Dealing with urban disasters: A conference on disaster governance in Asia
With climate change and the rise of extreme weather conditions, more natural disasters have struck various countries, and this is especially crippling on some growing Asian nations poorly equipped to deal with these problems. The urban transitions in Asia have also been marked by a coastal orientation that has left urban populations more exposed to floods, tsunamis and cyclones. The recent typhoon in the Philippines is suspected to have claimed at least 10,000 lives and has destroyed tens of thousands of homes.
In every natural disaster, we lose thousands – even millions – of people. Everything that was built with significant effort is destroyed within several hours. An incalculable number of fates are ruined. Who can reduce the pressures of natural disasters if not the government?
The government plays a crucial role in this issue, making brave and wise decisions that can save doomed lives in the face of danger. What we see nowadays is the system’s incompetency and ill-preparedness to prepare for nature’s power, predict disasters in time, respond right way, protect residents as best as possible, supportthem in troubled days, and avoid future catastrophes. Have you ever wondered how the impact of these disasters could have been lessened if governments paid more attention to these kinds of problems?
To address these issues, nearly 30 scholars and researchers with experience and expertise in disasters in Asia gathered at the Asian Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for a conference on the 7th and 8thof November to present their papers and holdpanel discussions to find solutions to these tragedies.
At times, solutions require us to delve into the root and history of emergencies. The word ‘emergency’ has been placed in various contexts throughout history, and different countries and cultures have dealt with states of national emergency or natural disasters differently. Associate Professor Gregory Clancey from the Department of History at NUS discussed this in his paper and presentation and elaborated on how emergencies rise into governance from political disaster in Asia and America, compared to Europe.
He cited examples of Singapore being in an emergency state in historical times, such as the 1948 to 1960 Malayan Emergency. He also mentioned the Bukit Ho Swee fire incident, where slums caught fire and residents had to be rehoused in public housing. “It was emergency housing as a response to a ‘natural disaster’,” he said.
Individuals’ mindsets in disasters are also very different in various cultures. “The earthquake in Japan is seen by the people as divine punishment, a kind of retribution for corruption,” Professor Clancey said.
Meanwhile in India, citizens tend to have a more reactive – as opposed to preventive – mindset when it comes to disasters. Post-doctoral researcher Zuzana Hrdlickova from the University of London, who has conducted fieldwork in disaster management in India, said: “It is only when disaster strikes that the people are motivated to do something about it. It’s the experience of disaster and human suffering that will prompt them to improve the situation.”
“Most of them adopt a fatalistic mindset – both citizens and people in the government. They feel that ‘If I’m meant to die, I’ll die,’ rather than taking measures to prevent disasters from happening in the first place,” she added.
The issues raised and discussed over the two-day conference ranged from trends in disaster governance to specific relief and recovery efforts for disasters in various Asian cities such as Jakarta, Wenchuan, Vietnam, etc. Panel discussions threw out various ideas and questions on how better solutions can be implemented in various forms.
There was a good mix of academics who have performed in-depth scholarly research and researchers with fieldwork experience on the ground, all of whom provided a good balance to the discussions.
Ultimately, what is most important is that awareness of disaster issues were raised, which is crucial as it prompts greater discussion on what else can be done to improve governments’ and citizens’ preparedness for disasters.
Not to mention that Singapore is surrounded by disaster-prone countries. As long as nobody (even our government) can save us better than ourselves, it is important for us to know how we can reach out and cater to the needs of our neighbors, as well as understand how we can prepare ourselves for seemingly unpredictable emergencies.