Guest editorial


Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 20 June 2008


Gaillard, J.-C. and Texier, P. (2008), "Guest editorial", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 17 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Guest editorial

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Disaster Prevention and Management, Volume 17, Issue 3.

Natural hazards and disasters in Southeast Asia

The scope of damage brought by the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami served as a powerful reminder that Southeast Asia is one of the most prone regions for disasters identified with natural hazards. The EMDAT database compiled by the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED, 2008) lists 818 disastrous events which killed at least more than ten people, hindered the life of more than 100 individuals, or required international aid between 1900 and 2007. Since then, the first eight years of the twenty-first century have already recorded 407 events or a sharp increase in the occurrence of disasters. The accuracy of these data may be questionable, especially for the first half of the century when disastrous events may not have been recorded in the same manner as they are today. However, it is our contention that the missing accounts would not reverse the disaster-occurrence increasing trend. The recurrence of disasters in Southeast Asia is accentuated by the large scope of human casualties and economic damage wrought by each event. Between 1900 and 2007, disasters identified with natural phenomena claimed the lives of 342,772 people in the region. A total of 290 million other individuals were affected and economic damage are estimated at US$46 billion. The present editorial is a short attempt to review existing paradigms on disasters identified with natural hazards. It should enable the reader to critically assess the contribution of the present volume to our understanding of disasters in the Southeast Asian region.

The dominant hazard-focused viewpoint

Disasters have long been considered from the sole angle of natural hazards through the disciplines of seismology, volcanology, climatology, geomorphology, hydrology, etc. Until the mid-twentieth century, responsibility for the occurrence of non-technical, non-social disasters was therefore attributed to external natural forces or to gods’ retribution. The extent of damages was similarly imputed to the magnitude and frequency of the physical phenomenon or to the whims of angry, vindictive, or inebriated deities.

In a letter addressed to Voltaire, J.-J. Rousseau was the first known to involve man’s responsibility in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that killed around 100,000 people (e.g. Dynes, 1997). However, it was only in the 1940s that the human dimension of disasters began to be widely accepted. Indeed, the works of Gilbert F. White on the Mississippi River basin were the first in-depth investigations into the human response to natural hazards (White, 1945). The works of White inspired generations of social scientists and served as the basis for what has eventually been called the “dominant” paradigm in the disaster literature. Yet this dominant view still explicitly or implicitly acknowledges the responsibility of nature and hazardous phenomena in explaining disaster occurrence. In line with White’s work, it has been very common to argue that individuals choose to adjust or not to the threat of natural phenomena, or hazards, which are rare, in time, and extreme, in magnitude. The choice of adjustment basically depends on how people perceive rare and extreme threats and the associated risks for themselves. An individual or a society with a low perception of risk, it is argued, is likely to adjust poorly to the threat. On the other hand, people with a high risk perception are likely to behave in a positive way in the face of natural threats. Risk perception is different from the simple knowledge that a hazard exists in the environment and instead refers to the possibility people give that a hazard will affect them (e.g. Kates, 1971). In a landmark book entitled “The environment as hazard”, Burton et al. (1993) propose a society-based classification of adaptations and adjustments to natural hazards depending on people’s perception of Nature’s threat. This classification distinguishes unconscious biological and cultural adaptations from incidental or purposeful adjustments. It contrasts traditional societies, with an alleged poor capability of facing natural hazards, with industrial Western societies whose adjustment is more effective albeit still not perfect.

The perception-adjustment paradigm also spread to the institutions (e.g. national governments, international organizations, consultant agencies) in charge of managing natural hazards and disasters. In the face of natural threats and inadequate behavioral response, structural and technical solutions (e.g. dams and dikes to control floods, electronic devices to detect the occurrence of hazards, hazard mapping) are preferred along with evacuation plans and information campaigns to raise people’s perception of hazardous phenomena. The influence and recommendations emanating from the perception-adjustment paradigm were evident at the advent of the 1990s International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). The United Nations at this time pushed for an increased financial, technological and experience transfer from industrialized countries, where it was argued volcanic eruptions do not cause much damage, to developing states, where volcanoes wreak havoc (Lechat, 1990).

The alternative social perspective

This dominant perception-adjustment paradigm was first challenged in the late 1970s with several strong critiques of White’s ideas (Waddell, 1977; Torry, 1979). Most of the critiques challenge the argument that people have a range of choices to adjust to the threat of a natural hazard. Drawing on cases from the economically developing world, scholars such as O’Keefe et al. (1976) and Hewitt (1983) argue that people’s behavior in the face of natural hazards is constrained by social, economic and political forces beyond their control. Political neglect, social marginalization and difficulty in accessing resources compel powerless individuals to live in hazard-prone areas without appropriate physical and social protection. This perspective emphasizes people’s vulnerability or their susceptibility to suffer from damage should natural hazards occur. A set of indicators reflect the vulnerability of disaster victims (Cannon, 1994). Victims of natural hazards are frequently disproportionally drawn from marginal social groups such as women, children, elderly and the disabled. Vulnerable people are also those with limited or precarious incomes (low wages, informal jobs, lack of savings) that reduce their ability to protect themselves in the face of natural hazards (location of home, type of housing, knowledge of protection measures). Vulnerability also results from inadequate social protection (health insurance, health services, construction rules, prevention measures, etc.) and limited social capital (solidarity networks). It is thus crucial to consider both people’s vulnerability and its root causes which lie in their daily and unique local contexts (Wisner, 1993). Natural hazards are then viewed as a highlighter or amplifier of daily hardship and everyday emergencies rather than as an extreme and rare phenomena (Hewitt, 1983; Maskrey, 1989).

