|Wan Portia Hamzah
Institute of Strategic and Intenational Studies (ISIS) Malaysia
Wan Portia Hamzah, Senior Fellow, joined ISIS Malaysia in 1991. Her research initially was focused on issues such as S&T policy, sustainable development, IT infrastructure and governance in the information age, environmental management and cleaner development solutions. She was part of the ISIS's Housing Study Team and currently, she is looking into the security implications of climate change and green growth. Wan Portia holds a BSc. (Hons) from University of Science Malaysia, a Postgraduate Diploma with Distinction in Marine Pollution Chemistry from the University of Liverpool, a Masters degree in Structure and Organisation of Science and Technology from the University of Manchester.
Wan Portia Hamzah
Institute of Strategic and Internaitonal Studies (ISIS) Malaysia
Causes of Vulnerability
The increasing number of disasters with lives and economies at risk has captured media attention, public sympathy and political intervention. The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake, the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 are some examples within the region where international aid and humanitarian assistance came pouring in.
However, other disasters such as drought and famine in sub-Sahara Africa have witnessed a limited response to international relief appeals. The worldwide involvement in relief efforts has indeed become more complex - graphic portrayal by media can influence donations, military-led response to disaster is no longer viewed with skepticism, and involvement of "intermediaries" in situations of political sensitivity is considered acceptable.
Poorer countries would be more affected by a single disaster event than a more wealthy/developed country since that one disaster could affect human losses, productive capacity, property and infrastructure. At the same time, whether a disaster strikes a developing or a developed country, an increase in population will generally affect more people. However, population increase happens mostly in developing countries with many poorer people occupying hazardous or disaster-prone areas, putting their lives and assets at risk, thereby increasing their vulnerability. Vulnerability to disasters is uneven across regions and countries as well as within each country as a result of rapid urbanisation, environmental degradation and changing climate.
Vulnerability can also be altered by uneven development, weak institutional framework, social or economic problems. In addition, conflict over resources can undermine resilience, damaging livelihoods or misappropriating resources from productive uses. The underlying causes of vulnerability must be understood in trying to improve disaster management.
What is interesting to note is that examples of areas affected by past disasters have rarely deterred people from re-occupying those disaster-prone areas. The reasons for not leaving or relocating are many - the economic opportunities or strategic advantages may be some of the pull factors.
Still debated is the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters triggered by extreme climatic events. Climate science is complex, but integrating climate change into planning strategies is starting to receive attention. Equally important is what impact climate change can have on natural disasters and how this information can be used in decision-making processes. Helping communities to understand the information is a pro-active approach to minimise their vulnerability to disaster risks posed by climate change.
How to Shift from Disaster Response to Adaptation
---In order to confront future natural disasters, how should we develop regional cooperation and governance on disaster management?
Disaster management has witnessed various plans and cooperation mechanisms at different levels. The proliferation of disaster management initiatives within the region has raised questions of duplicative effort or regional capability. However, what could be clearly observed is the shift from disaster response and preparedness to risk reduction and adaptation strategies - what is now considered as an important component in building disaster-resilient communities. Moving forward will require reframing or redefining the problem and bringing it into the policy mainstream.
Depending on how the problem is reframed or redefined, for example, in terms of vulnerability to a particular hazard and how to manage it, strategies requiring technological or functional approaches may then involve different players.
||The problem may also be reframed as one of exposure to a particular hazard thereby requiring planning strategies to limit development or putting up buffer zones.
||Then again, vulnerability could also be framed in terms of a social as well as an economic issue, therefore requiring strategies to target health, education and housing, or financial incentives or products to protect the assets.
The many ways of framing the problem, including inter-disciplinary, inter-governmental or inter-regional approaches, will take into consideration the "uncertainty" factor and what to do when facing uncertainty or how to reduce uncertainty. Uncertainty posed by disasters presents many challenges - where and when, magnitude or severity, extensiveness, visibility as captured by media or in terms of political interests, and many more.
These various ways to frame a problem are not new, and can give rise to conflicting views. However, what is important is that the different perspectives or the multi-dimensional views have been taken into consideration and how that information can be used also should be considered. How the problem is framed or redefined partly answers the next question.
Power of Information
--What can we do after such disasters as the Sumatra Earthquake, the Sichuan Earthquake and Great East Japan Earthquake to turn them into a chance rather than a crisis?
One interesting point to note is that in many of the disasters, the attention given by the media can be very powerful. Publicity, or lack of it, can affect donations. The donations or resources for mitigation and relief could be scarce, as a result of too many disasters happening in so many places, meaning that resources could be subject to competition. Re-launching the economy of an affected area is important to prevent delayed disaster, such as stagnation of the economy or unemployment. But the real challenge is to enable the affected communities to achieve resilience autonomously.
How communities should be engaged has been explored and documented well.
- Community engagement and public participation should be efficient and collaborative in approach.
- Attention must also be given to the more marginalised groups who are more often vulnerable.
- When and at what level coordination is required, and who should take the lead must be understood.
- Participation aims to create greater coordination as well as understanding, communication and information, and so all these factors become important components of the participatory process.
--Finally, what actions do you suggest for the Asia-Pacific Region, including Japan, to prepare for disaster risk reduction in the future?
One of the biggest challenges is that much of the information is not available in a form that can be easily understood or useful for the decision-making process. Communicating across government agencies with their distinct mandates or with different stakeholders/practitioners with their own vested interests has never been easy.
In terms of disaster risks and climate change, there is a growing effort to incorporate climate information into decisions that reduce negative changes to resources and livelihoods. While it is useful for practitioners and planners to understand what climate modelling is and how it works - including its strengths and limitations - what is more important is for them to understand the terms "risk" and "vulnerability". What planners or practitioners require is how that information should be presented and how it fits into the governance arena. Moving forward probably requires "science-policy intermediaries" - personnel with skills to act as "translators" of science.
Information alone, however, does not provide sufficient impetus to change behaviour - the need to foster understanding that the issue is not just "a disaster issue" but that it is also about improving resilience and sustaining livelihood must be reiterated. Resilience must be approached in a realistic manner focusing on people's basic needs, namely, a reliable source of income, food, shelter, health, education and infrastructure. Attention to long-term recovery will require social, cultural, political, economic and legal considerations.
Finally, one point that must be highlighted is the issue of confidentiality brought about by security in national interests, which may then affect accessibility of information or cross-sector cooperation. Dealing with the wider appreciation of threats and shifts in policy could be discussed in future dialogues.