A critique on Disaster Politics.

By Jamil Junejo and Muhammad Younis.

Two writers Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores have put forward an interesting theory regarding link between politics and effects of disasters in their article “Disaster politics” published in July of this year by the Foreign Affairs Magazine. They have argued that democratic states are better than autocratic governments at protecting their citizens from the effects of natural disasters. The writers have, moreover, contemplated on the post disasters effects on the political landscape of the countries. They have exemplified their stance with various instances of diverse disasters. However, both aspects of the writup need a critical review to weigh the merits of the arguments and to pinpoint its strong and grey areas.

To start with agreement, the writers are far more right to argue that disasters have profound effects on the political changing of the countries. In this regard, they cite example that heavy death tolls of 17,000 individuals caused by two large earthquakes within perioed of two months in Turkey gave rise to public unrest that almost cost the newly elected prime minister, Bülent Ecevit, his job. Furthe, they maintain that one reason why the Republicans lost congressional seats in 2006 and 2008 may well have been the Bush administration’s poor performance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Their arguments can be substantiated with more examples of disasters from the recent history. The heavy floods in 1990 gave impetus to social uprsise in Bangladesh against military rule of General Irshad that ultimately resulted in his ouster and installation of democratic regime of Khalida Zia. The flooding of France in summer of 1789, emanating from melting of frozen ice accumulated due to extreme cold weather in 1788, destroyed the farm lands in particular and incurred various other losses in general. The enraged peasants, worstly affected by loss of farms, became unified and gave rise to ‘breads riots’ ultimately resulting in start of french revolution.

Let’s start with disagreement now. To our understanding, the existing political structure of any country doesn’t determine the intensity of effects emanating from any disaster taking place in it. What matters, therefore, are not political settings but availability of required resources, geographical location, literacy level and most importantly frequency of disasters and subsequent preparedness at societal, institutional, and policy levels in any country.

It is no doubt a fact that earthquake of 8.8 magnitude in Chile 500 times stronger than that of earthquake of Haiti of 7.0 Magnitude in same year, just caused 500 deaths contrary to that of Haiti’s that killed approximately 222,000 people. But the reasons writers put behind these difference of losses are not correct. They argue that the democratic rulers of Chile due to fear of loosing public support in case of their failure to respond, has already built building codes and responded quickly. As a result, the losses occurred at minimum level. Whereas, the autocratic rulers of Haiti regardless of public support remain indifferent to disaster in its all pre, during and post phases.

The exploration of reasons reveals that the soul reasons behind this case were not difference of political system between the countries. This may be one of the reasons. But, there are other host of factors which shaped this sharp contrast of losses. Firstly, the earthquake near Port-au-Prince in Haiti was very shallow, only 13 kilometres below the earth surface. Whereas the earthquake in Chile generated about 35 kilometres below the ocean floor. It is geological principle that the more earthquakes are shallow the more they are intense. Secondly, Haiti had not experienced so many earthquakes before. It was the second earthquake in Haiti during last century. Whereas, Chile has experienced 27 earthquakes during that same period. As a result, its society, and government have developed corresponding structures and had taken necessary measures in prior. Thirdly, epicenter of earthquake in Haiti was 25 Kilometers away from the Port-au-Prince having population of 3 million. Whereas, city of Concepcion having population of 2 lac in Chile was 170 kilometer away from epicenter. Lastly, the population around the epicenter of Haiti was denser than that of Chili’s.

It seems enough to prove that, that not existing democratic political setup of Chili and Haiti, but host of other reasons shaped the contrast of losses.

As an attempt to prove their stance, the writers give another example. They relate the heavy death toll of 138,000 people caused by Nargis cyclone in 2008 at Irrawaddy Delta on Burmese coastline, with the military junta of that time. They argue that military regime of Burma remained firmly entrenched. However, our arguments go in different way. Actually, the entire 16 cyclone out of 17 in past have never hit Burma the way Nargis did. Historically, all the cyclones originating from Bay of Bengal have gone towards Bangladesh while touching a smaller part of Burmese coast with little intensity. Burma had never remained direct target of such cyclones. Most of the cyclones have touched its coast while en route to Bangladesh. This could more clearly be understood form the fact that recorded history of Burma has experienced 17 cyclones starting from 1900 to 2011. All other 16 cyclones caused only death toll of around 6000 individuals. Whereas only Nargis alone caused death toll of 138,000. Therefore, if Burma has had experienced such deadly cyclone before, it must have developed such systems before, regardless of the existing political systems.

In another argument the writers put that, the earthquake in 2001 in democratic India killed about 20,000 people. Whereas, a slightly smaller 2005 earthquake in nondemocratic Pakistan killed more than 80,000 individuals. The writers consider this difference owing to difference of political systems in both countries. India was ruled by the democratic forces at that time. Whereas Pakistan was ruled by dictatorship, they uphold. However, this doesn’t seems to be real reason behind the differences of lossess. If we explore the reasons, we will come up to conclude that different geographical conditions, population’s density, and structures of houses of both countries marked the difference of lossess.

The Kutch district, the major area, hit by earthquake is sparsely populated with 33 persons/km2, whereas Muzafarabad, Nelum, Bagh and Mansehra districts of Pakistan which were hit by earthquake are relatively densely populated with an average of more than 240 persons/km2. Secondly, the affected areas of Pakistan have traditionally unreinforced stone masonry buildings that collapsed and caused heavy losses. Whereas areas affected on the Indian side have thatched houses called bhunga.

This short analysis shows that the disasters could bring immense changes in the political composition of the countries in various forms. But the political structures of the states have not much to do with the intensity of disasters and subsequent losses. If it were so, the autocratic countries such as Cuba and China must not have been better than various democracies of the world at protecting their citizens in time of disasters. It is all about the a sense of responsibility, local wisdom of coping with disasters, development of systems, evolved over the time due to frequencies of disasters and availability of resources.

Writers work with Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum. Muhammad Younis was also associated with Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) in Thailand.

Jamilb4u@gmail.com, younis.mari@gmail.com

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