Disaster Governance - a Complex Process
by John on Sat, 03/31/2012 - 18:59
Disaster Governance - a Complex Process
by Ahana Lakshmi
Governance can be described as the way in which society implements decisions, through structures and processes that shape individual and collective action. It is not the sole purview of the State as it involves the interaction of a wide variety of actors. These range from elected government and traditional institutions to private sector and civil society.
Take the case of environmental governance: as the use, indeed, exploitation of natural resources increased and our understanding of the complex nature of environmental interactions increased, there has been a proliferation of institutions and institutional mechanisms that govern various aspects of the environment.
The problem has been of different perspectives of the same ‘resource’ as well as different discourses on how to look after these resources, which has resulted in the proliferation of conflicts as well.
Thus, for a conservation biologist dealing with estuarine ecology, each estuary is a system where the salt water from the ocean and fresh water from rivers mix creating a complex environment creating hundreds of niches into which a mind boggling variety of living organisms fit in creating the web of life that provide the various ‘ecosystem services’ from provisioning (food) to supporting (nutrient cycling) to cultural (aesthetic) to regulating (flood control, seawater intrusion) services; whereas for someone in the shipping industry, an estuary could be the nucleus of a port. Thus, from the earlier holistic perspective of ‘paryavaran’ (Hindi) or ‘chutruchuzal’ (Tamil), environment has become sectoralized both in descriptive (description of resources, services) and prescriptive (governance) sense.
We are now realizing that disasters and environment are very closely related in a number of aspects. Healthy ecosystems offer supporting and regulating services that are literally, quite priceless. Mangroves, for example, have been rated very high in their potential to reduce the impact of waves generated by high tides, storm surges and even tsunamis, in some cases; with the effect being greatest for natural stands of mangroves.
This effect is sought to be replicated by creating bioshields – stands of casurina or other sturdy trees. However, they are not and cannot be as effective as a natural mangrove ecosystem that has developed over a long time period, with complex ecological processes and relationships between the flora and fauna as well as the abiotic and biotic components of the mangrove ecosystem.
This is similar to attempts at building identical units and housing people in them and expecting them to function together. It may happen quickly if certain factors are in place, it may happen over a long time or sometimes, not at all. The same is the case of governance structures. The web of inter-relatedness that is built up is not automatic once a structure is in place.
Considerable effort has to be made to ensure that the strands of the web of governance link properly so that the structure is complete and does not have obvious weak sections.
These learnings can be extended to disaster governance, of increasing importance today.
Governance with respect to disasters can be visualized in two phases – pre disaster and post disaster. The pre-disaster phase is in the context of reducing vulnerability to hazards, both natural and man-made; while post-disaster include what must be done once a disaster happens.
Thus, disaster related governance structures and systems are of growing importance. Understanding is steadily increasing on the complexity of socio-ecologic systems and the capacity of both social and ecological systems in handling hazards.
Concepts, approaches and mechanisms to handle disasters have evolved considerably in the last two decades. One of the biggest realizations is that disasters can have substantive social impacts.
For example, Cyclone Thane three months ago resulted in the complete collapse of the energy distribution infrastructure in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu resulting in the need to rebuild almost from scratch.
While this can be done, it takes time and this can have a destabilizing effect on the economy, for example with the loss of working days for industrial units resulting in laying off and migration of workers which could translate into losses in production.
Thus, while some components may recover in the short term, there may be unforeseen long term consequences such as because of the liquidity needs they may create in the financial sector, and other sectoral imbalances such as due to diversion of scarce resources (including funds and manpower) delaying other planned activities.
Disaster response cannot follow a rigid protocol. Each disaster is unique and hence the responses are different. Thus, decision making that follows a disaster has to be informed, flexible and innovative. While some responses need to be quick, almost instantaneous; others must needs be carefully thought out, without being pressurised especially by external influences such as the media.
A governance structure for disaster management has to rely not on detailed procedures, but rather, a responsive decision-making structure which is trained to communicate within and without, and work in a coordinated manner.
In addition to the above, one could visualize three pillars of disaster governance - Information, Coordination and Education.
These are basically dynamic processes, constantly being updated with adaptive management techniques. Information would include assessments, of society, of the environment, of economic situations, of drivers of change that would change situations on the ground. Coordination is essential because of institutional pluralism under which we function.
Education and awareness on all aspects of disaster management is essential.
Having accepted the fact that disasters are on the rise, and that the socio-economic costs of disasters is also on the rise, it is imperative to design better risk management systems that are based on some fundamental laws. We could begin by stating that the zeroth law would be ensuring memory – of disasters (what actually happened in terms of hard data) and their impacts as well as responses (what was done, what was right, what got left).
In other words, knowledge management should be the core for disaster risk reduction. It is time we started a more serious and proactive debate about disaster governance.