The UNESCO Youth Forum on Looking Beyond Disaster has taught me many things. I’ve learnt about the varying ways that communities around the world are impacted by disasters.
Natsuki Nshimura & Hatsuko Pushpalal described how almost every home was washed away by a giant wave following Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Cars, houses, people and debris became intertwined as they became part of the devastating and deadly torrent of water that destroyed their city. It took weeks for the residents of Sendai to process the horror of what they had just survived.
Benazir Kumar revealed how the Christchurch earthquakes affected everyone in different ways; emotionally, socially, culturally and economically. As a member of the deaf community she described how they felt ‘left out’ or alienated following the September earthquake due to an inability to access information. February’s earthquake left her feeling like she had ‘lost’ Christchurch, how it wasn’t her home any more. Half her town had disappeared under a cloak of rubble and debris.
While these stories are tragic, they also served to inspire hope. All of the participants, not just the ones mentioned above, talked about how they and their communities overcame disasters together. So what was the key to this recovery?
Billy O’Steen answered this question by commenting that in the case of Hurricane Katrina there was a correlation between survival and how many people you knew. Those people with greater community ties and networks were the people who survived. What this illustrates is the importance of social capital.
Social capital theory suggests that “the more people connect with each other, the more they will trust each other and the better off they will be individually and collectively, because social capital has a strong collective aspect” (Mathbor, 2007, p. 360-361). Viable support networks and social connections (which are an important part of this theory) are factors which have been shown to decrease risk and enhance adaptation after natural disasters (Norris et al., 2007).
Through this conference I have learnt the importance of social capital. I’ve learnt that a city or a village is more than just the buildings that occupy it. Rather a community people and the relationships that they have; its shared heritage, culture, and myths as well as the various buildings, monuments and places which have overtime become part of the fabric of a community.
High social capital has been shown to increase a communities disaster preparedness, while maximising the participation of vulnerable members of the community in disaster planning and increasing their social capital through organisational linkages and social supports appears to be crucial to the increasing of their resilience post-disaster (Blazer & Murphy, 2008; Mathbor, 2007; Norris et al., 2007).
So if social capital is so critical to post disaster recovery, how can communities and governments increase their share in this resource?
People can self-organise long before a disaster hits. It could be as simple as just getting to know and keeping in contact with your neighbours, the elderly and other vulnerable. Taking part in neighbourhood associations, celebrations and events are other ideas that Daniel Aldrich has recently floated.
For their part governments need to provide the community with a space to be involved in disaster preparedness and have their say. This needs to be more than what is usually on offer- a forum where residents get engaged with on a superficial level rather than being a real part of the process. It is local communities who suffer together and ultimately recover and thrive together and as such a space needs to be provided for them to help shape their response to natural disasters.
Fortunately, if this Forum was anything to go by, it seems that tomorrows leaders have taken this message on-board. Disasters will always be a part of our lives, but by working together we can help minimise their impact.