Sunday, 27 June 2010

Disasters: a window of opportunity??

Natural disasters (whether rapid or gradual in their effects) can be a window of opportunity for vested interests. This was explained beautifully, and shockingly, in the book ‘Everybody loves a Good Drought’ by P.Sainath. However here, one is putting forward the idea of a disaster as a window of opportunity in a ‘good’ way.

A disaster can be a crucial and decisive turning point since it temporarily destabilizes the system - practically every system, physical and social. This destabilization leaves the ‘system’ open to change. And this change can be for the better.

Now a disaster can expose the defects and faults in a system rather easily. After the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994, the then US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisnero, said: An earthquake like this bares the truth…..the large number of people whose long-standing housing problems came to light only because their homes were destroyed by the quake, and the broad extent of housing discrimination that had gone undetected but appeared to have surfaced in the aftermath of the disaster.”

More recently the devastation in Haiti has proved how natural disasters can become huge man-made disasters disproportionately affecting the poorest and most marginalised people in the world. Disasters seek out the poor and ensure that they remain poor. The better off one is, the less vulnerable, the more resilient.
House destroyed in the Bhuj Earthquake of January 2001 
Gujarat, India (image source: author)

However the crisis can also reveal hidden strengths and create opportunities. The influx of resources through aid and the momentum of recovery can be used to address even non-crisis development issues. So the short term crisis recovery can become part of long term development and perhaps, the rehabilitation process can address issues like housing and infrastructure for those who cannot ordinarily access it like squatters, migrants etc.

There are various theories about how a disaster should be managed. There is the ‘Rational’ model where there is a highly centralised single agency, usually a government agency that has sole responsibility for managing and planning for disasters. This is exemplified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the US that we heard so much about after Hurricane Katrina. Another model is the ‘Organic’ model that assumes institutions will adapt and survive to manage the disaster and not be limited solely to their official goals.

The rational model can prove to be impractical because at least part of the main agency or its staff may be affected by the disaster, which will reduce its effectiveness. On the other hand, with a multiple agency model, the chances may improve for both short term crisis management as well as for long term development. Planning and implementation agencies for disaster relief, public housing, urban or regional planning, transport and infrastructure planning, environmental agencies etc. may find that their goals, and consequently mandates and responsibilities, overlap with each other.
Inside an apartment after the Bhuj Earthquake of January 2001 
Gujarat, India (image source: author)

Though this overlap may seem wasteful, analysis of certain disasters seem to indicate that these types of redundancies are exactly what is needed in times of crises, when a single institution might be limited by physical damage or a lack of resources, or when another planning institution might have expertise which is more appropriate to a particular crisis, such as funding a rapid, top-down, large scale housing recovery program, or a grassroots, bottom-up, scattered-sites program.

There are, of course, Anti-Tasks or things that Planners should not do and actively avoid. First is the danger of overplanning and assuming that every disaster is going to be similar to the one that happened before. Since the effects of a crisis are rarely ever repeated, it frequently happens that the various levels of planning and procedures prove to be redundant. One has to also guard against overestimating the capabilities of an institution. The assumption that a single agency is able to successfully plan and implement emergency evacuations, relief, rehabilitation and mitigation, can prove to be faulty.

The second issue is the sense of false security that comes when a plan assumes it has provided for every eventuality. While the formation of systems and structures for planning are useful, strategies based on false assumptions result in the ‘cloaking of ignorance with a layer of false precision’.
Only remaining walls of a fishing village after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004 
at the beach near village Keelamoovarkarai in Tamil Nadu, India (image source: author)

Therefore it should be accepted that all disasters require institutions to be very flexible in their planning. They need to be able to change, adapt, innovate, build relationships, accept new responsibilities and relinquish old powers. It can be said that ‘Organisational Learning’ is very important in developing a planning model for disasters – where an institution is able to learn from past crises and crisis response failures and successes. Unfortunately stable situations lead to complacence and, as theorists have pointed out, the opposite happens and slow ‘unlearning’ becomes a crucial weakness for many organisations.

Therefore, perhaps one of the most important things for planning agencies to avoid for their planning process in general, and for disaster management in particular is ‘Organisational Unlearning’ due to bureaucratic inertia, routine, false assumptions and a false sense of security that everything’s been taken care of.

Author: Shahana Dastidar

Note: For references, please write to author at urbanruralfabric(at) To see more of author's images of the Bhuj earthquake, you can visit the Flickr page here.

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