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Disasters Caused by Nature or Poor Governance?

June 6, 2011 - 12:56

June 13, 2011
Dept of Social Work, Amritapuri

Violent torrential rains hit mountain towns north of Rio, Brazil this past January, triggering massive floods and mudslides that caused irreparable damage.

Families and children were buried alive while they slept.


Thousands were left homeless and over 1,000 dead.

Even more shocking than the devastating loss of life was the fact that it could have been prevented, said Dr. Johny Augustine, Assistant Professor in Social Work, St. Ambrose University, Iowa.

Speaking at the International Conference on Society, Technology and Sustainable Development, Augustine explained that no one was supposed to be living in those disaster prone areas.

“The preliminary analysis showed these mountain towns were illegally occupied by people which puts the blame on ineffective governance,” he stated.


It was a clear case of governance gone wrong.

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), governance is the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented).

UNESCAP also says good governance has eight major characteristics. “It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard while making decisions. It is responsive to the present and future needs of society.”

Good governance protects lives, property and livelihoods of all people … at least it’s supposed to.

“There is a connection between governments, risk management, vulnerability reduction and disaster preparedness and response. The key thing here is integrating disaster preparedness and response with development planning,” said Augustine.


One good example shared Augustine, was the Bangladesh cyclone preparedness program.

After the 1970 Bangladesh cyclone that killed 500,000 people, the Bangladesh government trained 32,000 volunteers as part of capacity building so they could issue disaster warnings and evacuate people in time of need.

“In 1994, when another cyclone was approaching, the 32,000 volunteers successfully evacuated a quarter of a million people from the coastal areas and only 127 people died,” said Augustine.

He further added, “That was a major success story and disaster risk reduction initiative that worked amazingly well.”

Dr. Mahesh Kamble, Assistant Professor and Chair, Jamshetji Tata Centre for Disaster Management, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, another invited speaker at ICTSD, took up the issue of governance and Mumbai’s recent floods.


According to Kamble, good governance included developmental planning that was sustainable, didn’t exploit natural resources or created more disparities in society, and that took care of people’s needs and rights as well as the rights of future generations.

Flooding in Mumbai he said, was an issue of poor governance.

“We face floods not necessarily due to heavy rains, but rather due to the way the city is developed, the way its planning has taken place,” said Kamble.

Much of what is now Mumbai was once water that was filled in with sand and earth. When heavy rains come, the ground can’t absorb the water so it has nowhere to go, he emphasized.

That, combined with high tides and 27,000 people per square kilometer, spells disaster.


In addition to poor development planning and design, is the abuse of environmental resources, another indication of poor governance.

Kamble gave an example of Mukesh Ambani’s family of six, living in a house of four lakh square feet with parking space for 160 cars, nine elevators and among other things, an ice-room infused with man-made snow flurries.

This single household of six people use the same amount of electricity that 7000 Mumbai families use in a month.

“This is a result of the developmental pattern that this city has taken,” said Kamble.

Just as many other speakers had before him, Kamble quoted Mohandas K. Gandhi’s famous words. “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

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