Un/natural Disasters, Here and There
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Stephen Jackson is a former relief worker with operational and research experience in complex humanitarian emergencies in Africa, Asia and Europe. He is currently the associate director of the SSRC's Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum.

In October 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake struck California with a force equal to 7.1 on the Richter scale, claiming more than 60 lives.

In February 1997, an earthquake struck north-western Iran, tearing apart rural areas and claiming 1000 lives. This earthquake was roughly one-fortieth Loma Prieta’s strength1 — but it killed more than 16 times as many people.

Three months later, a stronger tremor, exactly equal in force to the California quake, again struck Iran – this time in the east, killing a further 1,000 people.

There’s much that is unnatural in how natural disasters claim lives.

Between 1991 and 2001, 2,557 natural disasters were reported worldwide. Of those who died in these floods, earthquakes, famines, droughts and epidemics, just 2 percent hailed from countries considered ‘highly developed’ in international rankings. Two-thirds of the dead came from the world’s ‘least developed countries’ (LDCs).2 Over the same period, on average 23 people would die in disasters in developed countries against 1,052 in the LDCs.

Un/natural Disasters

The scale of a disaster’s impact has much less to do with, say, an earthquake’s Richter force or a hurricane’s category strength than with the political economy of the country or region that it strikes. To underline this point, and drawing on a body of earlier research, a team from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva (of which I was a member) proposed that we learn to think in terms of “Un/natural Disasters”.3 As IFRC Secretary-General Didier Cherpitel wrote at the time,

In many cases, nature’s contribution to ‘natural’ disasters is simply to expose the effects of deeper, structural causes – from global warming and unplanned urbanization to trade liberalization and political marginalization. The effects of man’s action are often evident – many natural catastrophes are un/natural in their origins”.

Penned in 2001, these words provide a forlorn epitaph for Katrina’s dead.

Proximately, the havoc that disasters wreak – including mortality, displacement, economic destruction – is determined by four factors.

The first of these is pre-disaster preparedness and mitigation. From constructing housing (or levees) to withstand natural stocks to pre-positioning adequate relief supplies and preparing realistic evacuation plans, the ability of communities and societies to plan ahead to resist disaster is critical.

Second, the in-disaster coping capacities of affected populations: are there resources on which they are able to fall back? In some hunger-prone regions of the world, for example, ‘famine foods’ – not eaten in good times but growing wild and freely available – can provide some meager support in periods of scarcity. In developed ones, have communities been able to build up and ensure access to stockpiles of canned goods, drinking water and first aid supplies? Or has their ability to build up a margin of safety been whittled away by poverty and marginalisation?

Third, the immediacy, quantity, efficiency and coverage of the disaster response: each element is critical. Response may be timely but insufficient, ignoring key communities; or, as is all too frequent in the case of major “CNN catastrophes” which creep onto the world’s television screens, the response may eventually be large but months too late. The response to Hurricane Katrina has proven unacceptable on all these fronts: neither timely, efficient, nor sufficient.

Finally the longer term commitment of governments and other actors to post-disaster recovery: long after the flood waters and the tv cameras both recede, reconstruction and rehabilitation are critical in rebuilding shattered lives and livelihoods. But continued commitment (and investment) at this point can capitalise on a unique opportunity to build towards the reduction of future disasters. Neither the recent comments by House Speaker Dennis Hastert that it would be pointless to rebuild New Orleans4, nor those of former First Lady Barbara Bush asserting that the Hurricane-displaced sheltering in a Houston relocation site were now “better off” than before the disaster5, encourage optimism that the political understanding, will or attention is there to undertake the long term work of building capacity to resist future disaster in New Orleans.

For, important as these four factors are, the politics of poverty is the critical determinant which underlies and compromises each of them.

The Politics of Vulnerability

Seeking to illustrate the critical role of political exclusion in producing vulnerability to disaster, in 2000/1 the IFRC’s Seán Deely and I researched the “drought” then affecting much of Central Asia. In late 2000, Tajikistan’s President had issued an urgent appeal for international assistance to combat a looming crisis of hunger. President Rakhmonov pointed out that during 2000 Tajikistan’s rainfall had been the “the lowest in 74 years” and domestic cereal production (wheat is the staple crop) was down an enormous 47% on the previous year (which had, itself, been a poor harvest).

A priori, then, a major drought and famine was in the offing in Tajikistan, requiring immediate and obvious humanitarian response.

