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Comfort, L., B. Wisner, S. Cutter, R. Pulwarty, K. Hewitt, A. Oliver-Smith, J. Wiener, M. Fordham, W. Peacock, and F. Krimgold, 1999: Reframing disaster policy: The global evolution of vulnerable communities. Env. Hazards, 1, 39-44.


INTRODUCTION

A disaster is widely perceived as an event that is beyond human control; the capricious hand of fate moves against unsuspecting communities creating massive destruction and prompting victims to call for divine support as well as earthly assistance.¹ Surely these people would have acted differently had the risks been known and now they must depend on others for humanitarian aid with which to rebuild their shattered communities.

We challenge these notions and argue that, instead of helping us to understand and ameliorate the root conditions of disaster, they actually perpetuate and worsen them (Hewitt, 1997); Blaikie et al., 1994; Mileti, 1999). In an era when most relief agencies stop short of examining the policies and practices that contribute to disaster, we call for an explicit analysis of the circumstances that make human communities vulnerable to unforeseen natural and technological events.

Disasters have become a policy problem of global scope precisely because what humans do, both in the normal course of their lives and in response to disasters, frequently magnifies the vulnerability of communities. There is a widespread failure to recognize and address connections between changes in land use, settlement policies, population distributions and the accompanying degradation of habitats on the one hand and dramatically increased levels of hazard exposure and vulnerability on the other. We propose that human vulnerability - those circumstances that place people at risk while reducing their means of response or denying them available protection - becomes an integral concern in the development and evaluation of disaster policies. We must change the policies of today that rely heavily on sending assistance only after tragedy has occurred.

Our argument is based on four premises:

  • The increasing number and costs of disasters demonstrate a rate of social and environmental change that exceeds the management capacity of existing organizations.
  • Overtaxed management systems are exacerbated by inadequate understanding of the components and consequences of change, including impacts on affected communities.
  • Individuals, organizations and governments that interact in an uninformed manner create a cumulative pattern of interdependent practices that leads to massive failures of environmental, technical and organizational systems (i.e. disasters) under conditions of stress.
  • Disasters serve as evidence of the need for changes in public policy and practice and they create opportunities to redesign, revise or rebuild damaged human environments. Without such actions the vulnerability of built and natural environments in risk-prone regions continues to increase as a result of recurring damage.

Given this set of premises, the responsibility for initiating new policies and practices shifts to a range of participating actors that is wider than that which is customarily acknowledged. In this brief analysis, we place the increasing vulnerability of human communities at the center of our explanation of burgeoning global disasters. We illustrate the dynamic process of interacting conditions and cumulative practice with reference to the case of Hurricane Mitch (1998) and its effects upon Honduras and Nicaragua. We further show that our analysis, which includes information from multiple disciplines and levels of responsibility for action, leads to an interpretation of the disaster that differs substantially from the misperceptions noted above and toward new strategies for action.

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¹ For example, President Arnoldo Aleman recently called upon Nicaraguans to pray for deliverance from the consequences of Hurricane Mitch but conspicuously avoided mentioning the responsibilities of the government. See Centro de Coordinacion para de Los Desastres Naturales en America Central (CEPREDENAC), <http://www.sinfo.net/cepredenac/mitch>