Tag Archives: Disaster Governance

Conference Presentation: 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History

AUC member Fiona Williamson spoke recently at the 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History conference in Tianjin, China on the theme of historic urban flooding. Her paper, titled ‘Cities and Disasters: Floods and Urban Development in Colonial Singapore’, explored urban development and social responses to floods in the city between the late 19th to the early 20th century. It paid close attention to how the British authorities and the city’s inhabitants understood and reacted to serious inundations, and in turn, how these responses shaped the city’s social and physical development. Based on data collected from primary archival sources relating to governance and urban life in the British Straits Settlements, municipal records, and contemporary newspapers, it also argued that the lessons learned (or not) by cities facing disasters in the past can be useful in addressing urban disasters in the modern world.

The paper noted how urban development (especially with the spread of infrastructural projects and industrial growth across the landscape) and the clunky processes of colonial administration hindered, rather than advanced, progress in flood mitigation for much of this time. For instance, although river management was considered important for economic reasons, flood control for its own sake was given lower priority. In all the flood disasters to have affected Singapore during this period, it can clearly be seen that human, rather than natural, exigencies exacerbated their severity. Within a social framework, what we witness over the 19th and 20th centuries was a major shift in how floods were viewed. In the 19th century, floods were disliked but normalized within urban society, and people accepted that there was little to be done. Emphasis was on the individual or the community to tackle the immediate issues surrounding floods, with the government later stepping in to provide financial aid and longer-term solutions. But by the early 20th century, there was an expectation for the government to assume a more proactive stance, to take more responsibility in providing financial and technical preventative solutions. What this shows is less revealing of the nature or trends of floods themselves, but more revealing of a changing culture and society– especially the relationship between government and society and notions of social justice and expectation.

Some of Fiona’s work on these themes will be available to view in the forthcoming publication titled: ‘Crossing Colonial Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in Historic Context’, in M. Miller, M. Douglass, M. Garschagan, eds., Crossing Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in a Global Urban Age in Asia and the Pacific (Singapore: Springer). She also has a recent article titled: ‘The Great Flood of 1926: Environmental Change and Disaster Governance in British Malaya’, Journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, Environmental Impact of Disasters – special issue, 2:11 (2016).

Climate Disaster Governance, 21-22 September 2017

The Asia Urbanisms Cluster (AUC) recently hosted the final event in a three-year project to investigate the impact of disasters on urban life. The disaster governance theme has been facilitated by an MOE Tier-2 grant on Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia [MOE2014-T2-1-017], awarded in 2014. This 3-year multidisciplinary programme was spearheaded by the AUC, working in concert with ARI’s Science, Technology and Society Cluster. Its aim has been to improve understandings of the changing risks, vulnerabilities, responses, and resilience to compounded environmental disasters in an increasingly interconnected urbanizing Asia. In particular, the grant has been instrumental in facilitating an inter-disciplinary dialogue across the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and related technical disciplines.

The final two-day event on ‘Climate Disaster Governance’ has seen these aims achieved by drawing together one of the widest cross-disciplinary dialogues to be held during the course of this grant. Involving people from climate science, geography, sociology, history, public health, applications, agricultural sectors, and more, this conference explored avenues for collaborative work and dialogue to take place. Such an approach is critical to tackling some of the climate related challenges of the 21st century, which will see all basic facets of human life impacted by nature-induced disasters, perhaps to a greater scale than ever before.

In Anthropocene Asia-Pacific, climate change is driving the nature and scale of environmental disasters (especially floods, droughts, and heatwaves) that combine and interact with processes of planetary urbanization. Livelihoods, food security, urban infrastructure, and health will be more frequently and deeply impacted by climate change, and therefore disaster risk governance will face increasingly tough, interconnected, multi-dimensional challenges. One is the merging of conflict disasters with environmental disasters over, for example, water and food. Populations facing disasters of these kinds will increasingly migrate across national borders as home regions become unlivable through the loss of, and resultant conflicts over, various basic life supporting resources. With refugee flows across borders expected to exponentially increase with the intensifying impacts of climate change, national governments will also increasingly default to migrant-receiving cities to cope with climate change refugees. This puts pressure on existing resources, imposes additional stresses on infrastructure, and worsens urban tensions. The increasingly extensive repercussions of climate change-related disasters demand joined up responses as a matter of urgency. Solutions need to run across the board and take account the connectivities between the causes, impacts, and experiences of climate change.

