Monday, October 2, 2017

Climate Change, Resettlement, and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria

Natural disasters, the effects of climate change, and political upheavals and war have driven tens of millions of people from their homes and spurred intense debates about how governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should respond with long-term resettlement strategies. Many resettlement efforts have focused primarily on providing infrastructure and have done little to help displaced people and communities rebuild social structure, which has led to resettlement failures throughout the world. So what does it take to transform a resettlement into a successful community?

Ryan Alaniz's new book, From Strangers to Neighbors: Post-Disaster Resettlement and Development in Honduras, offers the first long-term comparative study of social outcomes through a case study of two Honduran resettlements built for survivors of Hurricane Mitch (1998) by two different NGOs. We asked Professor Alaniz to comment on the aftermath and recovery for recent disasters, Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Alaniz is an associate professor of sociology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He is also affiliated with the United Nations University and the Resilient Communities Research Institute.

Hurricane Harvey and Irma—Build Back Better—elsewhere?

By Ryan Alaniz

The last two decades have witnessed a growing consensus among scientists that climate
More info
change will increase the number and intensity of future hazards such as floods, hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, and storms (IPCC 2015). Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and now Maria, are among the most recent examples, and Harvey may likely be the most expensive disaster in US history.

The United Nations has found that the greatest effects will be on the most impoverished nations. In Bangladesh, for example, an estimated 18 million people (approximately the population of metro Los Angeles and metro Boston combined) will be forced to relocate by 2050 due to rising sea levels, salinization of potable water sources, and more extreme cyclones.

Under these conditions, survivors are faced with only two options: rebuild or relocate. The World Bank [1] has found that rebuilding maintains place attachment and a sense of community, making it the preferable option. A person or community can (and should) also rebuild with potential hazards in mind, mitigating the effects of future disasters. However, rebuilding may put survivors at even greater future risk due to the increasing dangers and realities of climate change (among other political, economic, or social factors). By studying the changes in sea level, scholars have mapped the impact of a one- to ten-foot rise along the US coastline. The results are frightening, and when coupled with increasingly numerous and intense storms, the coasts are at high risk of disaster. Indeed, if this season is any indication, the new normal may make certain areas of the United States uninhabitable; rebuilding along coastlines that continually flood or even disappear entirely during a storm surge, would be too expensive and unsustainable. Increasing premiums was a factor that led to fewer Floridians buying federally-subsidized flood insurance—when Irma hit, 59 percent of residents did not have flood insurance.

Relocation/resettlement [2] is the safer long-term option. It offers the greatest potential for developing safe structures in protected geographic areas, away from coastlines. The process of resettlement, though, is challenging and expensive to implement, and is not always successful. Many resettlement efforts have failed because of the complexity of relocating hundreds or thousands of families, while also providing the necessary supports for community development. In my own work studying seven resettlements that were constructed after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998, organizations built excellent infrastructure—houses, roads, utilities, schools, clinics, etc.—but spent little or no time developing social structures; the shared norms and values that lead to greater trust among neighbors, communication, general participation in community affairs, and a common identity and vision. Organizations received donations to build houses, but the groups of traumatized survivors themselves—strangers who were relocated to live in geographic proximity—had to build community. In the end, these resettlements offered worse, or only slightly better, outcomes for the residents relocated from peri-urban areas.

However, other resettlements have developed into new, healthy communities with some success. When organizations worked in concert with survivors to ensure the development of both infrastructure and social structures, the results were locales in which people felt safe, had opportunities, were engaged in civic affairs, worked together, and looked out for and supported one another. The difference is in the quantity and quality of support. Survivors face major challenges in re-orienting their lives in new circumstances. The sponsoring nongovernmental organizations or government entities must ensure that residents have the provisions and guidance necessary to create the social relationships needed to form community.

The consensus on climate change is clear: we must brace for both increasing numbers and increasing intensity of future hazards. It is up to all of us to recognize the vulnerabilities of where we live and make the hard choices about whether to stay or go. Rebuilding where disaster will strike again may risk time, resources, and even lives. Migration or resettlement present further challenges. If resettlement becomes a necessity, organizations and federal agencies must support the development of social structures in equal proportion to infrastructure, to empower residents to slowly convert their new resettlement into a healthy and thriving community.

[1] Jha, Abhas K. with Jennifer Duyne Barenstein, Priscilla M. Phelps, Daniel Pittet, and Stephen Sena. 2010. Safer Homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing after Natural Disasters, Chapter 12. Washington DC: World Bank.

[2] Relocation and resettlement are often used interchangeably.

No comments:

Post a Comment