An Undeclared Disaster…in Canada?

Posted: May 2, 2012 by aydencumming in Disaster
Tags: , ,

The title of this blog is “Masters of Disasters”, but what exactly is a disaster? For most people, the word conjures up a mix of images which consist of human suffering caused by something beyond our control, such as an earthquake or flood.  Most of us expect that a disaster would make the news, and that help would be sent to the affected region. It’s not hard to recognise a disaster, right?

Well, no. Figuring out what constitutes a disaster is sometimes easier said than done.  In its formulaic version, a disaster = hazard X vulnerability. In other words, a disaster happens when a natural hazard such as a storm or earthquake impacts upon a group of people who are unable to cope with that event.  Some hazards, like tsunamis, are obvious. In other situations, however, it is more difficult to identify a hazard.  For example, winter can be a hazard, as harsh conditions can cause health problems and even lead to death. Vulnerability is also a tricky term to define and to identify, as it can relate to livelihoods, health or social protection. A good rule of thumb for identifying a disaster is to follow the definition from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED): 10 people or more killed, 100 people or more affected/displaced or when a state of emergency is declared or a call is made for international assistance.

But what if a disaster happened and no one recognized it? What if a state of emergency was declared and no one helped? Is it still a disaster? Absolutely – and the truth is that disasters go unrecognized every day.  They don’t just happen in poor countries either. There’s an unrecognized disaster happening in Canada right now.

On 21st October 2011, the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve declared a state of emergency. The reserve, accessible only by plane on the coast of James Bay in Ontario, had been suffering a devastating housing crisis for years.  Families were living in tents and houses condemned due to mould and a lack of running water, heating and electricity. The reserve is in the subarctic region of Canada, meaning winter temperatures can easily reach -30 degrees Celsius. It was four weeks before the federal government responded to the state of emergency.

The several hundred people living in such conditions were clearly vulnerable to the winter hazard. By definition, there was a disaster. So why wasn’t it recognized? Why didn’t people do anything? The lack of action can be at least partially attributed to the difference between chronic and catastrophic disasters. A catastrophic disaster happens suddenly; its what people think of as a disaster. Chronic ones, on the other hand, are on-going. They last a long time. They last longer than our attention spans. They go on for so long we forget about them.

Chronic disasters are no less damaging then catastrophic ones and all disasters disrupt development progress. But reducing disaster risk and increasing resilience can help communities and nations achieve their development goals. An important step in doing this will be to assist with chronic disasters, and not just catastrophic ones. Just because it’s undeclared doesn’t mean it’s not a disaster.

  1. Saffron says:

    The formula also applies to ‘technological’ hazards. Just as important as the ‘natural’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s