No disaster is natural

Floods happen every year at Meadowcreek.  Rain from thousands of acres flows down into our narrow valley. At least once a year the flood gets so strong you can hear the boulders bounding along the creek bottom.  Our favorite swimming holes change their appearance every year as the creek fills up some holes and opens up others. We love to watch the creek at flood stage, though sometimes water over our low water bridges gets so high cars can’t get in or out.  One tree is marked where a blonde in a convertible got washed downstream.

floods-IndiaBut no flood is ever a disaster at Meadowcreek.  Nothing is built down in the floodplain.

People like to talk about natural disasters, but all disasters are man-made.  The worst earthquake or flood in the wilderness wouldn’t be called a disaster.  It might not even be noticed.

There is a subtle but fundamental difference between disasters and hazards. Jean-Jacques Rousseau first noted this difference in 1755 when Portugal was shaken by an earthquake. In a letter to Voltaire one year later, Rousseau notes that, “nature had not built the houses which collapsed” and suggested that Lisbon’s high population density contributed to the toll. In other words, natural events are hazards while disasters are the result of man-made social processes. A hazard need not turn into a disaster.

The distinction might seem academic until you consider the long series of human activities needed to create a disaster.  Disasters were traditionally perceived as sudden and short lived events, but we now know that disasters are continuous processes of gradual deterioration and growing vulnerability.

For some, the natural response to a disaster is to rebuild what was there.  The Mennonite disaster response teams are excellent at swooping in to rebuild houses and get people’s lives back to normal quickly.  They have come several times to rebuild houses after floods in the Yukon River valley in Alaska.  But rebuilding in a flood plain only recreates the process which leads to disaster.

Recently the Mennonites have begun working with villagers in a more resilient approach: moving villages out of the flood plain or building homes which can be moved when flood threatens.

Disasters are processes which begin long before any particular event. They begin as people become less and less integrated with local ecological systems.  In the past, many have used the term vulnerability to describe communities at-risk for disaster. But vulnerability focuses on the negative, the lack of something and implicitly invokes the need for external protection, overlooking the fact that many local coping mechanisms exist.

From the perspective of this top-down approach, international organizations are the rescuers and aid does not arrive until these institutions mobilize.

In contrast, the term resilience suggests self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency implies a degree of autonomy; self-dependence rather than dependence on an external entity that may or may not arrive, that may or may not be effective, and that may or may not stay the course.

It’s hard for aid agencies to accept this approach. Some international aid agencies, such as FAO and OXFAM have even tried to redefine resilience to include access to outside aid.  When they do so, they are looking at resilience not of households or communities, but at a scale which includes the aid agencies.  Resilience at the household or community level cannot depend on outside assistance.

In fact, the fluctuations in policy of aid agencies can be just another disturbance which can cause disasters for households and communities. Not the least of which is dependence on the aid agency.

The foundation of resilience to disasters is the same as the foundation of life: self-organization.  In natural systems, this self-organization is based on the local ecosystem.  Man-made systems must work to insure ecological integration.  To eliminate disruption, many man-made system work to eliminate ecological integration.  Resilient systems incorporate local ecological processes and work to eliminate need for external inputs.

Self-organization and ecological integration are the foundation, but resilient systems have a few additional qualities.  Resilience is maximized when this foundation is joined with conservative innovation, redundancy, modular connectivity, building infrastructure, complementary diversity, and an embrace of transformation.

Learn more about all these qualities of resilient systems at:

One thought on “No disaster is natural

  1. Pingback: Indigenous people and resilience: the Choctaw of Mississippi | Resilience

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