But even then, a moment’s research on the Internet was all that was needed to learn that in the same “drought” year, Tajikistan’s aggregate agricultural output actually grew overall by 12.4%. This growth was predominantly in cotton, a crop hugely thirsty for irrigation, at the expense of domestic food production. A thorny question grew in our minds: ‘when is a ‘drought’ not a drought?’

Field research illustrated an all too familiar pattern: post-Soviet “privatisation” had seen collective farms seized in land-grabs by unscrupulous elites – sometimes new entrepreneurs, sometimes the old communist Nomenklatura reinventing themselves. Peasant farmers worked miniscule land allocations to grow their food, granted by these elites (with very little security of tenure from year to year) in return for labour on cotton production on the collective farms (now re-dubbed “agricultural cooperatives”). The un-maintained, Soviet-era irrigation system was falling apart, producing half the water it had. What little water remained was being prioritised to cotton, one of the country’s three main foreign currency earners: “cotton is given absolute priority at all levels of government” wrote the World Bank in its 2000 Poverty Assessment.6

Needless to add, Tajikistan’s peasant people threatened by famine could neither eat cotton nor sell it: it belonged to the collective farms on which they laboured and the elites that controlled them. To cap it all, the “drought” arrived on top of a country still shattered by a five-year civil war that followed Tajikistan’s abrupt transition to independence in 1991. In all, lower-than-average rainfall was little more than a precipitant for throwing Tajikistan’s stark and growing inequalities into sharp relief.

”It’s a Pity the Sun Gets So Hot There...”

The IFRC’s argument about “un/natural” disasters was one attempt at challenging deeply embedded Western perceptions about the origins of disaster vulnerability. As an Irishman, for example, I had often been struck by the prevailing doublethink concerning famine at home. What is known colloquially in the US as the “Potato Famine” is never called that on the streets of Dublin. Strike up a conversation about potato blight in a Dublin Pub and you can rely on being informed that, yes, while the potato crop did begin to fail in 1845, what really caused more than a million to die and two million more to emigrate between 1845 and 1851 was colonialism, land injustice and laissez-faire economics.

But strike up a conversation in the same pub about famine in Somalia, say – as I frequently have – and one is just as likely to hear “Ah yeah – it’s a pity the sun gets so hot there…” What happens “here” could never account for what happens “there” – and vice versa.

The widely reported post-Tsunami reaction of many Indonesians to Hurricane Katrina represents an understandable inversion of this belief system – deep sympathy mixed with rank incomprehension that a tragedy of this scale should be allowed to unfold “over there”. How could a society as wealthy, technologically accomplished and, above all, supposedly organised as the United States allow such a tragedy to befall so many of its citizens? Was there no awareness, no preparation, no immediacy of response?

The answer to that question has been laid bare by Katrina: as Didier Cherpitel would no doubt still put it, the hurricane winds have starkly exposed the effects of deeper, structural causes: the marginalisation, disenfranchisement and racial exclusion of America’s poor. Those holding the high ground – predominantly white and middle/upper class – could choose to go or stay. Those living in the lower areas were flooded out or drowned. Evacuation plans counted on being able to drive away from danger; but what percentage of New Orleans’ predominantly African-American underclass owned cars?

As the UN’s just published Human Development Report 20057 makes clear, inequality within the US is becoming as stark as the inequality between it and other countries. America’s infant mortality has been rising for the past five years and African-American children are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white ones. A baby boy from one of the top 5 percent of richest families in America can now expect to live 25 percent longer than a boy born in the bottom 5 percent.

“The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort,” said President Bush, but all indications are that both the storm’s impact and the recovery effort already have.8 If Katrina’s storm clouds are to have any silver lining, it may be this: to teach us in the rich parts of the world what the poor have always known from bitter experience: that whether “here” or “there”, no disaster is ever “natural”.


1 With a strength of 5.5 – the Richter scale is logarithmic.

2 “Disaster Data: Key Trends and Statistics”, in the World Disasters Report 2001, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva.

3 For a variety of case studies illustrating these points, see the 2001 World Disasters Report.

4 “Hastert Questions Rebuilding New Orleans”: The Associated Press. Thursday, September 1, 2005; 11:11 PM. 

5 “Barbara Bush Calls Evacuees Better Off”, The New York Times, September 7, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07 /national/nationalspecial/07barbara.html?incamp=article_popular

6 http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2000/08/14/000094946_00080105305244/Rendered/INDEX/multi_page.txt

7 http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2005/

8 http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/09/12/katrina.impact/index.html