Natural Disasters and Human Security

  • 2011•04•29

    Madoka Futamura, Christopher Hobson and Nicholas Turner

    As the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake has made all too clear, natural disasters can be very difficult to predict and fully prepare against, and have incredibly far-reaching consequences for the safety and wellbeing of individuals and communities. As in previous natural disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Australian bushfires in 2009, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2010 Pakistan floods, the impacts on people and society in affected areas are immediate and overwhelming. Such catastrophes tend to exacerbate pre-existing problems and inequalities, with vulnerable parts of the population often disproportionately impacted. For instance, initial estimates suggest that 65% of the deaths from the recent disaster in Japan were of people aged 60 or over.  The consequences can be felt for many years, with people suffering as refugees or being displaced within their own country, their livelihoods destroyed, and facing long-term health issues.

    How can we best understand and respond to the threats natural disasters pose to human safety and wellbeing?

    One approach is to see these all as threats to “human security”. Since its appearance in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1994 Human Development Report, the concept of human security has rapidly emerged in international politics, with the establishment of the Commission on Human Security in 2001. Whereas a traditional understanding of security emphasizes the military defense of state interests, human security provides an alternative, human-centered perspective that focuses on securing and protecting individuals’ “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”. It offers a broader understanding of security, by incorporating concerns of development and human rights as well as more traditional issues.

    Human security promotes a bottom-up, people-centered approach, which emphasizes the needs, capacities and experiences of individuals on the ground. It has been widely applied in a number of fields such as peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, development, education and health.

    Applying human security to natural disasters

    “Environmental security” was identified as a core component of the definition of human security outlined in UNDP’s 1994 report. Nevertheless, human security debates and policies have tended to focus more on human-made disasters, such as armed conflicts and human rights abuses. At the same time, strategies for disaster risk reduction (e.g. the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015) have largely avoided explicitly referring to human security.

    Even so, as recent catastrophes like the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan have clearly shown, the actual threats that people struggle with following a natural disaster are similar to those of a human-made crisis such as armed conflict: “fear” (such as aftershocks and deteriorating social order) and “want” (lack of food, water and shelter). Likewise, many of the same actors are involved in the response, notably the UN and humanitarian NGOs. Indeed, most of the organizations involved in natural disaster relief are working to protect human security, even if they don’t label their work as such.

    In post-conflict situations the practical value of the human security approach lies in its ability to focus and coordinate the efforts of many different actors on actual human needs, by providing a holistic and bottom-up perspective.

    Clearly, this approach would also be beneficial in the response to natural disasters—where coordination of relief efforts has been a recurring problem, as seen in the Indian Ocean tsunami and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. A human security approach would encourage systematic information sharing, common action plans, needs assessment, and better coordination of responses and offers of assistance.

    A human security perspective encourages us to consider the needs of the most vulnerable parts of the population, most notably protecting women, children, and the elderly. Human security also emphasizes empowerment strategies, enabling people — both individuals and communities — to act on their own behalf, and on the behalf of others. Particularly during rebuilding, it would suggest a bottom-up approach and incorporation of the voices of all those affected. In disaster preparedness, human security would assist in guiding policy development by ensuring resilience measures and scenarios include consideration of human and community needs.

    An important distinction when applying human security to natural disasters concerns the role of the military and the nature of civil-military relations. In civil conflicts, the military can sometimes be a major threat to human security, but in the case of natural disasters, the military, with its significant operational capacity and field experience, may instead be a major provider of human security — as in the current efforts of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

    Implications for the concept of human security

    As a relatively young concept, human security is still being explored and debated by academics and practitioners. Thinking about its application to natural disasters is an important step in further developing the idea.

    In theory, human security is a universal concept, but it has tended to focus on people in developing and (post-) conflict countries. Natural disasters – such as Hurricane Katrina, the Black Saturday bushfires and the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan – demonstrate that human security remains relevant for even the most wealthy, highly industrialized countries. As such, it is valuable to consider the similarities and differences between the way human security can be understood and applied in different countries and contexts.

    Natural disasters also illustrate the need for a more multidisciplinary perspective when considering human security. While human security issues in armed conflict are primarily understood through the social sciences, the natural sciences may provide invaluable knowledge for preparing and adapting to the human impacts of natural disasters.

    Looking ahead

    The idea of human security has quickly come to play an important role in the way the international community understands and responds to issues such as armed conflicts and human rights abuses. Humans are not the only threat to human security, however, as we have seen from the extensive suffering and damage caused by natural disasters. And as the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant shows, natural disasters can also induce human-made disasters.

    Due to population growth, poverty, and land shortages, people are increasingly living in areas that are more exposed to natural hazards. Likewise, the economic effects of natural disasters are long lasting and wide reaching in scope, particularly for developing countries. Half a decade later, communities devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami are still struggling to resume normal, productive lives.

    While we cannot avert all natural disasters, our preparation for, and responses to their human impacts can and must be improved. The human security approach has much to offer by facilitating a focus on human vulnerabilities, thereby reducing the grave consequences of natural disasters for human safety and wellbeing.