The Relevance of Soft Infrastructure in Disaster Management and Risk Reduction

©WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/JOANNA FAURE WALKER

 

The increasing frequency and severity of both natural and technological disasters in the world, especially but not exclusively in urban areas, put cities at the centre of discussion among practitioners and scholars alike, raising fundamental questions about nature and society, about development and technology. Disasters make evident the lack of sustainability of many societies and signal varying degrees of development failures. Scientific and political debates are underway about how climate variability impacts meteorological and even geophysical hazards, acting as an accelerator or even multiplier of risk and insecurity, exacerbating vulnerabilities already underway due to social, economic and political changes at a global level. Everyone is urged to take action, but many are the challenges to achieving this.

One problem is the gap in communication, knowledge and interaction between the authorities heading disaster risk reduction (DRR) and recovery efforts and community members. Even with the current resilience paradigm and approaches such as ‘Whole-of-the-Nation’ in the United States of America or ‘Whole-of-Society’ in Sweden, which advocate network governance and collaboration between societal actors (Lindberg and Sundelius, 2012), this gap prevails. At the same time, individual citizens and local communities are increasingly expected by authorities to assume DRR responsibilities in the name of ‘local resilience’. In the Netherlands, humorous commercials seek to encourage citizens to think ahead and be prepared, for example, by embracing push technology such as NL Alert,1 a cell phone-based alert system that allows the authorities to inform people in the direct vicinity of a particular emergency. In Sweden, authorities undertake information campaigns through virtual platforms such as Din Säkerhet,2 where citizens can take part in checklists for everything from reducing the risk of slipping in harsh winter weather to instructions on how to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Public information tools alert us to put together a survival kit to get through the first three days after disaster strikes. Hence, despite a discourse promoting the inclusion of people in planning for preparedness and reducing risk, community members are seldom truly empowered to bear this responsibility, nor are existing local social capital and cultural knowledge always considered legitimate and accepted by authorities.

Although every disaster can be experienced as an extraordinary and unique event by those living through it—an event to be collectively remembered—they are at the same time a product of history and the consequences of larger social, economic, political and environmental processes. In hazard-prone regions, local knowledge about hazards and how to cope with them is generally based on collective memory and history. Where disasters are recurrent phenomena, people have learned from experience to read the signs of risk and assess its severity, and have developed a repertoire of responses. For example, the inhabitants of the Indonesian island of Simelue famously survived the 2004 tsunami by quickly moving to the highest geographical point. Although there had not been a tsunami there for over a century, folk tales and songs had kept cultural memory of past disasters alive (BBC News, 2007; see also Greggs and others, 2006). In Santa Fe City, Argentina, suburban dwellers preserve knowledge about flooding across generations by way of multiple social practices related to that particular riverine environment (Baez Ullberg, forthcoming). These are but a few examples that illustrate our claim that people learn collectively, not just individually.

“No [wo]man is an island” wrote sixteenth-century English priest and poet John Donne. We are all part of societies and cultures, even when all hell breaks loose. Local communities and informal social networks are often disregarded during a crisis, when they are in fact essential to the recovery of the affected areas (Krueger, 2014; Warner and Engel, 2014). In the race against time following a sudden-onset disaster, there are many urgent challenges to deal with. Material resources are limited and rescue teams can take a while to reach disaster-afflicted areas. Amazing and necessary as our rescue services are, we should not underestimate the contribution of volunteers in disasters. The bulk of disaster victims will be saved by relatives, neighbours, friends and passers-by because they are already on-site, as witnessed in most situations (Kirschenbaum, 2004).

Humans are social beings, linked to networks of others by a common history, local economies, shared ideas, ideals and social practices in kinship relations, identity groups, sports associations, faith communities, professional organizations and marketplaces. They share vital knowledge and information about risk. These social networks and the information and knowledge communicated within them is what we identify as ‘soft infrastructure’. This concept stands in contrast to ‘hard infrastructure’: the organizations, regulations, control systems and material resources, the roads and pipelines deployed to reduce risk. We argue that it is the soft infrastructure that makes the hard one actually work, and that national and international institutions and decision makers in the field of DRR need to take this seriously.

Social science has long provided plenty of empirical evidence of the social organization, multiple practices and material resources that local communities can use to cope with risk and crisis. What are often labelled as ‘traditional communities’ interact with their natural environment and adjust social organization and culture to variations in nature’s dynamics. Lessons could be learned from Bangladesh (Paul, 2009), where the habit of reading the precursors and embracing early-warning practices (including ‘push technology’) occur across all social levels, even if social networks continue to matter also in post-industrial and more individualistic societies, such as those of the member States of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Specialized knowledge is a vital resource for coping with normal life, and the same goes for disaster situations, where such knowledge will constitute enhanced resilience to the disaster. When the principal transportation arteries in Bangladesh failed during a major flood there in 2006, informal social networks ensured that food reached the city, and that bread was baked in the slums and transported to richer areas by street vendors. Attempts to clamp down on the illegal street economy counteracted the urban resilience that socioeconomic networks provided (Keck and Edzold, 2013).