The conference was organised by Fiona Williamson, Michelle Miller, and Mike Douglass (ARI, NUS). Participants included representatives from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Vietnam; University of Southern Queensland, Australia; University of Hawaii, USA; Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems, Thailand; Institute for Population, Family and Children Studies, Vietnam; United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Germany, and Indonesian Institute of Sciences; Chiang Mai University, Thailand; University of Newcastle, Australia; Singapore Management University; University of Brunei Darussalam; National Institute of Advanced Studies, India; Social Policy and Poverty Research Group, Myanmar; University of Colorado Denver, USA; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, as well as National University of Singapore. The full programme and speaker details can be found here.

Speakers and Chairs on Day 1 of the Conference

 

This conference was organized by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; with support from Singapore Ministry of Education Tier 2 Grant – Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia.

Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia and the Pacific

by Michelle Miller and Marcel Bandur
On November 17-18th, the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia’. Organised by Michelle Miller and Mike Douglass, this interdisciplinary conference brought together 28 scholars representing 11 disciplinary backgrounds to show how research on environmental disasters in the Asia-Pacific region illuminates questions of disaster justice from historical and contemporary perspectives. The event combined the richness of on-the-ground research with new insights into how to conceptualize and govern disasters from normative as well as explanatory perspectives. Our central organising premise for the conference was that disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts. The conversations generated by the event yielded rich insights into how the changing geographies of vulnerability accompanying the urban transition in Asia and the Pacific are adding new dimensions to disaster governance and justice.

Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia
Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia

As all disasters occur in political space, disaster justice is situated in spheres of governance and in the context of the rapidly urbanizing societies of the Asia-Pacific that are increasingly impacted by the advent of the Anthropocene, namely, the destructive human transformations of nature that are significant drivers of environmental disasters. Growing awareness of human complicity in creating socially and spatially uneven vulnerabilities to disasters is generating discontents and mobilizations for disaster justice as moral claims for more effective and inclusive modes of disaster prevention, mitigation, management and redress. Posing disaster justice as a problem of governance thus covers a set of issues that encompass but are also differentiated from such allied concepts as environmental and climate justice. As intense events that cause widespread harm and overwhelm existing capacities to respond, disasters generate highly charged but exceptionally complex questions of justice. These factors, combined with the increasingly compound characteristics of environmental disasters (for instance, when a tsunami leads to a nuclear power plant meltdown) further complicate issues of justice in establishing causalities, attributing blame, identifying victims and (re-)establishing working solutions.

Keynote speaker Robert Verchik from Loyola University opened the conference by laying out the social, legal and policy dimensions of managing physical exposure to, and social vulnerabilities rooted in spatial inequalities to explicate the linkages between building community resilience and fighting disaster-related injustices. He emphasised that “in the Anthropocene, there is no such thing as a natural disaster”. Indeed, disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts.

Keynote Speaker Robert Verchick (Loyola University)
Keynote Speaker Robert Verchick (Loyola University)

D. Parthasarathy of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay opened the second day of the conference with a keynote address on the moral imperative of interrogating uncertainty at multiple scales of governance and from diverse perspectives as a pre-requisite for enhancing resilience, coping and adaptation for long-term disaster risk reduction in urbanising populations across the Asia-Pacific.

Day two keynote speaker D. Parthasarathy
Day two keynote speaker D. Parthasarathy

Isaac Kerlow from the Earth Observatory of Singapore screened his short film titled “Change”. The conference participants were only the 2nd audience to watch the film, after it premiered the day before. The short film explored the disruption of the Earth’s natural balance due to rapid changes caused by our growth and prosperity.
The conference included themed panels based on paper presentations that spoke to questions of historicising disaster justice, justice in anthropogenic disasters, the politics of inclusion and exclusion in disaster (in)justices, the role of civil society in claims for disaster justice, and a special panel on disaster justice in South Asian localities, namely India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, the discussions generated significant insights drawing from a wide range of conceptual lenses and on-the-ground research.
Finding a consensus on the definition of Disaster Justice was not the goal of the conference. Rather, the conference highlighted what Disaster Justice mean for various communities and polities. The notion of Disaster Justice is yet to be played out, especially in light of raising consciousness regarding the anthropogenic essence of disasters. More importantly, this conference succeeded in fostering a diverse community of scholars and practitioners alike to draw Disaster Justice closer to the centre stage of academic and socio-political discourses.
Taken together, the conference surpassed expectations in pushing the parameters of theorising on the understudied concept of disaster justice within and beyond the rapidly urbanising societies of the Asia-Pacific, which are increasingly vulnerable to environmental disasters and their cascading impacts.