Poverty-disaster nexusIt is the poor and marginalised who bear the brunt of the overall impacts of a calamity
Last year’s earthquake that shook the nation not only caused physical devastation but also shattered the minds of all Nepali people, both at home and abroad. The usual discussions over a cup of tea that were previously limited to politics shifted to earthquake magnitudes, belts, frequency and so on. While people used various forms of media to acquire technical information about the earthquake, few cared about the socio-economic aspect of the disaster. If we want to reduce the impacts of a disaster, we should know its causes and impacts. While we have no control over the occurrence of hazards, their repercussions can definitely be minimised.
Disasters and economy are interlinked in many ways. While a disaster’s effects on a nation’s economy are generally studied after it has struck, the economic condition before the disaster is rarely researched. Studies of disaster-impact trends throughout the world have shown that disasters disproportionally impact the poorer and marginalised sections of the society.
Nepal’s earthquake was no different. Even though it hit as many as 31 districts, the impact across these districts varies widely. After taking into account the distance from the epicentre, a comparison of absolute losses showed that the districts with a larger proportion of the population living below the mean per capita income suffered more in terms of deaths and destroyed houses than the districts that were relatively better in this regard. Various socio-economic factors like poverty, inequality and educational status determine the overall impact of the disaster. This result was derived taking into account absolute losses. It only gives us an idea of how the impacts were varied if we consider how much the people have “suffered” across these districts—not in absolute but in relative terms.
Relativity of loss
The relativity of loss can be better understood using this example. The names and loss figures in this example are fictional, but they give a picture of how the disaster has impacted different economic classes. Due to the earthquake, Mr R lost the topmost floor of his four-storey building while Mr P lost his house, his cattle and almost everything he owned. In terms of the monetary value of the loss, Mr R suffered more than Mr P. Mr R’s flat was valued at Rs50 lakhs, which is not even comparable to a mere loss of Rs5 lakhs suffered by Mr P. But if our lives were only about money, the world we live in would have been even more dreadful than it already is. The loss of five lakhs suffered by a poor fellow whose entire life has been changed is far greater than the lakhs (or even crores) lost by a rich businessman. We do not need to learn any economic theory to understand what this hypothetical example depicts. It is essential for us to understand how the impacts of a disaster are distributed across society. This is to minimise losses, not measured in just monetary terms, but in terms of the overall impact of the loss on human lives.
One might remark that it is obvious that the poorer and the marginalised section of the society suffers more from a given calamity. If it is so obvious, shouldn’t subsequent actions take it into account? Those who are hit the hardest by the earthquake must be protected the most and the response must also be directed mostly towards their recovery and rehabilitation. However, a closer look at the policies of different countries, especially developing ones, on disaster management suggests that no special importance is given to poorer sections to ensure that they are not hit the hardest by any disaster. While formulating any disaster risk-reduction mechanism or policy, various socio-economic conditions that aggravate the impacts of a disaster must be carefully studied and duly considered. Taking the example mentioned above in the article, pre-disaster policies that are designed to minimise the impacts of a disaster must emphasise more on making Mr P less vulnerable and the post-disaster response mechanism should prioritise normalising his life. The vicious cycle where disasters further weaken the economic conditions of the poor and where poverty aggravates the impacts of the disasters should be broken.
Gautam has a master’s in Development Economics from South Asian University, New Delhi