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Can Natural Disasters Yield Positive Long-Term Outcomes?

Introduction

Natural disasters impose major shocks to socio-economic systems, destroying lives, livelihoods and social and physical infrastructure. This article presents a review of positive opportunities that have emerged from previous natural disasters. It discusses several examples when such otherwise difficult events resulted in communities electing to improve their infrastructure and reconsider their priorities. The possible changes that can arise from disasters can be technical, social, economic and political or a combination of these. A review of the natural disaster literature suggests that the mediating factors that can result in post-disaster scenarios yielding new opportunities are less discussed in academic discourses than are the costs of those turns. This article also profiles a case from the Netherlands of technical change that illustrated how the affected population in that nation coped with a major disaster in ways that eventually yielded a host of additional positive political, economic and social changes.

The analysis that follows is organized into four sections. The next part is a brief literature review profiling cases in which governments and communities worked in the aftermath of disasters to realize positive change. Section three highlights the 1953 flood case from the Netherlands alluded to above, and reviews that event and the political and socio-economic improvements that emerged from it. Section four offers an overview of the article’s findings. Section five offers conclusions on the major issues raised in this analysis concerning post-disaster response.

Blessings in Disguise: Can Natural Disasters Yield Positive Outcomes?

Humanitarian organizations and researchers usually depict natural disasters as inflicting suffering and disruption in the societies in which they occur. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) (2002), for example, “disaster is an occurrence disrupting the normal conditions of existence and causing a level of suffering that exceeds the capacity of adjustment of the affected community.” Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, landslides, droughts or wildfires are examples of disasters and these events are typically unexpected, sudden and overwhelming. While some natural disasters can be predicted—i.e., hurricanes may strike communities located in their known paths or riverfront cities may face periodic flooding arising from their locations—even in those cases, the exact timing of their occurrence is often unpredictable. Thus, while communities that confront natural disasters with frequency can plan for them to some degree, they typically have little or no advance warning of their occurrence.   

Disasters can affect jurisdictions both negatively and positively (Loi-Renee, 2016). While they may, and generally do as the WHO definition above highlighted, lead to serious disruptions of community functioning, recent studies have shown that these events may also lead in some circumstances to growth and development opportunities in the long run. Citing a multi-country study, Ahlerup (2013), for example, reported that natural disasters were positively associated with economic performance following their incidence in developing nations. Bănică et al. (2020) have referred to these positive possibilities as ‘blessings in disguise.’ Several scholars have provided examples of previous positive long-run implications of disaster events. I highlight a share of those below.

  • In 1666, a massive fire in London led to improved building regulations and a considerable rebuilding effort. As a result of these actions, the city became safer and cleaner (Davies, 2016).
  • A 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, led to the creation of a new metropolis with earthquake resilient buildings, wider roads and a sewer system (Jha, 2010).
  • Similarly, the 1970 earthquake (8 on the Richter scale) in Huaraz in Peru led to adoption of anti-seismic measures in building construction in that nation (Novey, 2018).
  • In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras and resulted in widespread flooding and mudslides, causing many deaths and massive destruction. Agrawal (2011) has reported that recovery from that event produced significant socio-economic improvements in the country.
  • The 2004 tsunami that hit Aceh province in Indonesia resulted in extensive damage and claimed approximately 167,000 lives and damaged key infrastructure, including houses, roads and schools (Jha, 2010). In the storm’s aftermath, the World Bank led a Multi-Donor Fund (MDF) program to raise funds for rebuilding affected areas and it came to be regarded as a model, especially in creating partnerships and collaborations with residents of hard-hit communities and local and international humanitarian organizations (Jha, 2010). 
  • A major earthquake (7 on the Richter scale) devastated Haiti in 2010 and resulted in more than 230,000 deaths, displacement of approximately 1.5 million people and the destruction of thousands of buildings and many roads and other infrastructure (Bănică et al., 2020). Generous support from humanitarian organizations and international donors led to the redevelopment of key infrastructure, including a major highway linking Cap Haitian to Labadie. These efforts have enhanced tourism and improved access to markets and services for the populations affected by them (World Bank, 2019). Similarly, local engineers and construction workers learned seismic-mitigation construction strategies as they participated in rebuilding efforts (Bănică et al., 2020).

