Museologia Social e Urbanismo XXXVIII

Vulnerability and impacts for the rich and poor

Discussion prompts:

  1. How is the risk manifested in cities particular and distinct from other risks?
  2. What are the various actions that could abate the creation of risk as well as have beneficial developmental outcomes for cities and their citizens?

I am Allan Lavell, I’m British by birth but have lived in Latin American for the last 40 years, at present working in Costa Rica for the last 36 years, I’m an urban development specialist by trade who got into the urban intimate disaster risk field some 25 years ago and I’ll be talking today about what we could call it urban risk and particularly the way in which urban risk is socially discriminatory i.e. that it affects different social groups in different ways. Maybe from that perspective the best way to start is at least to give a very short explanation of what we understand by risk and and particularly disaster risk.

Disaster risk we see as deriving from a very complex and dynamic interaction between what we call Hazards which are normally associated with physical events like earthquakes or floods.

The figure of Exposure which means colloquially to be ‘in the line of fire’ of some damaging, potentially damaging physical event and Vulnerability which is a key aspect which we’ve been dealing with over the last 30 years in particular increasingly so, which when derives in to aspects like Resilience and other concepts of this nature, which basically looks at the way in which individuals, collectivities, families and social groups, communities, cities, if you like, or even countries are predisposed because of certain social factors or social conditioning factors to suffer harm when these physical events occur.

If we talk about urban risk this is interesting; because we could probably distinguish between what is risk in urban areas and urban risk. The difference here is from my perspective that risk in urban areas could be very much the same in terms of causal factors to risk in rural areas and so if a hospital is badly built and will fall down with an earthquake in a rural  area it’s probably the same explicatory factors as a hospital being badly built in an urban area and falling down because of corruption or and so, urban risk from my perspective derives from what we call urban processes, not from rural processes and urban processes involve such things as concentration, centralisation of economic activity of power, it derives from land use planning principles which are particular to urban areas and very much different to rural areas, it relates to environmental degradation processes in urban areas which are very much different to rural areas and it relates also to the way in which urban government structures are set up. In cities it is more highly likely that we will get hazards that are socially constructed as opposed to naturally constructed. An earthquake is naturally constructed, but land sliding or land slipping or subsidence in urban areas is more likely to be related to deforestation or to mining of slopes or to water seepage into the subsoil which leads to different processes and those are things which don’t occur in rural areas with such significance.

Another major factor in understanding the way risk is felt differently and therefore disaster is felt differently by different social groups according to income or whatever, is the fact that when we define ‘disaster risk’ which basically is the probability of certain groups or people, individuals or collectivities suffering with levels of loss and damage will seriously interrupt their normal routine functioning and this loss is related obviously to be occurred to these physical events. So another factor that helps us to understand why it is socially discriminatory risk is the fact that disaster risk is only one specific type of risk that exists and which people suffer and it’s this risk related to the probability of loss and damage but there are other risks which exist in society and one of these, the major ones is what we call Quotidian risk or Everyday risk, this is something that Amartya Sen brought up alot in his work and relates to everyday living conditions whereby many sectors of society, the poorer sectors of society suffer a dearth of opportunity related to health, to social violence, to environmental degradation, environmental contamination and to unemployment,to lack of income opportunities. And these are things which typify poverty but are not only suffered by poor people at times and consequently when we try to look at disaster risk, there’s no way of separating disaster risk in urban areas or urban disaster risk from what we call quotidian or everyday risk but also, there’s no way really of separating it from things like financial risk or health risk or other determinations or specific types of what we call risk. So really to understand things we have to be holistic that is to look at things in integral fashion, we cannot believe that people in cities for instance suffer disaster risk and after disaster because the physical events discriminate in terms of who they will affect or not affect, it is socially discriminated according to who you are, what you are, why you are, what you do, who, your access to power, your access to resources etc. If we look at the types of disaster risk drivers when I mentioned earlier, in understanding urban risk, so things like centralisation and concentration of power and economic activity, environmental degradation, land use principles and land-use patterns are all socially determined and in the playout of these things the poorer groups inevitably suffer certain processes or rather suffer some processes or conditions which will lead to an increase in the disaster risk they suffer as compared to others.

Consequently if you are poor, it is very simple to understand that you don’t have access to adequate land and people living on slopes in cities or by the sides of rivers or in ravines or on top of seismic faults etc. is not a result of their choice to do so, it is a result of the fact that they have no choice to enter the formal land market and purchase land which is secure. So insecure location is merely reflecting a lack of opportunity, a lack of ability to gain access to the formal land market and choose safer sites. If you live on a slope and you do not have access to materials for cooking or for construction and you actually deforest the slope you’re living on in a city, then you open yourself up and your subject to lands liding, land slipping in a much greater fashion than people with more resources who have a greater ability to deal with this type of problem and if you’re poor, you do not have access generally to the mechanisms pressure for adequate land, adequate environmental planning or location of people in areas which make it easy to get to work but at the same time aren’t highly disadvantageous. And what we see many times is the people living in urban areas, live in disadvantageous positions because precisely they are proximate to work opportunities and consequently we cannot divorce one thing from the other. So from my perspective the figure is – you have to summarise what we’re saying is yes, risk is socially constructed, it is socially constructed because there are a whole series of factors and processes which workout in the generation of risk which are socially discriminatory because of access to power in many senses, political power, economic power, etc.