Recommendations on how to mitigate people’s vulnerability in the face of natural hazards are fundamentally social, political and economic in nature, e.g. poverty reduction, fair access to land and resources, better societal protection through government investments in social services. Specific risk management measures are viewed through community-based disaster risk management which underlines people’s participation in hazard, vulnerability and risk assessment (e.g. Anderson and Woodrow, 1989; Bankoff et al., 2004). Such activities have been championed during the 1994 International Conference on Disaster Reduction held in Yokohama, Japan, by the United Nations which marked a change in international disaster management policies (Nations Unies, 1995). More recently, the “Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015” agreed upon by the representatives of 168 countries which participated to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, held in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan, in January 2005, further stresses the importance of:

  • making disaster risk reduction a priority;

  • knowing the risks (in its whole dimension not only its hazard-related dimension) and enhancing early warning system;

  • building understanding and awareness using local and scientific knowledge;

  • reducing the underlying, hazard-independent, factors of risk; and

  • strengthening disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.

This ten-year agenda for disaster risk reduction involves blending both hazard-related and non hazard-related measures. It sets the threat from disasters beyond the sole dimension of natural hazards and locates it clearly within people’s vulnerability in the face of nature’s threat. It recommends culturally sensitive mitigation measures which consider the cultural, social, economic and political context. The HFA further emphasizes the importance of people’s livelihoods and asserts that:

natural hazards cannot be prevented, but it is possible to reduce their impacts by reducing the vulnerability of people and their livelihoods (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2005, p. 4).

Contribution of the present DPM volume

The present volume of Disaster Prevention and Management (DPM) draws on the alternative social approach and takes forward some of the key issues of disaster management. It compiles original papers which were prepared for a panel of the 5th EuroSEAS conference held in Naples, Italy, between 12 and 15 September 2007. It includes contributions from the academe as well as from the practitioner realm, notably NGOs, from Europe and Southeast Asia. It encompasses case studies from rural and urban settings in Southeast Asia as well as conceptual reflections.

All the papers presented in this special issue of DPM lie within the Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA). In an invited opening paper, Terry Cannon first explores the concept of vulnerability and suggests that some disasters may be “innocent”, yet still entirely socially constructed, in the sense that people may choose to live in hazard-prone places just for the sake of their livelihoods. He insists that policy makers should pay particular attention to the cultural and rational explanations for these behaviors which may seem irrational from the outside.

As stated in the HFA and in line with T. Cannon’s social explanation of disasters, a better understanding of the risks in their whole dimension is a prerequisite for efficient and sustainable disaster risk reduction strategies. It is particularly crucial to address the root causes of people’s vulnerability in the face of natural hazards. In this volume, Pauline Texier shows that the scope of damage wrought by the February 2007 flooding episode in the Indonesian capital does not relate to the intensity of rainfall but traces its origin to the severe vulnerability of informal communities living in flood-prone informal settlements. She points out that risk reduction requires a focus on the underlying, hazard-independent factors of people’s vulnerability. This is another priority of the HFA.

The HFA also stresses that another way to sustainable risk management is to enhance local and traditional capacities in the face of natural hazards. In this issue, Ma Soledad Dalisay and JC Gaillard et al. tackle the strategies displayed by Filipino people to cope with recurrent drought and flooding. They suggest that coping strategies are rooted in adjustments in daily life and do not rely on extraordinary measures to face extreme natural hazards. They underline the need for increasing people indigenous capacities in the event of disastrous events. On the other hand, local capacities may be hindered by poorly adapted development and disaster risk reduction policies.

Mareen Gehlich-Shillabeer, who investigates the real impact of microcredit on flood-affected communities in Bangladesh, militates for a careful assessment of the local context, especially environmental, in which microcredit is promulgated. Indeed, it seems that resorting to microcredit as a strategy to cope with natural hazards leads often to higher indebtedness, thus entrapping flood-victims in chronic poverty.

Disaster risk reduction is often a priority for NGOs. Philippe Régnier and co-authors document a NGO initiative to spur livelihood recovery in Tamil Nadu, India, and Aceh, Indonesia, following the 26 December 2004 tsunami. By analysing the way sustainable livelihood recovery assistance has been implemented through microeconomic initiatives, they emphasize the difficulty to conciliate post-disaster reconstruction, vulnerability reduction and development necessities. They address crucial issues to sustainable post-disaster initiatives.

The HFA further suggests building understanding and awareness using local scientific knowledge. In line with this objective, the paper presented by Julie Morin and co-authors exposes a project implemented in Java, Indonesia, to increase people’s capacities to cope with tsunami hazard. It fosters increasing collaboration between NGOs and scientists for diffusing accurate information on natural hazards and strengthening disaster preparedness among threatened communities. It also suggests methods to enhance and better implement early warning systems.

This special issue of Disaster Prevention and Management is our contribution to achieving the goals of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015. It contributes to increasing our understanding of the social dimension of disasters in Southeast Asia. Hopefully many more studies will build on this contribution and further address how to enhance disaster risk reduction in the region.


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Jean-Christophe GaillardUniversité de Grenoble, Grenoble, France

Pauline TexierUniversité Paris 7 Denis Diderot, Montréal, Paris, France