Loi-Renee (2016) has reported that some disasters are naturally beneficial to the communities in which they occur. For example, flooding can improve soil fertility in the long run by supplying nutrients to the soil and increasing agricultural production. The above examples suggest that disasters, despite their very real and often tragic costs, can also sometimes result in multi-dimensional opportunities in a community. In fact, the inflow of humanitarian aid in the examples I cited fostered a rapid turn-over of capital and boosted the local economies of the sites it affected. The availability of resources resulted in multiple development opportunities, allowing the nations involved to build a more resilient infrastructure (Hallegatte and Dumas, 2009). Similarly, redevelopment allowed communities to benefit from organized plans as they worked with international funders and, in some cases, implementers (Bănică et al., 2020). Such initiatives can introduce new technologies/innovations and lead to improvements in resident lives and livelihoods (Izumi et al., 2019; Bănică et al., 2020). Such innovation can improve communities’ ability to grow productive capital (Hallegatte 2014; Bănică et al., 2020). Likewise, and relatedly, disasters can result in new polices, promote local expertise through skill transfers from donors or stakeholders involved in redevelopment projects and promote coordinated efforts among all of those affected. Crucially, realization of these possibilities depends on effective public leadership of post-natural disaster scenarios and they also assume community capacity and willingness to consider and adopt changes (Bănică et al., 2020). However, it is difficult to identify the specific factors that promote positive outcomes following a disaster. I briefly examine a flood case from the Netherlands to highlight how that event became a turning point for that nation.

The 1953 Flood: Reclaiming Land From Water in The Netherlands

The Netherlands is a low-lying area. Nearly 50% of the nation’s land is no more than a few feet above sea level and 26% of its territory lies below sea level. As a result, a major share of the country is persistently vulnerable to floods. One such large event occurred in the Southwest of the nation on February 1, 1953 (Gerritsen, 2005). It was one of the worst disasters in the country’s history (Slager, 1992). A major storm, in combination with a spring tide, resulted in a flood in which the water reached a level of 4.55 m above NAP (Normaal Amasterdams Peil, n.d.). The dikes that had protected the area collapsed in several places, leading to a large loss of life and of livelihoods for many more. The nation’s government evacuated approximately 100,000 people from the affected area, 1,800 people were killed, 47,300 houses were damaged and 340,000 acres of land flooded (The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021; Slager, 1992). The initial storm surge demolished a significant number of homes in the Delta (Slager, 1992).

Several hydrologists and engineers had warned repeatedly prior to the 1953 disaster that the nation’s existing dikes were too low to protect the coast against large storm events, but their concerns did not garner much attention from government authorities (Slager, 1992). A previous flood in 1906 had affected the dikes and some were repaired thereafter with muraltmuurtjes[i] as a cheap solution to make them taller, but, as critics noted, that step did not strengthen them sufficiently to resist strong flooding. In addition, the nation’s flood defense system suffered extensive damage in World War II and many dikes were already in need of repair when the 1953 event occurred (The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021, 2021). The nation’s warning system also did not function effectively when the storm hit, and the national government lacked a plan to address so large a disaster (Duine, 2015). The lack of a response strategy created uncertainty concerning who had what measure of authority to take actions to address the crisis.

In the aftermath of the flood, government officials and many local stakeholders realized that a number of major steps were necessary to help prevent such calamitous flooding in the future. Twenty days after the disaster, national leaders appointed a committee called the Deltacommissie (Gerritsen, 2005) and tasked its members to prepare effective plans to reclaim the flooded area and ensure residents’ safety while also protecting the land from becoming salty. The group prepared short and long-term plans that resulted in the Deltawet, a comprehensive description of the Deltaplan, and a set of measures to realize these aims called the Deltawerken.

