Here we reflect on a year of Radix with
in Mexico City there is never tragedy
but only outrage."
Carlos Fuentes in Where the Air is Clear
Ben Wisner, email@example.com
a web site that proposes to establish a home for "radical interpretations of
disasters and radical solutions," is nearly one year old. It began as a spontaneous
response to the outrage of so many preventable deaths in the earthquakes in El Salvador
and Gujarat at the beginning of 2001. Since then RADIX has taken up a
number of neglected, "orphan" issues on the social and human sides of our
understanding of disaster, disaster management, planning, and recovery. Contributors have
been generous with their time and experience. This "free, independent, accessible
virtual library" has begun to take on a more balanced form as it has also explored
cases from Namibia, Mozambique, Algeria, Cuba, and the U.S. (World Trade Center). It has
developed a Spanish corner and strong links with the Latin American web site of La RED (http://www.desenredando.org/). RADIX
has also developed a parallel email discussion list for more informal debate. The sister
site, Disaster Diplomacy, has also continued to grow.
During 2001 a number of initiatives took shape that suggest the momentum of the
International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) may not be lost. For instance,
) is moving ahead with its World Vulnerability Report. UNESCO
(http://www.unesco.org/science/earthsciences/disaster/disaster.htm ) has launched a
common, cooperative program across its main scientific areas that will focus on disaster
risk reduction in Asia, the Caribbean, and Mediterranean regions during 2002-3. Practical
work on urban seismic risk reduction that was promoted by the RADIUS (http://www.geohaz.org/radius/ )
program continues in many forms such as the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative (http://www.geohaz.org/project/gesi/GesiIntro.htm
) and the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative (http://www-megacities.physik.uni-karlsruhe.de/
). Preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (http://www.johannesburgsummit.org/
) have included discussion of the links between disaster reduction and environmental
management (see below). Such initiatives to some extent address concerns found in four of
the six original sections of RADIX ("Cultural
and Social Issues", "Economic Development
and Politics", "Sustainable Development and
Politics", and "Knowing versus Doing").
II. There has been less mainstream interest in the remaining two areas,
Standards and Human Rights. The melt down of the World Conference Against Racism (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/racism/
) and continued pursuit of the U.S. of a unilateralist path, rejecting a wide array of
treaties dealing with the rights of the child, women's rights, and the establishment of an
international criminal court (http://www.un.org/law/icc/general/public.htm ) has discouraged
discussion of human rights.
The war in Afghanistan has muddled and
muted discussion of standards of disaster mitigation and humanitarian assistance, as well
as the importance of maintaining a distinction between military and humanitarian
activities. Alternative voices, such as that of Medicins sans Frontiers and Christian Aid,
have been little disseminated. Little was made of the fact that the food packets and
anti-personnel bombs dropped by the U.S. were both yellow in color and about the same
size. The language of "collateral damage" has yet again emerged with little
dissention. Mainstream comment assumes that it will be as easy to "rebuild"
Afghanistan as it was originally to build up the tip of Manhattan Island (see: Eric
Darton, Divided We Stand: The Biography of New York's World Trade Center, New York: Basic
Oxfam UK recently summarized its view of the food situation in Afghanistan this winter (http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/9ca65951ee22658ec125663300408599/3bb1779af59e2f08c1256b44003a29fa?OpenDocument
Whether famine in the strict technical
sense would have happened will never be known (i.e. large numbers of people suffering
extremely excessive mortality). Famine, as commonly understood, has almost certainly been
averted, which is a tremendous achievement.
However, there is widespread starvation
in the sense that hundreds of thousands of people will have only enough food this winter
to keep themselves alive and will undergo starvation for various periods as a way of eking
out supplies. Suffering on this scale is widespread and mortality--which is
"normally" high in Afghanistan--will certainly increase in many places,with
children and the elderly dying in greater numbers. What is still uncertain, and may not be
knowable, is how much greater that mortality rate will be than it was last year or over
the course of the last few years.
Professor Marc Herold at University of
New Hampshire has calculated that civilian deaths from the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan
totaled 3,767 by 6 December 2001 (http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm
III. Nevertheless, the
year 2001 leaves me with some optimism. It began and ended with classic expressions of
social vulnerability. Those who died in January 2001 under the landslide in Santa Tecla,
El Salvador and in the buildings "inspected" by corrupt officials in Gujarat
died avoidable, preventable deaths. The same must be said of those who died at the end of
2001 in the mudslides that descended on working class Algiers from mountain slopes that
had been burned in order to deny terrorists a hiding place (http://www.radixonline.org/algeria.htm
). It is also true of victims of the landslides in Petropolis, Brazil at the very end of
2001 (http://ens.lycos.com/ens/jan2002/2002L-01-02-03.html ). The conflagration in Lima at
Christmas time showed a similar lack of effective governance. The fireworks stalls on
crowded downtown streets never should have been allowed. Municipal authorities had tried
to ban them, but they feared strikes and protests (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4327244,00.html
What, then, gives me cause optimism? (Gramsci's "pessimism of the intellect, optimism
of the will" see: http://www.voiceoftheturtle.org/dictionary/dict_q1.shtml#quaderni
DEBATING SOCIAL VULNERABILITY.