But in cities you have; this works to the disfavour obviously the poor because there is a direct relationship between urban risk and quotidian or everyday risk. So if you’re poor automatically, it isn’t the same thing as saying poverty is vulnerability but poverty does generate conditions whereby vulnerability is a major factor explaining risk, tends to work out in disfavour of poorer groups.

How’d you get on top of urban risk, especially urban risk that affects poorer populations ?

Yeah, it’s a very complex problem because we’re not dealing with something that has its own autonomous, segregated, sectoralised policy strategy and instrumental framework. There is no special instruments for reducing urban risk which are urban risk only related, they are related to development planning, to territorial planning, to environmental planning etc. Consequently, we have to get into those things in order to be able to reduce disaster risk in cities or urban risk for poor populations and not look for mechanisms that are a solely related to disaster risk. And there’s a basic premise in this around the social construction of risk but the risk is derived, it is not given, it is derived from these ongoing social processes related to development. So if we don’t get on top of development planning to reduce poverty for instance, we’re not going to get on top of it through disaster risk management. Disaster risk management has limits to what you can do. Now this means also that there are two or three very different contexts that have intervention mechanisms, have to get on top of or are planning mechanisms. One is what we increasingly in Latin America, at least calling and I think it’s getting spread around because of the global assessment report, is the idea of Corrective Disaster Risk Management. What are we talking about?

That cities today, places like in India – Mumbai and Calcutta and in Latin America- Sao Paulo and Mexico City,large metropolitan areas or large cities have so much risk accumulated – there are so many people living in absolutely high levels of risk that intervening this is almost impossible financially, politically etc. and anything we do is what we could call Corrective Risk Management – that means you’ve got communities located in the wrong place – on slopes, or on river, flood plains etc but if you want to reduce the risk you are basically obliged to either on-site upgrading or moving them  out of there.

Both are extremely expensive and nobody is putting up that type of money to do this. So it is an accumulated risk for urban populations which it is extremely difficult to get rid of. The other one is what we are calling, Reactive or Compensatory Risk Management, which is ok, this risk exists in some ways you accept it cannot be intervened either because it is considered to be acceptable risk, accepted risk or simply there’s no financial or technical ability to get on top of it. And so we’re in the world of increasing, what increasingly is called the ‘Resilience of the urban populations’ i.e. they will be affected by disaster, and what opportunities do they have to in fact recover from that bounce back and bounce forward in some way.

But that also is accompanied by plans for response, for preparedness, for early warning etc., so this all comes within this umbrella of risks whether accepted, acceptable, not accepted but is there and that we have to deal with it, is within the whole field what is now being called ‘resilience’ accepting the whole definition resilience and what it is understand differently by many people and then there’s the third one, which is what we can call Prospective Risk Management that is  cities which don’t exist yet, areas of cities that don’t exist, population of the cities that don’t exist, the new populations, the new infrastructure, the new housing, the new everything of the future, now in what conditions of risk is that going to be?

And how can we control the growth of risk in these new urban populations and the infrastructure that actually supports them?

And this is a perspective and this is clearly a development planning thing, it is not a thing about disaster risk management, it is about how you build, where you build, for whom you build and what under conditions and what access to resources do you have. Now that now brings us down to the whole thing of where are these cities going to grow, in which cities it is going to grow. In Latin America which I know best, then the cities which are growing fastest today are small and intermediate-sized cities, not the large metropolitan areas, where there is so much risk now accumulated but adding more risk to it would become almost like a time bomb for the future. And so if we look at small and intermediate cities which are the ones that are growing, can we assume that it is easier to control the growth of risk in those cities as to control the consolidation of risk in large metropolitan areas?

One would suggest that that was the case and hopefully that is the case because if not then the time bomb is growing more and more in terms of risk related to urban poverty etc. And with urban poverty and poverty in general though the data has that poverty has been reduced in absolute terms or relative terms etc. etc, yeah the whole idea from 2 dollars a day to 2.5 dollars a day being a measure of the reduction of poverty is not working in terms of risk that is, it makes very little difference to risk in cities.

Consequently, the big question is what mechanisms for reducing or controlling the growth of urban risk can exist in small and intermediate sized cities, as opposed to large metropolitan areas?

Where the whole governance factors, the whole thing of relationship between population and government may in fact be very much different to in larger cities. And from the intervention perspective and we are faced with a very tragic situation in many ways – that there is so much risk in cities that many cities are just waiting for flooding or landsliding or an earthquake to generate and trigger off that risk which exists and to materialise that risk into disaster conditions, loss and damage and this affecting obviously far more the poor than the rich. Amongst other reasons as well, because we don’t have insurance policies etc. etc and there is where the big question comes up about the role of insurance in reducing disaster risk where is a great deal to be said.

That maybe it is not reducing risk as we wish to reduce risk although it may be increasing resilience for those that are able to  afford it.



Sobre Pedro Pereira Leite

Investigador do Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra onde desenvolve o projeto de investigação "Heranças Globais: a inclusão dos saberes das comunidades como instrumento de desenvolvimento integrado dos território".(2012-2107) . O projeto tem como objetivo observar a relevâncias no uso da memória social em quatro territórios ligados por processos sociais comuns. A investigação desenvolve-se em Portugal e Espanha, na zona da Fronteira; em Moçambique e no Brasil. (FCT:SHRH/BPD/76601/2011). É diretor de Casa Muss-amb-iki - espaço de Memórias. Intervém no âmbito de pesquisa de redes sociais de memoria.
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