Apart from the potential undesirability of informal social networks from a governmental perspective, the issue of access is also at stake. Not all communities are easy for authorities to reach. Religious orthodoxy, for example, can make people wary of secular authorities. Migrants and refugees may not be aware that they are at risk or have access to sources of relevant information on DRR in their own language. Illegal residents will refrain from consulting public authorities. Yet, it is often these ‘marginal’ groups that are well networked internally precisely because they are accustomed to self-reliance. For such communities, networks and knowledge serve not only as social and cultural capital, but perhaps the only capital they have at their disposal.

Don’t get us wrong. We are not idealizing 'the community' and 'cultural knowledge'. People inhabiting the same area may have ended up there by sheer accident, have very little in common with each other and maintain unequal and even deeply hostile relations. Not everyone has equal access to social resources. Cultural differences can also create misunderstandings, conflict and frustration. It is well known, however, that even people who don’t get along in normal times, or live in highly unequal communities, tend to bury their grudges and display pro-social behaviour when a disaster strikes (Engel and others, 2014). Urgent survival issues and the need for safety and security can force people to put their differences aside, at least in the acute phase, and instead share knowledge and provide support for one another (Prince, 1920; Barton, 1969; Oliver-Smith, 1986). In fact, a shared territory may not be the only lens through which we should identify contemporary communities. In today’s transnational and highly mobile world, our trust and loyalties are not necessarily in our immediate neighbours. Instead, we are connected through social networks that stretch over continents. New communities have formed online in virtual landscapes, and traditional communities have evolved through virtual connections and social media. Hence, while culture is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, it is a valuable asset in disaster response. Once you've made headway in 'cracking the code' of how to communicate and work with diverse organizational cultures and local communities in different countries, you are likely to achieve a more effective and sustainable disaster management and risk reduction programme.

Disasters increasingly prompt public claims for the accountability of experts and decision makers (Boin and others, 2008). “Why didn’t you know this would happen?” or “Why didn’t you prevent it?” are questions that loom large in the post-disaster environment. In the wake of the earthquake in l’Aquila, Italy, in 2009, Italian seismologists were almost sent to jail because their warnings were considered misfires. As we write this, while rescue operations following the August 2016 earthquake in Amatrice, Italy, are hampered by aftershocks, critical outbursts have already been heard concerning the lack of reinforcement of existing anti-seismic building codes. In many cases like these, there appear, at least at first sight, to have been scant adaptation or learning from previous experiences. Certainly, multiple social, political and environmental processes on a larger scale can jeopardize knowledge production and the implementation of coping practices, and thereby increase vulnerability. Such larger processes could include increased migration, urbanization, poverty and social exclusion, as well as frequent climate variations and larger ecosystem transformations that could even change the character of the initial hazard. In the light of such transformative processes, a crucial question is whether or not learning from experience can in fact take place at all under current uncertain and ever-changing conditions. We need to address this question empirically to gain a much better understanding of how soft infrastructure is socially, culturally and politically produced and reproduced in communities and within institutions at the local, regional and national levels.

Soft infrastructure is key to reducing risk, as underscored in the 2014 Red Cross World Disasters Report and highlighted in the growing number of social science research publications and conference panel discussions on this topic, as well as new research projects that focus on the nexus between disaster and culture, and on collaboration among various communities. The production and sharing of knowledge on soft infrastructure and DRR will also continue at the 2016 Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, where the networking event entitled “Cities, Culture, Resilience to Disasters will be organized by members of the European Disasters in Urban centres: a Culture Expert Network (EDUCEN).3 We encourage all of those concerned about these issues to attend the event, and look forward to continuing to help bridge the gap between policy and practice.

 

Notes

1 For further information, see the website of the Nationaal Coördinator Terrorismebestrijding en Veiligheid (NCTV), the Dutch official counter-terrorism unit of the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, at http://www.crisis.nl/nl-alert.aspx.

2 For further information, see Din Säkerhet website at https://www.dinsakerhet.se/.

3 EDUCEN is a Coordination and Support action funded by the European Community under the Horizon 2020 programme. For further information, see the website of the European Disasters in Urban centres at http://www.educenproject.eu/.

 

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