A man walks past a house damaged by a landslide in Lebak, West Java, last year. (Antara Photo/Asep Fathulrahman)

Treating Disaster as a Social Problem

BY :SYARIFAH AINI DALIMUNTHE

JANUARY 27, 2020

Indonesians are facing the new decade with dread as floods and landslides continued to destroy homes and lives even before the first month of 2020 has run its course.  

In Jakarta, flash floods killed at least 67 people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. During the floods, more than 700 power stations across the city were shut down to prevent people from getting electrocuted.

In the absence of a coordinated disaster emergency operation, in some areas of the city Jakartans were forced to turn to social media to ask for help. 

At around the same time, landslides and flash floods also damaged more than 2,000 homes in several villages in Lebak, a district of Banten, and Sukajaya, a village in West Java.

In Pati, Central Java, several villages were put under water by severe floods in the first week of 2020.

The island of Java was not the only one hit by natural disasters. Sikka, a district in East Nusa Tenggara, was also hit by flash floods on New Year's Day. 

In 2019, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) recorded 1,322 natural disasters in Indonesia. 

From 2000 to early 2020, also according to BNPB data, there were more than 25,000 cases of natural disaster affecting more than 48 million Indonesians. 

According to the agency, it was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – which killed at least 225,000 people – that finally caused a paradigm shift in disaster management in Indonesia.

But What Is a Disaster?

Seen from the point of view of social science, a disaster is by its nature a social tragedy, not just a physical one. A flash flood in the middle of a rainforest that does not affect anyone would not be considered a "disaster." It would instead be called a hydrometeorological event.

Another example: if a tsunami hit an island where there were no human settlements, that tsunami would be considered a significant geophysical event, but not a disaster.

Disasters involve the juxtaposition of physical forces and vulnerable human communities. It is essential to understand that the severity of a disaster is measured not by the magnitude of its physical force, but by the extent of its societal impact.

An 8-magnitude earthquake in an uninhabited area will not be considered a disaster, but the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that jolted Ambon in October last year, for example, was a severe disaster – having caused structural damage to roads and bridges and power outage for days.

Disaster as Social Problem

In addition to causing deaths and threats to physical and mental health, disasters also have other profound social impacts.

Our study on the impact of forest fires in Jambi from 2016 to 2019 shows that disasters were a crucial factor in driving people into poverty and then acted as a trap that kept them there.

The loss of livelihood during a forest fire, and the haze and flash flood that often followed, paralyzed people and their ability to earn an income.

After a forest burned, the communities affected by it often also suffered from floods as the scorched soil struggled to absorb rainfalls. Many who survived the disasters might find themselves living in temporary shelters for months or even years.

A year after the 2018 quake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, the Indonesian Red Cross said 57,000 people were still left homeless and continued to live in camps and temporary shelters.

Many children suffered from arrested development as a result of parental stress, being without a home and having their education severely interrupted.

At the community level, the massive damage and disruption that a disaster causes often result in the break-up of a community or even conflicts as daily routines are disrupted and plans for recovery stopped in their tracks. 

Leading sociologists Thomas Drabek in the early eighties and Kathleen Tierney in late 2018 suggested that the failures of disaster management these days are the result of continuing to categorize disaster as a "nonroutine social problem" and suggested a paradigm shift. 

In her 2019 book, "Disaster: A Sociological Approach," Tierney highlighted that disaster is seen as an event that disrupts social systems but at societal level hazard and disaster threats are not collectively considered as problematic: both politicians and residents at high-risk locations tend to downplay their significance.

It is about time to acknowledge disaster as a social problem. By addressing it as such, public demand for a solution will be galvanized. 

It will also put pressure on the political elite and their supporters, preventing them from balking when they find out that solutions will be inconvenient and require a lot of money. 

The media could definitely help with turning they way people view disaster – from a nonroutine social problem to a bona fide social problem.

Media attention on disasters typically focuses on the immediate impact of disasters and then fades away quickly in weeks after that, sometimes days. 

The media must be convinced that prolonged exposure to disasters could force policy changes.

Treating disaster as a social problem, far from making things complicated, will actually help us find its root causes and, maybe, even its solutions.

Syarifah Dalimunthe is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences' (LIPI) Research Center for Population.

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