Radix - Year One: Reflections on 2001


Here we reflect on a year of Radix with contributions from:

"…in Mexico City there is never tragedy but only outrage."
Carlos Fuentes in Where the Air is Clear

Ben Wisner, bwisner@igc.org

I. RADIX, 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, UNDP (http://www.undp.org/erd/disred/index.htm ) 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 Books, 1999).

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.

  • QUESTIONING NEOLIBERALISM. 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 ).

  • CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY. 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 at: http://www.radixonline.org/resources/mumbai-workshop-summary.pdf ).

  • 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 …

  •   … KNOWLEDGE AND 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 record" (http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L17268255 ).

  • 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):

  • 34 flood

  • 16 cyclones

  • 7 droughts and 7 earthquakes

  • 4 volcanic eruptions

  • 3 landslides

  • 2 oil spills

  • 1 cold wave.

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.

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