Social vulnerability and its link with governance and accountability are out in the open.
They are being discussed.
The neoliberal view of the world, with the centrality of market relations as the arbiter
of all value and choice, are being questioned. One set of contributions to RADIX,
including some of what I've written, sees neoliberal myopia and monomania as among the
root causes of increasing social vulnerability to disaster. Mainstream voices are
questioning whether the market can do everything that is needed to ensure human well being
and safety. For example the World Health Organization's Commission on Macroeconomics and
Health has produced a report that explores the link between development and health. It
urges non-market, public sector investments in health (http://www3.who.int/whosis/menu.cfm?path=whosis,cmh&language=english
GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW.
Although their voices have been somewhat muted in the confused international situation
since September 11th, the international social movement that seeks alternatives to
globalization from the top down will meet again soon in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the
second World Social Forum (http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/eng/index.asp ).
Links are being revealed between corporate social responsibility and disaster risk
reduction (see, for example, the review by John Twigg on the Benfield Grigg centre website
(http://www.bghrc.com/ ) and the
innovative meeting held in Mumbai in 2001 that brought together municipal government,
NGOs, and the private sector to study Mumbai's disaster plan (see elsewhere on RADIX
CONNECTION WITH EARTH CARE.
The link between disaster prevention and care of the earth is being discussed in numerous
forums such as the UN Expert Group Meeting on "Environmental management and the
mitigation of natural disasters: a gender perspective" (http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/env_manage/
) and in a paper by the ISDR written as a contribution to preparations for the World
Summit on Sustainable Development (http://www.unisdr.org/unisdr/indexpage2.htm ).
APPLICATION OF KNOWLEDGE.
More existing knowledge is being applied
STORMS. During 2001 storm warnings and cyclone shelters saved many lives.
Throughout most of the region affected by severe coastal storms there is growing
commitment to these risk reduction measures (to see a shelter click: http://www.lged.org/multipurpose%20cyclone%20shelter.html
; for a discussion of participatory design and construction, click: http://www.mssrf.org/annualreport11/PA600.html#spa603
KNOWLEDGE AND FOOD
EMERGENCIES. The international response to food emergencies in Central America
and in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, was highly professional and seemed to be
building on the knowledge gained during the more than thirty years since the complete
failure of the international community to find a way to provide food for the million
Biafrans who died in Southeastern Nigeria (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/africa/newsid_596000/596712.stm
KNOWLEDGE OF VOLCANOLOGY.
A number of successful evacuations took place following signs of dangerous volcanic
activity in Mexico (December, 2000), Ecuador, Vanuatu, Philippines, and Italy, although as
I write it is unclear if clear messages and the means of an orderly evacuation are
available to the citizens of Goma in eastern Congo, where Mount Nyiragongo is erupting (http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/9ca65951ee22658ec125663300408599/274d1c18a1190be185256b44006f2d9c?OpenDocument).
"In 1977, scores died when a lake of lava burst through fissures in Nyiragongo's
flanks at 60 km (40 miles) an hour, which experts said was the fastest lava flow on
MORE SUCCESSES SOON?
These successes in applying knowledge accumulated about coastal storms and food
emergencies give one hope that another of RADIX's main preoccupations -
breaking the barrier between knowledge and practice - can also be satisfied in areas such
as gradual onset floods, flash flooding, landslides, and earthquakes.
IV. Going through the
annual summary for 2001 on ReliefWeb, one can make the following tally based on the
appeals that were reported on ReliefWeb (probably most major disasters in developing
countries but excluding most events in industrial ones and the large number of small and
medium events that tend to be overlooked):
The frequency of flooding is striking.
Again and again one hears officials such as those in Iran and Zambia in mid-January 2002
who complain that people had been warned but either do not leave flood prone areas or
return to them. Many of the contributors to RADIX would urge analysis of
why these people do not heed warnings. What options do they have? What do the affected
people themselves say about the situation? What do women in these communities think?
These are the sort of questions that researchers, practitioners, and activists have to
continue to ask as RADIX enters its second year.
download Word file (47kb)
Back to the top