The Committee called for realization of its plan within 25 years at a cost of 900 million Euros (in today’s currency). The government adopted the strategy.  One challenging element of the Deltaplan was to decrease the length of the nation’s coastline by filling some arms of the sea. The country had to construct a complex system of dams and movable flood barriers to realize the task. Overall, the project aimed to reduce the risk of a flood threat of the severity of the 1953 event to once per 4,000 years (The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021). Not all of the Dutch supported the long-term effort. Some, for example, criticized its cost, while others were concerned it would lead to ecological damage.

Construction linked to the flood abatement effort created thousands of jobs in the ensuing decades. Meanwhile, too, the government improved its storm tide forecasting system (Slager, 1992). When I completed my master’s degree (2008-2010) in land and water management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, I learned from my classmates that they viewed the creation of the nation’s post-1953 dike system with great pride. They told me that the disaster had served as a turning point for the development of a safer and more economically sound nation. In fact, the Netherlands’ successful construction of its system of dikes and its institutional reforms in water management for controlling costal water remain an example for the world. And today, the country seeks also to protect nature and recreation as well as human habitation in its coastal areas.

Discussion

Uncertainty is a common feature of disaster response efforts. Community groups and government agencies need to undertake quick decisions to execute response plans when natural catastrophes strike. Accordingly, those actors typically enjoy limited opportunities for participatory planning or interventions in such circumstances. Despite these challenges, the literature I reviewed above suggested that the aftermaths of disasters may offer opportunities to governments and citizens alike to create new social arrangements and to craft institutional improvements. Bankoff (2004) has argued that disasters always occur within specific social, cultural, economic and political contexts, and thus are inherently associated with the political structures, economic systems and social orders of communities. This review and analysis has suggested that jurisdictions that possess imaginative values-anchored leaders who understand the possibilities inherent in their milieus are most likely to act in ways that promote the long-term sustainability of their populations and ways of life following disaster events. Such leaders are well-positioned to encourage their inhabitants gradually to adopt norms, values and practices that promote creative adaptation and innovation to address the changed conditions they confront.

The Netherlands 1953 flood case showed that efforts to address a disaster, when well organized, well-led and persistently pressed, can yield profound long-term technical and institutional change that can then lead to social and economic benefits as well. The Dutch experience has led that nation to emerge as renowned experts in water management (McVeigh, 2014). The scholarship I reviewed has widely discussed the potentials that disasters can reveal, but the specific factors that result in the sustainability of such shifts remain unclear. In my view, local buy-in and long-term activation of community capacities are necessary to promote sustainable change post-disasters. It also appears that the capabilities necessary to take stock following disasters and to address the needs arising from them in creative ways, are place-specific due to communities’ differing resource and organizational capacities and willingness to change.

Final Thoughts

This article has argued that disasters can yield opportunities for communities to rethink and reorder their priorities and to redevelop their social and physical infrastructures in line with that new thinking. In other words, the need to rebuild or reconstruct following major disaster events can create multi-dimensional opportunities for affected communities. Nevertheless, and that said, one should never ignore or diminish the acute human suffering caused by these cataclysmic occurrences.

Notes

[1]  A muralt is a small and inexpensively produced wall consisting of 3-4 horizontal concrete plates designed to raise dikes. Jhr. Ir. R.R.L. de Muralt who served as the head of technical service of the Schouwen water authority of the Netherlands between 1903 and 1913 created this design (Deltawarken, 2004).

References

Agrawal, A (2011). “A Positive Side of Disaster.” Nature. 473, 291–292 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/473291a.

Ahlerup, P. (2013). “Are Natural Disasters Good for Economic Growth?”. Working Papers in Economics, February 2013. Gothenburg Centre of Globalization and Development, University of Gothenburg, Göteborg, Sweden.

