Radix - Radical Interpretations of Disaster

Rolling the Stone Back up the Hill:
Preliminary Questions Raised by the 2001 El Salvador Earthquake

Dr. Ben Wisner

Vice -chair, Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative. Vice-chair, IGU Commission on Risk and Hazards
Oberlin College, Environmental Studies Program.
Mailing address: 373 Edgemeer Place, Oberlin, OH 44074, USA. Fax: 440-775-8898.
bwisner@igc.org. Resumé

20 January 2001


Ben: "But let's continue to push!"
George Kent: "OK, Mr. Sisyphus."

These are very preliminary thoughts about the earthquake in El Salvador that as of this writing has killed at least 700 people, with perhaps another 2000 still missing, 45,000 people evacuated, tens of thousands of homes destroyed, hospital capacity reduced by two-fifths, more than 1,000 schools severely damaged (19%).

Why El Salvador?

This sounds so familiar. Why bother? Why have I spent a week reading through ReliefWeb (http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf) and exchanging a blizzard of email communications with friends and colleagues all around the world?

The reasons are many. First, El Salvador seems to present a litmus test of the well known hypothesis (maybe mythic belief in the disaster management cosmovision) that disaster opens a "window of opportunity" for policy changes that reduce vulnerability to the next disaster. After hurricane Mitch, for the two years 1999 and 2000, the Inter-American Development Bank and many other multilateral, bilateral donors, aid agencies, and NGOs provided support not just for recovery but for mitigation and prevention of further disasters. There was supposed to be a new mind set that recognized the link between disaster risk reduction and sustainable development.

El Salvador was well placed to take advantage of this aid and "new thinking" since it hadn't suffered the degree of damage that Honduras and Nicaragua saw. In addition, it's long civil war (1980-92) was over. Institutions that are needed achieve sustainable development were being build, democratic institutions. Civil society was strong and active. Many of some 750,000 Salvadorans abroad in the US were in a position to remit income. There was an active regional coordinating body (CEPREDENAC) to assist. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and Organization of American States (OAS) were there to provide technical assistance.

So I was struck by the seemingly dramatic collapse of the myth of policy opportunities as silver linings.

I was also struck by the blatant failure to apply well established knowledge. Haresh Shah had provoked a long discussion in 1999 along these lines when the earthquake in Turkey forced him to call for a profound reconsideration of the good of engineering knowledge if building codes aren't enforced. Preliminary and anecdotal information suggests that the landslide that buried 200 homes in Las Colinas, Santa Tecla, was partly due to economic development activities on the ridge above the community. In the oblique, color air photo on the New York Times front page, Monday 15 January, one can clearly see that the slip begins where a road cuts across the slope.

Many of us are assessing what it achieved. There are new initiatives that seek to carry forward the momentum of the Decade (initiatives by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, ProVention Consortium, UN Development Program, among many others). Also, symbolically, we were only two weeks into the third millennium. So I was forced to ask: is this still acceptable in the new millennium? Is it to be business as usual for the media, for governments, for donors, for agencies?

Or is it time that we say, with the Zapatistas, "Ya Basta!"?

Here, then are some ideas about El Salvador, yes, but also about the New World Order, the so-called "global" order. They are organized around a partial list of themes. Please take all this as a starting point.

Here, in this website, (managed by Maureen Fordham and hosted by Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK) is a home for radical interpretations of disaster as it appears all over the world. The word "radical" is used in the sense of radix or "root", the root causes of vulnerability and what to do about it.

What Difference Can We Make?

The "what to do about it" is very important and why one section of my notes is called "Knowing vs. Doing". One proposal I have, to be elaborated elsewhere, is to bring science and politics together is a very practical and concrete way. What we lack, among other things, are enforceable internationally agreed standards for mitigation and prevention activities. What does political theory tell us about a state that is incapable or unwilling to apply a body of established knowledge, at low cost, that would protect its citizens from the kind of landslide that killed so many in El Salvador? Is that good governance? Is that a legitimate state?

There is here a dual question of developing and disseminating low cost ways of identifying landslide hazard AND actually getting this knowledge USED. This second is more a policy and political issue and has several parts ranging from work toward internationally agreed standards in the context of a human rights approach to citizens' safety, to work with citizen groups and local NGOs to give them the information they need to DEMAND these standards be met by governments, to funding, training, and administration issues.

I think that one of the follow-on activities after the IDNDR could and should be for groups of scientific
specialists working with teams of law and policy experts to come up with proposed internationally standard minimum expectations for all governments.

These would be minimum standard and would be realistic in the sense that low-cost technology is available to achieve them.

Some form of treaty process would then have to win agreement to bring the standards into force. Meanwhile the very process of developing the standards and of working out the low cost solutions would increase general awareness. Everybody wins.

