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The best books on Natural Disasters

recommended by Khurshid Alam

Disaster reconstruction and climate change expert, Khurshid Alam, talks through five illuminating books on natural disasters and outlines some of the key political issues relating to disaster management.

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Why do you recommend At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters?

Because it provided a revolutionary shift in the way that people think about natural disasters. It was published in 1994 and it was the first to suggest that disaster recovery is not just about physical reconstruction – it also has a social dimension. One of the authors, Piers Blaikie, argues that disasters have a differential impact on those it affects. Poor people are likely to be more affected by a natural disaster than rich people, the latter of whom tend to overcome the loss more quickly.

For example, when discussing flood recovery, Blaikie and the three contributors urge readers not to begin by thinking of the issue of water, but to start with vulnerability. Why is it that some people are living in low-lying land that is susceptible to flooding? Perhaps it’s because somebody else grabbed the people’s land, forcing them to move elsewhere.

This book details a theoretical model called the crunch model, which in my opinion remains the most powerful way of understanding the impact of disasters. It’s very simple: imagine a group of vulnerable people living on low land – the hazard is obviously water. When the vulnerability and hazard come together in the form of a flood, the two factors are multiplied to equal the scale of the disaster. Many policy-makers have acted on the connection that is made between development and disaster.

Tell us about Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis.

This is a very interesting book – it contains some very good storytelling about the late Victorian famines in Africa, India, China, Brazil and elsewhere. It could almost be described as a narration of human suffering. It also contains many rare photographs depicting the famines.

Davis discusses the role of capitalism and colonialism on the environment and climate during the famines that were related to the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, a climate pattern that produces extreme weather. He investigates the role of the colonial government in British India and elsewhere and documents the inefficiency and detrimental policies that contributed to an increase in widespread hunger and poverty. He also suggests that the vulnerability produced by these famines remained long after the British left. Thus explaining the title – The Making of the Third World. Although the term ‘holocaust’ is quite controversial when relating to natural disasters, I believe that Davis is suggesting that the famines may have been preventable, and that they were undoubtedly on a massive scale. In the latter part of the 19th century, between 30 and 60 million died as a result of hunger.

Your next book is A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

In 1906, one of the largest earthquakes in American history almost entirely destroyed the American West’s great city of San Francisco. Simon Winchester focuses on the response to the earthquake, which was one of the first to be documented by the media. The earthquake caused a fire that lasted for three days and was far more destructive than the quake itself. Insurance companies refused to pay out in the majority of cases because few people at that time had cover specifically for earthquakes.

Though it focuses less on the human stories and more on rebuilding, it provides a very comprehensive ‘bigger picture’ of disaster. It’s not an easy book to read for those without a basic understanding of geography and how earthquakes occur, but it’s terrific for an advanced level understanding.

Tell us about Building Back Better: Delivering People-Centred Housing Reconstruction at Scale.

This is another powerful book written by many different contributors. I contributed a chapter that focuses on the advantages of empowering affected house owners to solve humanitarian challenges.

Broadly, Building Back Better argues the case for changing the power structure relating to reconstruction. The people with resources – that is, governments and aid organisations, are in total control of reconstruction programmes. On the other hand, those that are directly affected by the disaster are also capable of managing their own recovery and often have their own ideas about how to do so. The only thing they lack is money. The affected people and powerful people must work together more closely and become involved in participatory, democratic planning.

The recovery system is complex due to donor reporting rules and there is an apprehension that the media may accuse such organisations of constructing poor quality buildings. And some are of the belief that if money is given directly to those affected, they are likely to spend it on drink and that they will construct low quality buildings. But there are many real life examples where local people have been trained and assisted by governments and aid workers, who facilitate the process rather than controlling it. More often than not, the quality of these buildings was superior to those built by large contractors, who build houses in a uniform style without considering many things that may be important to a particular community.

Once, while visiting a reconstruction project in Myanmar, I asked the local people which house they would be moving into. ‘We don’t know, we haven’t been told yet,’ was the reply. There was no involvement with the local people whatsoever. When I spoke to those involved in the reconstruction project, I was told that there was a terrible deadline from the donor. The whole system is not designed in a helpful way.

Furthermore, when participatory planning took place, the community benefited because the money was invested back into the local economy. Sadly, such practices are rare in comparison to the number of disasters that have occurred – perhaps one in every hundred reconstruction projects. Building Back Better argues that there is no reason why owner-driven reconstruction cannot be done in large-scale disasters.

Your last book is Know Risk, published by the United Nations.

It was published during a world conference on disaster reduction in 2005 in Japan and it is regarded as the global document on disaster reduction. Its format is very useful – it’s possible to browse both by country and theme.

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Know Risk is a large book – it contains almost 200 articles, which were written by highly qualified professionals. As well as describing their experiences in disaster recovery, the book also contains many arguments about how to increase the effectiveness of disaster reduction policies.

It is unfortunate that on the whole, government policy-makers tend to regard death by military means as more significant than death by a natural disaster, yet both involve the same concept of human security. Globally, a vast amount of money is spent on building military capacity, and the amount that is spent on preventing disasters is peanuts in comparison. Governments throughout the world must acknowledge that human security should not simply be understood from a political perspective. The state ought to protect the health and life of its citizens from both military attacks and natural disasters. It is within our rights to demand this be done.

Of all the disaster reconstruction projects you have been involved in over the last 12 years, which disaster do you regard as the most severe?

The disaster that I found the most complex and the one that touched me the most was the tsunami – specifically in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The community was facing conflict when the tsunami hit and though a ceasefire was declared immediately afterwards, due to political constraints aid wasn’t able to reach Jaffna. I went in by military plane and saw a truly terrible situation. A doctor told me that an older brother and his sister had been playing by the seashore when the tsunami hit. The sister died and the boy’s parents accused him of not taking care of her and said that she died as a result of his negligence. Over and over they repeated this to the 11-year-old boy, who ultimately lost control. Later it was discovered that he became a soldier for LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]. Sadly, you will find this kind of story all over the world.

Is the world is a dangerous place?

No. It is a much safer place than before in terms of disaster risk. This is due to the international system that has been set up over time. Historically, when disasters occurred, it was the epidemics afterwards that killed more people than the disaster itself. The lack of medicine was critical. Nowadays, disasters do not occur without a strong response from the government and NGOs.

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However earthquakes pose a greater threat in modern times because we have more buildings and they are made out of heavy, dense material, with many people living in tightly packed cities. In countries such as Iran, experts have proposed that the capital be moved to a safer location, as Tehran lies across hundreds of fault lines.

One of the reasons why I am writing a book about the Great Indian Earthquake of 1897 – which killed around 2,500 people but for aforementioned reasons would kill millions today – is to remind people in my own country of Bangladesh that an earthquake can occur in this region and that we are not at all prepared for the devastating impact it will have.

September 24, 2010

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Khurshid Alam

Khurshid Alam

Khurshid Alam is a natural disaster and climate change expert who has played a key role in disaster reconstruction in 20 different countries. Khurshid is currently writing a book about the great Indian earthquake of 1897, which flattened an area roughly the size of England.

Khurshid Alam

Khurshid Alam

Khurshid Alam is a natural disaster and climate change expert who has played a key role in disaster reconstruction in 20 different countries. Khurshid is currently writing a book about the great Indian earthquake of 1897, which flattened an area roughly the size of England.