Deconstructing disasters

by Erin Bohensky

What is a disaster? The simple defi nition is a sudden, devastating, and sometimes surprising event or misfortune. A more comprehensive explanation of a disaster is that: fi rst, it typically follows a prolonged phase of inappropriate action or inaction, often due to a lack of awareness of the underlying drivers of the problem that spirals toward its ultimate disastrous conclusion; second, it is rarely the result of a single management failure or an environmental change, but rather an interaction of the two; third, the victims of disasters frequently lack options for responding to their situation.

Improved disaster prevention and preparedness requires a greater awareness of how disasters arise, and an expanded set of response options. A recent analysis of people’s responses to ecosystem change by the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA) (1), part of a global initiative to evaluate the relationships between ecosystem services and human well-being at multiple scales, offers a few lessons for making responses more robust to the uncertain future of this region in transition, which also apply to the anticipation and mitigation of disasters

Disasters are elements of complex systems, in which people and their environment are linked. Complex systems repeatedly give rise to several problems. First, because complexity is daunting, people tend to simplify the complex world they inhabit. People (whether scientists, managers, or resource users) break problems down to cope with them, but then don’t restore the pieces to their former whole. They act without considering the full consequences of their actions. A second problem is that managing complex systems often requires trade-offs that favour different sectors of society. Southern African ecosystems, like others throughout the world, have historically been managed within the context of individual economic sectors, which tends to obscure the trade-offs between them. Third, people and societies impose social or political levels of organisation and time frames on ecosystem processes, which usually operate at very different spatial and temporal scales. This can cause a mismatch between ecosystem and management processes, as evidenced in the design of many southern African protected areas that have truncated wildlife migration routes at national borders. Last but not least, because understanding of complex systems is poor, decision-making must contend with partial, uncertain, or incorrect information, and with mental models, which are infl uenced not only by available information, but also by the powerful forces of interpretation and persuasion.

What makes this behaviour especially dangerous is that it disregards the critical thresholds that characterise complex systems. Changes in complex systems are often non-linear; thus, an abrupt or extreme change is not always possible to anticipate, and seemingly small incremental changes can have massive effects. We typically have no idea where these critical thresholds are or how close we are to them. When we fail to observe or fully understand the interconnectivity of different parts of the whole system, we miss the big picture and increase our vulnerability to disasters.

The design of institutions and policies is crucial to mediating disasters, and three aspects are particularly important. The fi rst is that institutions and policies must be scale-appropriate, yet collectively extend over multiple scales; complementarity and communication between institutions are key. Disasters often occur at the intersection of processes occurring at different scales – climate change, a policy change, and a change in local land use, for example. They also tend to emerge when responses to problems at one scale ignore those happening at others. In southern Africa, numerous large-scale government interventions during past decades that were designed to improve ecosystem service delivery compromised local capacity to deal with unexpected events, because local communities were excluded from decision- making processes. Meanwhile, local knowledge that could have been tapped to monitor important variables was not transmitted to higher levels of decisionmaking. This is beginning to change in southern Africa, particularly in the water sector, which is striving to implement new institutional arrangements which entail multi-subsidiarity: local organisations, catchment management agencies, river basin organisations, and national ministries will collectively work towards a shared vision of equitable, effi cient, and sustainable water use.

Second, institutions and policies must ensure that feedback allows information to fl ow freely between scales and sectors. Feedback is essential to self-evaluation – it tells us how well or poorly we are doing our job. Too often, however, feedback is dampened or lost. Agricultural subsidies, for example, suppress natural feedback because they distort perceptions about the true costs of food production. This encourages dependency, which can thwart the restoration of natural feedback. The South African government has now begun to phase out agricultural and irrigation subsidies, but has had to make special provisions for some emerging farmers and communities for whom farming would not be economically viable otherwise.

Third, institutions and policies need to go deeper and address the causes of disasters, and not just treat their symptoms. While many disasters have the potential to inspire a positive change in management, the opportunity is frequently foregone. It is simpler and less costly, in the short term, for a managing authority to make it look like it’s doing “something”, even if that something is bound to set the stage for a repeat performance. When a drought strikes in southern Africa, water use restrictions may be imposed on more affl uent consumers to reduce domestic consumption, but are lifted as soon as the fi rst raindrop falls. Rather than create an opportunity to change attitudes towards water use, this practice allows people to revert to their previous behaviour of wasting water that they believe is abundant.

Perhaps most importantly, institutions need to adopt a longer-term perspective on disasters. Scenario planning is a structured way to stimulate dialogue about alternative, plausible pathways to the future. Scenarios can be a useful tool to improve understanding of disasters because they force us to identify the slow variables that drive the system – the ones most likely to catch us off-guard because we are not watching them carefully. When conducted with a broad group of stakeholders, scenarios can also help diverse or confl icting groups to reach consensus on diffi cult issues. To envision possible futures for southern African ecosystems, SAfMA employed several approaches to produce and communicate scenarios, including adaptation of existing scenarios, stakeholder workshops, and community theatre. Indeed, the communication process was often fundamental to the success of the exercise.

Greater effort needs to be made to understand the broader contexts in which disasters strike, and to designing institutions and policies that can capture this understanding. Disasters can be opportunities to learn from past actions, serve as a wake-up call for positive change, and provide a clean slate on which a system can reorganise more sustainably. However, a disaster that is not well managed tends to self-perpetuate, bringing much destruction and devastation before benefi ts for learning can be realised.

Erin Bohensky is a Ph.D. student in the Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa. This article is based on the work of the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA), which was completed this year.

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