This process would have to be arduous and painstaking and detailed. At the moment in these notes I've
just addressed the case of landslide hazard identification. In the case of building codes, for example, there is more agreement and wide spread practice. Just concerning earthquake hazard mitigation and mitigation of possible secondary, collateral hazards (like landslides) there would probably have to be a dozen or more working groups.

I invite all readers who want to participate in that process to contact me at bwisner@igc.org .

Organization of the Notes

I discuss six clusters of questions and issues that have not been adequately addressed during the IDNDR.


The most challenging questions, thought not at all new, focus on whether human beings have a right to security from disasters triggered either by extreme events in nature or by failure of human techno-systems. Despite appearances, this is neither a childish concept nor strictly metaphysical or theological. I am not kicking my heals at heaven or denying Buddha's Four Nobel Truths. We all do suffer, sicken, grow old, and die. The question is whether as an acculturated species that shapes its own "second nature", we are moving toward a shared belief that the authorities responsible for social order have a responsibility to provide minimum, internationally agreed safeguards against catastrophic events. Parallel debates from the mid-1970s onwards concerning basic needs and human rights (see my book Power and Need in Africa: Basic Human Needs and Development Policy. London: Earthscan, 1988) and the more recent turn toward rights-driven approaches (e.g. by UNICEF and UNDP) suggest we are.


For a long time mental health was seen as a secondary issue in disaster response and recovery. There was also a double standard: citizens of rich countries could afford the "luxury" of counseling, but masses of poor humanity in shelters or refugee camps could not. This has begun to change, however there are still practices inherited from the commandist, military history of disaster management that abuse the spirit and cause emotional suffering. Often still differences in dominant urban vs. subordinate rural cultures cause friction and misunderstanding. For instance, upper class, mestizo, urban professionals in Mexico City consider the Nahuatl world view (cosmovision) and understanding of volcanos to be nothing more than superstition. They have as little understanding or empathy for the conditions of daily life on the slopes of the volcano Popocatepetl . When, in 1994, the Army stole farmers' pigs and chickens once residents had been convinced to evacuate the eruption danger zone, one such technician remarked that "a pig and a chicken make no difference to the GNP."


Countries like El Salvador are part of a system now called "global." Throughout the 1980s there have been wave after wave of interventions by the international financial institutions designed to manage external debt and to encourage growth based on free trade. El Salvador emerged from its brutal land wars ("civil war", 1980-1992) into a world where neoliberal principles of less government or other forms of social control and more market control was almost unquestioned. NAFTA was two years away. However, complete laissez-faire precludes effective control of land development in dangerous places, regulation of dangerous factories and pollution, centrally funded and maintained infrastructure accessible to the poor. A new global economic order has shifted and reallocated risk socially and spatially (see John Handmer and Ben Wisner, "Hazards, Globalization, and Sustainability: Conference Report." Development in Practice 9,3, (1999), pp. 342-346). The ordinary people affected by market driven development are not unaware of what is happening to them. Frances Fukuyama may think that history has ended, but Superbarrio (a series of Mexican activists dressed as a masked wrestler) continues to struggle with "greed" and "corruption" as opponents in performances in the working class colonias of Mexico City. Opposition of political parties to the "recovery" plans of the ruling party are part of a broader discontent with dollarization and the stresses of globalization.


We approach the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio. "Rio + 10" is an occasion to look critically as the notion of sustainable development. For cities it is impossible to conceive of "greening", much less "sustainable development" without enforced land use planning. San Salvador is not exceptional as a city where the brightest and the best write plans and legislate regulations that are never implemented or enforced. Why? What can be done about it?


It is not only the well established principles of urban and environmental planning that fail to be applied. The IDNDR produced and disseminated a wealth of shared scientific and technological knowledge in such areas as earth science, engineering, hydrology, climatology, logistics, and public health. However there are still huge gaps between science and government, science and the media, science and educators/ opinion leaders, and science and the public. I focus on just one body of knowledge below - landslide hazard identification - but the point should be considered a general and challenging one.


My notes end on the same fundamental question with which they began. Why are there no internationally agreed and enforced standards for preparedness and response? There have been many efforts, especially during the past decade of large and complex humanitarian emergencies. PAHO has pioneered a system for cataloging and sorting medical donations. A large group of humanitarian agencies have successfully produced a set of agreed principles and minimum standards for relief (see Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. Geneva: The SPHERE Project, 2000; http://www.sphereproject.org ). Despite these and other positive steps, we continue to see government fail to stockpile and prepare in the most basic ways. Despite positive experience and models of cooperation among UN and among bilateral agencies, we continue to see waste and competition.

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