Disaster resilience, or just resilience?

Japan Times reported on 15th July that disaster planning needs to be reconsidered in anticipation for the ‘Big One’. By Big One, they are referring to the Great Tokai/Tonankai/Nankai Earthquake that has been anticipated for years now. The calculations are based on the frequency of seismic movement in the Tokyo area. For those so inclined, a detailed presentation from Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) can be found here.

However, not everyone agrees with what JMA is saying and doing. Geller argues in Nature (Vol. 472, April 2011) that predictions and methods of measuring the likelihood and timing of earthquakes and other related disturbances, based on the seismic-gap hypothesis (which in layman’s terms means a segment of a fault that has not moved in a significant amount of time), that provide the foundations for Japanese government’s disaster hazard predictions, have proven inconsistent with real life events. Geller continues to evidence his position by showing that over the last 30 years, “Earthquakes that have caused 10 or more fatalities in Japan have occurred in places that it [the government] designates as low risk“.

According to Geller, and other researchers agree, that assumptions on the arrival of earthquakes have been faulty. While others attribute this on inefficient prediction models, Geller argues that it is in fact the the bias in public perception awarded to the anticipated Tokai Earthquake that may in fact be harmful to the overall disaster mitigation as perceptions of risk can skew public policies and funding structures. In other words, it’s about politics, bureaucracy and money.

While disaster mitigation in Japan appears to be moving to the direction of pre-planning and away from the old hazard paradigm where disasters happen irrespective of human intervention and mitigation should focus on preventing damages and cushioning the blow so to speak. What the Japan Times article does highlight is the fact that Japan should start planning for the disaster recovery as well ahead of time. If a disaster hits, what are the priorities and how should we recovery from it?

There is plenty of evidence and research conducted on the value of pre-planning and Japanese communities should take it up as part of their disaster mitigation efforts. After all, disasters have the tendency to accelerate the existing patterns of development in a given community, be it growth or decline.

However, I feel that the Japan Times article misses the point in two vital respects: firstly, what is the involvement on communities in the process of recovery pre-planning? How are communities integrated into the decision-making process as agents, not mere consultative bodies? And secondly, is pre-planning merely a question of disaster recovery or should communities rather be actively planning for the sustainability of their economies, social ties and cultural values in general, with disaster mitigation inserted into general development activities? The article calls for disaster resilience, but surely true resilience against natural calamities lies in a more holistic understanding of resilience that is working towards eradicating injustices within economic, political and social power structures and turning them into advocates of solidarity and local agency?

Natural and human systems are intertwined and disasters are largely socially constructed, which means that how we operate in times of normalcy will have an effect on the way we also experience abnormalcy. Building resilience against disasters is all good and fine, but unless we understand the underlying root causes of vulnerability and how vulnerabilities are constructed within the social system, resilience will be meaningless. Social injustices based on income, gender and age are the biggest causes of vulnerability (this was proven in Japan when investigating into how and who faced devastation, see UNISDR for more information) and not just vulnerability in the face of disasters, but in the face of recovery as well.

There is no concept of a ‘disaster’ unless it has consequences for human settlements, so it is also time to re-frame the whole discussion away from the linear and event-based understanding of disasters before we can start talking about recovery and disaster mitigation in any meaningful way. Disasters and the processes to either avert, cope and recover from them should not be separated into their own entities, but rather integrated into generic processes of economic, social and cultural development of regions at risk (which let’s face it, is the entire country of Japan). Particularly since the primary risks to the communities and regions do not actually stem from the risk of natural calamities, but from social causes, such as lack of employment and other opportunities, aging and depopulation as in the case of Tohoku.

Giving communities the tools and authority to direct, if not govern, their own development with the support of local authorities may seem radical, but it is by no means irrational. There are plenty of studies that have proven that community participation and direction are important to sustainable recovery of communities and regions, with areas where residents were not only better organised but also full participants in the recovery processes experiencing better and faster recovery outcome. Most of these communities had the structures and networks of communication in place before the disaster, and maintained a level of cohesion and consensus that enabled them to reach mutual decisions faster. While I remain skeptical of the underlying aims of social capital generation as part of the resilience paradigm, Daniel Aldrich’s work on social capital as an indicator of recovery for instance is rather inspiring.

Despite the large scale reach and devastation experienced in Tohoku, each community is unique in the way they have experienced the physical impact and the consequences of recovery. Given the chance, local communities and residents have the experiences and expertise to direct recovery into the direction that provides meaning to their lives and offers them opportunities to remain rooted in the area. However, communities need opportunities to understand their experiences and what they mean to them as individuals and collectively as a community. These experiences and meanings attached to them are the foundation from which recovery can (and should) be actioned in a participatory, self-directed and sustainable manner.

It is not therefore only disasters, or the ‘Big One’ that Japan needs to prepare for. They are battling with a disaster of a social nature that will result in a greater number of vulnerable groups and individuals facing natural calamities. There is a dire need not for ‘disaster resilience’, but a mental shift that increases resilience in general by addressing the root causes of vulnerabilities that manifested themselves in the latest disaster on a local scale. This is where we need communities’ guidance to help us understand what vulnerability really means.

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