Friday, January 20, 2006

New direction needed for disaster management

New direction needed for disaster management

Opinion and Editorial - January 16, 2006 (The Jakarta Post)
Jonatan Lassa, Jakarta

At least 38 major flood and landslide incidents have occurred in the last five years throughout Indonesia, killing more than 2,000 people and affecting one million more, including the recent disasters in Jember and Banjarnegara, in Java.

It a shocking fact, but one that has hardly touched policymakers in Indonesia.
Many people wrongly think that Indonesia does not have flood-risk area mapping.
Bakorsurtanal (National Survey Coordinating Agency) finished their flood risk map a few years ago and it is available for free on the Internet. What the government does not have is the follow-up actions such as disaster preparedness and mitigation within the flood-prone areas.

Mainstream media and experts are often trapped into simplifying the approach to flood problems. They think that engineering and technological based approaches to tackle flood problems are enough. In addition, the government and a few mainstream research bodies also think that removing people from the flood/landslide prone areas is a solution. These agencies seem to take an exclusionary approach to the problem suggesting that people get out of the flood/landslide prone areas.

Using remote-sensing satellite data, experts from Gadjah Mada University found that the recent flood in Jember and landslide in Banjarnegara were not directly linked with deforestation. Several NGOs, like CIFOR, have also published their findings that many major floods have no direct link with deforestation. They might be right, as many determinants work together to produce flood hazards.

What government barely understands is that there is a long process involved for a flood hazard to produce a disaster, and there are choices and actions that can be made to prevent flood hazards becoming disasters. Disaster is a forced marriage of hazards and vulnerabilities. Hazards can be mitigated and managed, while vulnerabilities can be reduced. Therefore, disaster risk management is a function of hazards mitigation and vulnerability reduction. This is a very simple understanding for people in disaster studies.

In November 1999, the Advanced Study Institute of NATO supported 35 researchers from nine countries to meet in Ravello, Italy to discuss flood management. They issued several recommendations, concerning the weaknesses in engineering and high-technological based approaches, to flash flood hazards. They urged greater emphasis on increasing understanding of the social processes involved in flash flood warnings, particularly in the response phases. They pointed out the need to reduce vulnerabilities in sustainable ways compatible with long-term economic and social goals. The relationship between hydrometeorology and social science is seen as critical to advancing our ability to cope with flash floods.

This recommendation is very much welcome by most progressive disaster management experts, because vulnerability is a crucial factor that is mostly "produced" through development policy processes.

Let us return to the Jember and Banjarnegara disasters. Even though there was a clear indication that torrential rains and steep slopes in these places were the contributing factors to the hazards, as explained by Gadjah Mada University experts, the death of almost 300 people is not a natural disaster by their very nature.

It is a common knowledge that heavy rain can produce floods. But not all people understand that there is still a long way for a flood to become a disaster.

The story would be much different now if there had been flood mitigation practices, if there had been disaster preparedness and contingency planning and responses in place, and if there had been disaster risk mainstreaming in all the development processes. These are the agenda items that are often ignored by people in power.

Disaster management narratives in Indonesia are alienated from the issues of human rights and focus more on emergency responses. Furthermore, emergency responses from the state and private donations are often seen as 'charity' rather than an imperative to respect human rights.

The gap between disasters and development is quite tight now days, especially in disaster-prone areas. Hence the integration of both is a must. But sadly, neither the government nor civil society organizations including the media are aware of the importance of mainstreaming risk reduction in development processes in Indonesia.

There is no point in going back to the old paradigm where people saw disasters as "unpredictable". However, the new paradigm in disaster management suggests that all disasters are predictable because disasters are not only a function of hazard but indeed an interaction between hazard and vulnerability.

This formula is not a magic bullet to understanding the anatomy of every disaster, but it is a good start to see that in most cases disasters are anthropogenic rather than natural due to the lack of preparedness within the hazard-prone areas.