Read Kumarian Press' Dual Disasters Book Review

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Read Kumarian Press' Dual Disasters Book Review

Post  Admin on Mon Sep 12, 2011 1:07 pm

Reviewed by Ilan Kelman, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO)

On 26 December 2004, a powerful, shallow earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia. Tsunamis were generated, further adding to the nearby destruction, but also wreaking havoc all around the India Ocean. The two worst hit countries were Indonesia, mainly the province of Aceh, and Sri Lanka.

Each of those locations had suffered a decades-long internal conflict. Hope was raised that the post-tsunami humanitarian operation might pave the way for peace. In the end, a peace deal was reached in Aceh which has so far held, although there is general agreement that the earthquake and tsunami did not create the peace but provided an opportunity for peace to take hold. In Sri Lanka, the same opportunity existed, but the post-tsunami operations led to exacerbation of the conflict. Within a few years, a military operation ended the violent conflict.

The book Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid After the 2004 Tsunami by Jennifer Hyndman explores aspects of the post-tsunami humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka and Aceh in connection with the peace process, as well as with other sustainability and development approaches. The book’s purpose is laid out in Chapter 1 which frames the books’ topic, thesis, and theoretical and practical background: “This book examines how environmental disasters interact with political crises that precede them” (p. 1) using the 2004 tsunamis in Sri Lanka and Aceh as a case study. Sub-aims are focused on aid policy.

The title “Dual Disasters” adopts multiple meanings: environmental hazards and conflict, Sri Lanka and Aceh, the attention given to the tsunami compared to other disasters, and the challenges of disaster relief as a second “disaster” after an environmental extreme occurs. In Chapter 1, Hyndman also introduces herself to the reader, indicating the academic and practitioner perspectives which shape her work.

Chapter 2 provides useful background to both case studies, setting the stage for the later analysis. The material contains the important details without being overbearing, permitting the reader to understand the contexts which the tsunamis struck. Chapter 3 focuses on Sri Lanka, highlighting themes of fear, aid politics, and buffer zones. Powerful anecdotes from individuals interviewed evidence the points. Sri Lanka is the still the theme for Chapters 4 and 5 which examine gender politics and aid effectiveness respectively. Both topics are well-embedded in pre-tsunami contexts, shedding light on the tsunami’s impacts.

Chapter 6, written with Arno Waizenegger, delves into the Aceh case study. The contrasts and connections between post-tsunami Aceh and post-conflict Aceh are discussed, especially in terms of each disaster’s characteristics plus the aid that each disaster generated. The authors provide sharp, important, and needed critiques of happenings on the ground, yielding useful insights into why the tsunami supported but did not create peace. A good example is the efforts made to reintegrate ex-combatants, while noting the limitations in how livelihoods were provided.

The book’s conclusion is Chapter 7 giving a very brief overview of themes, covering both case studies, but emphasising Sri Lanka. Some quick aspects of two wider interests are covered: problems with the humanitarian aid industry and other forms of “dual disasters”.

Overall, Hyndman provides excellent on-the-ground insights, bringing to the reader the experiences which disaster-affected people had. She provides some insightful critiques, such as Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism” that “underestimates local and national actors in Sri Lanka that aspire to different futures” (p. 14). The book also impresses by choosing to investigate and analyse topics that are frequently overlooked, such as gender-based disaster impacts along with long-term root causes of vulnerability that led to the catastrophes. Fundamental tenets of disaster studies are rightly adopted, such as “There is simply no such thing as a purely ‘natural’ disaster” (p. 3).

Within those academic and practitioner insights, some more careful attention and further explanations would have grounded parts of the book better and avoided some questions hanging for the reader. For example, earthquakes are reported with magnitude, even though more parameters than magnitude are needed to determine how an earthquake is experienced at a location. Depth is particularly important.

When examining donors, Canada receives apparently disproportionate attention in the book. As one instance, a Canadian news documentary is described rather than academic literature on the same topic (p. 134) while CIDA and Canadian diplomats receive prominent attention without the same level of discussion being given to others. There might be a reason for highlighting Canada over other donors. It would be useful to know that reason.

An example where the academic discussion leaves open questions is Chapter 4’s unabashed choice to pursue a “feminist approach and not a gender analysis” (p. 62). Most of the theoretical embedding then mirrors exactly what the “gender and disasters” approach has long discussed in the literature, as demonstrated through the Gender and Disaster Network (http://www.gdnonline.org) which the book does not mention. The comments and interpretations are apposite and they are important to be in Dual Disasters, so it is exciting to see such an approach being taken. But those comments and interpretations fully emerge from gender studies, not just feminist approaches.

Similarly, to state that “global warming” contributed to “an immense humanitarian disaster” for Hurricane Katrina (p. 10) is wrong. “Global warming” did not build New Orleans below sea level, did not yield local corruption, and did not eviscerate FEMA after 9/11 leading to lackadaisical disaster preparedness and response for the hurricane—amongst other causal factors of the disaster that Hyndman lists. Without climate change, Katrina would still have been as catastrophic. The sudden and token mention of “global warming” again in the book’s final paragraph (p. 136) is particularly puzzling since the comments on links with extreme weather are not fully embedded in the scientific literature which indicates complicated and nuanced relationships between climate change and weather. Instead, the book’s references on this topic include a Canadian newspaper article and Al Gore!

Overall, though, Hyndman provides a nice balance amongst all the dualities she raises; for instance, academia and praxis; Sri Lanka and Aceh; conflicts and tsunamis; and aid and development. Ultimately, most of these pairs are deliberately not set in opposition. Instead, they complement each other. They must all be factored in for understanding, as Hyndman does, the book’s subtitle “Humanitarian Aid After the 2004 Tsunami” with insights and recommendations to do better regarding aid and development, especially disaster vulnerability reduction.

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