Bănică, A., Kourtit, K. & Nijkamp, P. (2020). “Natural Disasters as a Development Opportunity: A Spatial Economic Resilience Interpretation.” Rev Reg Res 40, pp. 223–249. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10037-020-00141-8.

Bankoff, G. (2004), “The Historical Geography of Disaster: Vulnerability and Local Knowledge in Western Discourse”.  Natural Hazards and Disaster Reader, March/April 2009.

Davies, S. (2016). “Five Ways the Great Fire Changed London”. BBC News, July 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-36774166. Accessed April 4, 2021. 

Deltawarken (2004). “The Flood of 1953”. Deltawarken online, 2004 n.d.  http://www.deltawerken.com/Before-the-flood-of-1953/90.html. Accessed April 13, 2021.

Duine, I. (2015). “From Silence to Recognition: The Changing Narrative of the 1953 North Sea Flood in the Netherlands.” Natural Hazards Observer, September 2015. https://hazards.colorado.edu/article/from-silence-to-recognition-the-changing-narrative-of-the-1953-north-sea-flood-in-the-netherlands. Accessed April 3, 2021.

Gerritsen, H. (2005). “What Happened in 1953? The Big Flood in the Netherlands in Retrospect.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A.3631271–129.

Hallegatte, S. (2014). “Natural Disasters and Climate Change an Economic Perspective.” Springer, Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08933-1.

Izumi T., Shaw R., Djalante R., Ishiwatari M., Komino T. (2019). “Disaster Risk Reduction and Innovations.” Prog Disaster Sci 2:100033.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pdisas.2019.100033.

Jha, A. (2010). “Haiti Earthquake: Out of Great Disasters Comes Great Opportunity.” World Bank Blogs.

https://blogs.worldbank.org/eastasiapacific/haiti-earthquake-out-of-great-disasters-comes-great-opportunity. Accessed March 29, 2021.

Loi-Renee (2016). “The Benefits of Natural Disasters: Floods, Volcanoes, and Hurricanes.” https://owlcation.com/stem/The-Benefits-and-Disadvantages-of-Some-Natural-Disasters-Floods-Volcanoes-and-Hurricanes. Owlcation Online, June 2016. Accessed April 2, 2021.

McVeigh, T. (2014). “The Dutch Solution to Floods: Live with Water, Don't Fight It.” The Guardian, February 2014,

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/feb/16/flooding-netherlands. Accessed April 1, 2021.

Normaal Amasterdams Peil (n.d.). https://www.normaalamsterdamspeil.nl/en/. Accessed April 2, 2021.

Novey, L. (2018). “The Upside to Natural Disasters.” June 13, 2008. https://planetsave.com/2008/06/13/the-upside-to-natural-disasters/. PlanetSave Online. Accessed April 3, 2021.

Slager, K. (1992). “De Ramp.” Amsterdam: Olympus.

Stéphane, H., Patrice, D. (2009). “Can Natural Disasters Have Positive Consequences? Investigating the Role of Embodied Technical Change.” Ecological Economics, 2009, 68 (3), pp.777-786.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021). "North Sea flood.” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/North-Sea-flood. Accessed 5 April 2021. Accessed March 28, 2021.

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Raj Kumar GC

Dr. Raj Kumar GC is a research associate in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He obtained his doctoral degree in Planning, Governance and Globalization (PGG) from Virginia Tech in December 2020. He previously completed a Master of Science (MSc) degree in International Land and Water Management with a specialization in integrated water management from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands in 2010, where he served as a Netherlands Fellowship Program Fellow. Raj’s research interest lies at the nexus of water, technology, agriculture and local economy and culture. Before undertaking advanced graduate study he previously worked for about ten years with different development agencies in Nepal. In those roles, he led efforts to reduce poverty through community-based water resource and smallholder agriculture development. Those initiatives were primarily supported by the United States Agency for International Development, the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the European Union. Raj is passionate about bringing positive and sustainable social and economic change to Nepal’s rural communities through a rights-based approach to development.