Tag Archives: natural hazard

Hindsight being 20/20…

3 May

After reading a great piece in The Guardian a few weeks back, I felt inspired to cut back a bit on my consumption of news media (yes, I recognize the irony of reading an article that inspired me to read fewer articles). This week I am trying to get back into the world, and the first piece of news I came across was on the massive failure of the international community in responding to one of the worst crises of this century, the Somalia famine.  The 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa left 4.6% of Somalia’s population (and one out of 10 children under the age of five) dead. For two years, drastic food shortages wreaked havoc on the population and affected some 13 million people throughout the region as a whole. Much of this damage, however, could have been avoided.

As Aljazeera reports, “The famine was manmade…there was donor fatigue, there was a lack of political will, and the people of Somalia suffered because of the political failure to help the people of Somalia.” While the crisis was exacerbated by militia groups in control of famine-affected areas refusing to let most foreign agencies operate within their territories, the international response was incredibly slow, and for a full year leading up to the crisis, research and forecasts were ultimately ignored worldwide. Peter Greste begs the question, “why for example did it take those dyer images of dying children before significant amounts of aid started flowing in…and what will it take to make donors respond to warnings ahead of the next crisis?”

Well, the next crises are here: from a looming humanitarian disaster in South Sudan already ushering in ‘near famine conditions’, to extreme humanitarian needs compounded by the recent coup in Central African Republic, to the staggering humanitarian disaster in Syria spilling over into surrounding regions. These crises are here, and they are real, and they are not showing any signs of improvement. Thinking about this international neglect conjures images of the international community and the Clinton administration’s failure to act on warning signs, eye-witness testimony and video documentation of the genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, for which Bill Clinton later apologized.

Is it acceptable practice in modern times to simply turn away while a crisis unfolds in some remote region of the world, and then apologize for our negligence after it has taken its toll on hundreds of thousands of lives? Are these crises really that easy to ignore? Without sufficient geopolitical interest in a given region, will the international community continue to turn a blind eye to these events, only to rise to a podium down the road and say “Ooops, our bad. We should have acted on the plethora of facts and evidence we had a little earlier. Sorry!”

What’s further disheartening about this pattern is the fact that as emerging researchers and practitioners, we at HREC like to believe that the information we reveal to the world will be used to abate violations of human rights and alleviate human suffering. How does research and the collection of data transcend obscurity and make its way into the international psyche to the extent that concerted action is taken to prevent these stains on our collective human experience? How do we learn from our mistakes and transform hindsight into foresight?

We are all vulnerable: Ending the Stigma

13 Nov

As everyone with a television (or ears) knows, the devastation that Hurricane Sandy has left in it’s wake, both in the Caribbean and all the way up to the Northeast, has been unthinkable. Certainly in the greater New York City area, preparation for such an event was severely lacking, and response has been labored and incredibly challenging for the thousands of souls working to assist those affected. After volunteering for a week with the American Red Cross, helping to start up operations on Staten Island just days after Sandy hit, I wanted to write a post in The League about how this event highlights a mutual susceptibility to devastation in the face of climate change. Low and behold, through the INEE listserve comes a message that I could not have written better myself. I pass along the words of INEE Director Lori Heninger from an email entitled “We are all vulnerable: Ending the Stigma.”

Dear INEE Members,

As most of you know, Hurricane Sandy recently hit the Caribbean — particularly the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba — and then rode up the eastern coast of the United States, leaving death and destruction in its wake.  I have two reasons for writing this message.

First, on behalf of the INEE Secretariat, I want to thank everyone who has sent emails, made calls, and thought about those of us in the Secretariat based in New York. These messages were deeply appreciated by the entire Secretariat, and we are very grateful for such a committed, caring membership.  Although power is still out in some areas, the Secretariat made it through the storm relatively unscathed.

Hurricane Sandy over the Caribbean, en route to the United States. 

Photo: NOAA National Hurricane Center

Second, this storm has driven home the fact that, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan, all of us — no matter our stage in development or geographic location — live in situations of vulnerability.  Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis have no care whether they impact a “developed” or a “developing” country: when the ground shakes, or the water floods in, or the wind rips the roofs from schools, we see that nature is not biased.

And it is not just nature that makes us vulnerable. Having experienced first-hand both the events of New York City during 11 September 2001 and London during the 2005 bombings, I am clear that violence is not just something that happens “somewhere else,” but can happen anywhere, at any time, and can take many forms. In all instances, schools were closed due to disruption or destruction.

People walk on a street full of debris after the hurricane hit Santiago de Cuba.

Photo: Desmond Boyland/REUTERS

In New York and New Jersey, many students returned to school after a week of closure; transportation systems were disrupted, schools were flooded, there was no power, or schools were used for shelters. Sound familiar? A major difference is that in New York, most schools opened after only a week of being closed. School closures in other situations, for many reasons, can and do last much longer.

Yellow cabs line a flooded street in Queens, New York in hurricane Sandy’s wake.
Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features

Here in the eastern US, we have developed infrastructure, contingency planning, and resources to deal with crises; however, people still die, homes are destroyed, and schools close.  This situation of course cannot compare with the recent floods in Pakistan that killed over 400 or the devastation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that affected millions.  My message is simply that the stigma of vulnerability as something that happens in “other places” is false. We are all affected by crisis, conflict and the results of natural hazard.

The sooner and more deeply we can see how these occurrences link us, rather than divide us, the sooner we can work together to ensure that as much is done as possible to prevent crises and minimize destruction so that lives, and education, are disrupted as little as possible.

Lori Heninger, PhD.
INEE Director