Here we reflect on the
second year of Radix with
Radix Year Two
by Ilan Kelman
Another Radix year has
passed. More disasters, more
tragedy, more learning, and more interaction.
But more solutions? The
answer to that question, regretfully, is not the resounding yes which it
On learning and
interaction, the year has been intensive for me.
During 2002, I attended five international conferences/meetings in
four countries and a smattering of national conferences/meetings in the
U.K. They were all
stimulating, thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and generally
included philosophers, engineers, human geographers, physical geographers,
meteorologists, anthropologists, and disasters, development, and
environmental management practitioners amongst many other disciplines.
Despite the named focus of
each meeting often being related to the “natural” aspect of our field,
staying with only that theme was usually not possible.
September 11, armed conflict, underdevelopment, inequity, national
security, human rights, the rich-poor gap, states’ constitutions,
greenhouse gas emissions, local empowerment, water and soil (mis)management,
gender issues, utilitarianism, and diplomacy amongst many other
non-“natural” themes sprinkled the discussions.
They had to.
Even the conferences which
were heavily focused on the physical sciences tended to give far more than
token representation to the social sciences.
They also witnessed strong statements about the human elements of
disaster. Equations, computer
models, and quantitative analyses dominated the discussions, but clear
messages were expounded by some presenters that research and application
are about reducing disasters and saving lives.
The message may have been
stated, but I am not convinced that its implications were fully
understood. In Toronto, a
flood engineer suggested that river flooding is a natural disaster whereas
dam break is not. I asked
“If we build in a river floodplain and the houses get flooded, is the
disaster really natural?”. He
seemed stunned by the query but was saved by another participant who
confidently asserted “yes”. Decades
of evidence and millennia of cumulative research time crushed by a single
Another anecdote comes
from France. I was surprised
to see that a computer model of rockfalls considered neither the shape of
the block nor the potential for blocks to break into pieces while falling.
I enquired. The
response was that the model works, so it must be correct.
I replied that correlation does not imply causation.
When a clear reason for potential non-causation appears, then the
correlation must be questioned. The
response was that the model works very well all the time.
Discussion was cut off, so I did not get the chance to mention
epicycles of the planets and the Sun revolving around the Earth.
A model may appear to work perfectly from a particular frame of
reference, yet still eclipse vital and fundamental aspects evident from
only other frames of reference. If
we stay on our own planet, we may never notice and we may never need to
notice. But when we reach for
the stars, as we should in research, our belief in epicycles will prove
I have often been accused
of coming from another planet, yet remaining solely in our own little
world neglects the wonders elsewhere.
A PhD student in Cambridge, England described her research to me. She is examining flooding in Thailand, focusing on the
hydrology of a specific river catchment, but she claimed to be interested
in “long term social benefits”. When
pressed about the specific developmental inputs and outputs, she retreated
into the sadly familiar “I’m a physical scientist, not a human
geographer”. As well, she
had never heard of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok and
showed no interest in contacting them.
boundaries and seeking to understand the reasons behind the observed are
not just for our own betterment, but for our field’s benefit.
That is why Radix forces disasters to be examined in the context of
development, sustainability, human rights, and human needs, amongst other
subjects. The probabilistic
distributions of quantitative flow rates and wind speeds are important,
but so is changing people’s behaviour to create communities able to cope
with normal environmental events, even if “normal” refers to an
environmental event which happens once every dozen generations.
As part of the injustices
we continually see, the people who live in the vulnerable communities are
often not those responsible for creating and perpetuating the
researchers have illustrated how subpopulations are marginalised, the
afflicted are ignored, and resources are deliberately misdirected or
misused, even when environmental conditions are a significant input into a
disaster event. Motivations
are not necessarily Machiavellian. They may include apathy, ignorance, greed, disinterest, fear,
hate misapprehensions, corruption, poor prioritisation, lack of
governance, or any of the multitude of sins we encounter daily. Which could perhaps be appraised as “passive Machiavellian”.
A disaster towards the end
of Radix Year Two illustrates the issues.
On 28 December 2002, the islands of Tikopia and Anuta of the
Solomon Islands suffered one of the most severe tropical cyclones ever
recorded in the area. Tikopia
and Anuta are accessible only by boat and are isolated and remote even by
small island standards. After
the tropical cyclone passed, no communication could be established with
Rather than governments
taking the initiative to discover what had happened to their own people or
neighbours, it took a Western (Kiwi) journalist to hire a Cessna in
Vanuatu. On 1 January 2003,
he broke the story of complete devastation, a contaminated water supply,
and a few survivors improvising shelter.
Movement towards relief operations occurred only then, but further
delays resulted from the Solomon Islands government’s lack of money to
pay for ships, crews, and supplies. Australia
and New Zealand donated money, but with concerns about corruption since
previous aid to the Solomon Islands had been squandered.
This story is familiar.
From one perspective, the affected islands should be building
sustainable communities so that they can survive extreme events without
external assistance. Some
people state that these islanders are entirely self-sufficient and are
used to rebuilding after a severe tropical cyclone.
On the other hand, it is common sense and basic respect to check
that they are okay, particularly when it is unclear if sustainability
endeavours have been supported or successful in the past.
We happily bomb a country
regardless of the human, environmental, and financial costs, yet we cannot
be bothered to parachute in one radio or one person with one radio to
check that 2,000-4,000 people are alive after experiencing a massive
storm. As always, the people who experience the environmental event
also suffer, before and after the environmental event, the human decisions
and actions which ultimately produce the disaster.
Hazards may differ,
vulnerabilities may differ, risks may differ, and disasters may differ. Our interests, resources, abilities, and successes may
differ. But remarkable
similarities manifest in numerous aspects and themes, theoretical and
practical, of disaster events and related issues.
Without recognising these similarities, we miss lessons and we
cannot understand how to tackle the disaster problem.
When we fail to do so, we copy the same mistakes which have created
the mess in which we currently. We
thereby fail the communities and globe which we serve.
Some of those failures in
Radix Year Two:
-The Solomons tropical
cyclone. And human lethargy
-The Bali bomb atrocity.
And continued inhumane treatment of asylum seekers by the Western
countries which had the most citizens murdered in Bali.
-The earthquakes in
Afghanistan. And the world
unwilling to put as much money into developing the country as they put
into waging war in the country for more than two decades.
We are willing to fight a war over the long-term but unwilling to
help the country over the long-term.
-Floods in central Europe.
And the political consequences for Germany’s election.
Plus environmentalists claiming that the floods were caused by
climate change when (a) a specific event cannot yet be proved or disproved
to have been caused by climate change and (b) so much more could be done
immediately to mitigate flood effects irrespective of climate change.
-The Moscow theatre
hostage crisis. And continued
human rights violations in Chechnya.
-Drought across southern
Africa. With famine caused by
politics and mismanagement. Plus
exacerbation of the acute famine disaster in order to prevent the chronic
disaster of local crops becoming contaminated by genetically modified
grain which the U.S.A. insisted should be accepted as food aid.
-The eruption of Mount
Nyiragongo near Goma, DRC. Yet
most direct fatalities resulted from an explosion caused by people
stealing fuel while the lava flowed around them.
From the disasters and the
pain, we gain plenty research material, ideas, collaboration, and
publications. We also propose
many solutions, which are generally common sense and already well-known in
our field. Implementation of
these solutions seems to be the hardest barrier to overcome.
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