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Disasters and the traps of poverty and wealth

5 January 2011

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? Is the answer that no one is to blame because the disaster was categorized as natural? Was human agency uninvolved? There is an old and true saying among seismologists – earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people. Virtually the only cause of death in an earthquake is the massive trauma caused by building collapse when homes, businesses and schools transform from familiar sunny places of comfort to dark alien tombs. You need an earthquake to have an earthquake disaster, that’s the natural part of it but you equally must have buildings and buildings are man-made.

So if buildings kill people and people build buildings then do people really kill people in earthquakes? Did people make mistakes in the way buildings were built in Haiti that caused so much death? Could proper action have avoided disaster just like in the Gulf of Mexico? Failure to enforce building codes, that’s the answer! That’s what we always hear. The Earth writhed and the buildings killed because they were not built to code. Corruption and state failure caused the deaths in Haiti; that’s it.

It is equally easy to blame corruption, even neglect and malfeasance or regulatory failure in The Gulf of Mexico too. But the Earth writhed there as well. It pushed back hard at the drillers as they tried to complete the well and move on to the next. Natural pressure from deep in the Earth more than matched all the engineering and emergency training the drillers could muster and they could not combat Nature’s forces.

In almost every disaster, whether we chose to call them natural or man-made, blame can genuinely be assigned. Not everyone acts well, some people act very badly and should be brought to task for their actions (or inactions). But in both these seemingly very different 2010 disaster Nature met human nature and we were overcome.

Despite weekly safety training on the rig, when the Earth vomited its fluids and gases upward highly skilled people were transfixed and could not think what to do. They may have been trained in safety procedures but they had seen nothing like this before. On the streets of Port au Prince no one who saw the buildings shake and collapse had ever seen anything like it. Two hundred years had passed since the last significant earthquake in Haiti. How could anyone know what to do? Why would anyone of such meager means as the average Haitian think it made sense to go to the extra cost of strengthening their home against earthquakes? Hurricanes yes, they happen all the time but earthquakes, they never happen!

We can’t do much about Nature and we seem unable to do much about human nature either so disasters will continue to happen and likely in even greater number. No society rich or poor is immune to them but they are very different actors for the rich and the poor. In Haiti the earthquake victims were equally victims of a poverty trap that binds them to live unprotected in urban slums, the worlds most vulnerable places. In the Gulf of Mexico we were taking greater and greater risks to force Nature to give up more of the liquid that has helped create our wealth, swimming in our wealth trap.

The great difference is that our wealth will allow us to shake off the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Maybe we have already. Poor Haiti will not shake off its disaster – it is set to deepen Haiti’s trauma. National wealth is not the answer for everyone. Vast sections of the poorest parts of New Orleans appear still as they did in first few months after Hurricane Katrina. Wealth doesn’t get you past politics either and so every plan for rebuilding Lower Manhattan after 9/11 has stumbled. Wealth may be the source of many problems in today’s world but it is the way out of disaster vulnerability. To help Haiti withstand the next disaster made inevitable by Nature and our own nature we must act to put the country on a road to economic prosperity. We absolutely must stop talking about recovery. Recover to what? We must set goals well beyond return to pre-disaster conditions or next time, whether next year or in decades to come another quarter million Haitians will die.

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