored vehicles with weapons at the “ready” position were indistinguishable from those we commonly associate with peacekeeping in conflict situations.

The analogy ought not to be taken too far and certainly, there are very important differences between disasters and violent conflicts.  Natural disasters are generally portrayed as the result of a capricious act of nature, perhaps made worse by human agency, while conflicts are usually thought of as acts of one group of people against another.  Nature is rarely invoked as a cause of conflict despite a growing recognition that environmentally driven scarcity could enhance social stresses and raise tensions.  With the exception perhaps of extended periods of drought, most natural disasters are shorter duration events than conflicts and none match the extended civil conflicts in Sudan or Colombia.   There are no obvious analogies to war crimes or war crime trials and no equivalents to truth and reconciliation efforts though there is little doubt that there is opportunistic criminal behavior during disasters and legal actions sometimes follow.  Nor is there an equivalent to a negotiated ceasefire or victory by one party over another.

Yet there is more at work here than the somewhat gratuitous media comparisons between disasters and conflicts might suggest.   (more…)

Haiti: We knew what to do even before the earthquake

Brian Tucker, President of Geohazards International (GHI) contributed this article to the Guardian. GHI’s work focuses on reducing loss of life and suffering due to natural disasters in the world’s most vulnerable countries, through preparedness, mitigation and advocacy.

The disaster that struck Haiti, in the form of an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, has delivered death and devastation, ruin and suffering, on a deeply tragic scale. But this was not an “act of God”, in that it was not an event that could not have been foreseen.

While earthquakes are not as frequent as hurricanes in the Caribbean, they are common. Today it is well known that poor design and construction practice results in buildings that are sure to collapse during earthquakes of this magnitude, killing and maiming those caught in them and leaving a trail of social disruption, sometimes for generations.

It’s like seeing an accident caused by a drunk driver you’ve tried repeatedly to stop drinking and driving.

Japan and the US state of California have improved their building codes and construction standards to reflect their seismic vulnerability, and the lethality of earthquakes in both places has been massively reduced during the last century. We know how to mitigate the devastating effects of earthquakes.

For someone like myself, who has devoted most of his professional life to reducing loss of life and suffering due to natural disasters, to see the images coming out of Haiti is like seeing the scene of an accident caused by a drunk driver you have tried repeatedly to stop drinking and driving. (more…)

Haiti: Not a hope in hell?

A common reaction to the earthquake in Haiti has been to talk about the country as “cursed”. This could give the impression that what happened is somehow beyond human capacity to forestall. But one of the most chilling aspects of the earthquake is the lack of surprise expressed by experts from a number of domains about the scale of the destruction and loss of life.

In his 2009 Mallet-Milne Lecture on The Seismic Future of Cities, Roger Bilham stated that “It should be appalling to the people of the world that in 2009, more than a 100 years after earthquake resistant construction began to be understood and implemented by engineers, that it is possible to write an article forecasting large numbers of future earthquake fatalities from the collapse of cities.

For Professor Bilham and his colleagues, geophysics is only part of the explanation. Loss of life on the scale seen in Haiti is not “natural” in the modern world. A similar quake that hit the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995 caused widespread destruction and even if it killed 6434 people, casualties in this densely-populated area were far less than in Port-au-Prince.

Why did Haiti’s capital collapse? It’s on a well-known seismic fault line and has experienced shocks before, but nothing seemed to be built to resist earthquakes. Even the presidential palace was destroyed. For Bilham, it’s a political question. “In some cities… corruption has effectively replaced governance… Officials and politicians may find themselves being pressured to exercise flexibility in the interpretation of building codes. The resulting structures may contain numerous violations, to be discovered only when the structure collapses.”

But what does governance mean here? An OECD report cited Haiti as a “paradigmatic example” of the severest form of fragile state, where the legitimacy of the state is challenged, where the states’ capabilities and resources are low and where there are only rudimentary or fractured political processes for handling the resultant tensions. (more…)