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The Disaster of War

David Alexander17 March 2022

Bombs bursting on the Fortress of St. Malo, France, 1944. Photo from Lee Miller.

By convention, when we study disasters we exclude warfare. It is not easy to find a completely logical reason for this. It is more a matter of convenience and a feeling that to conflate the two phenomena would lead to problems because not all generalisations about the one are applicable to the other. At the same time, there is always the basic truth that war is a disaster in its own right because of the casualties, suffering and destruction that it causes. Moreover, as we are seeing in Ukraine and surrounding countries, it is all too often accompanied by a major humanitarian emergency.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in trying to understand the intersectionality between war and other forms of disaster. The other forms are natural hazard impacts (please do not call them ‘natural disasters’ as they, too, are largely the result of human agency), technological failures, social movements (riots, crowd crushes, unplanned mass migrations, etc.), intentional disasters (essentially terrorism) and composite events. Such is the complexity of modern life that the last of these categories predominates. We live in networked societies and disasters tend to be events with cascading consequences.

In recent days, vast numbers of women, children and the elderly have crossed international boundaries as they have fled the fighting in Ukraine in what has become Europe’s fastest mass migration since the 1940s. As a result, we have a humanitarian emergency that encompasses primarily Ukraine itself and six countries on its western borders but potentially the whole of Europe. In Ukraine the challenge is to provide basic necessities under highly dangerous conditions and via an infrastructure that is becoming more and more damaged and fragmentary. Outside Ukraine it is a matter of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from families that have been split up by the war.

Gone are the times when war was fought on a battlefield between assembled armies. There is no room any more for a Napoleon or a Wellington. In modern warfare everyone and everything is a target. Grain, fertiliser, gas, oil and minerals are casualties as well as people, and so are those who depend on these commodities and are deprived by shortage or rising prices from accessing them.

In a world that faces grim challenges in dealing with climate change, ecological catastrophe, loss of the carrying capacity of the land and problems with the vulnerability of technology, the last thing we need is a major war. Nothing can compensate for the loss of life and destruction of people’s living conditions that it causes, but it may yet accelerate the transition towards more sustainable consumption and more rational ways of living. Amid the lies and manipulations that lie behind the aggression, there is also solidarity and rationality. Let us hope that in spite of everything these admirable qualities will prevail. We need them so that we can confront the next disaster.


David Alexander is Professor in UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. He is a citizen of Britain and Italy.

Risk, Resilience and Gender in the Current Petrópolis Tragedy

Joshua Anthony10 March 2022

Written by Dr Louisa Acciari and Mônica Ribeiro.


This is the worst tragedy lived by Petrópolis to date, even though floods and landslides are nothing new to this region. According to Agencia Brasil, so far, the Civil Defence was able to count 232 deaths, while over 1,000 people were made homeless. Among the victims, the gender gap is quite expressive: 138 women compared to 94 men. This means that, as of today, about 60% of the victims are women. Similar catastrophic events have hit the city before; in 1988, floods led to 134 deaths, and in 2011, landslides – also provoked by heavy rains – led to 73 fatalities. This comes on top of the on-going pandemic crisis, with a current weekly rate of 5,000 infections and around 70 deaths in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Despite the unprecedented scale of the event, the mechanisms are well-known and this disaster could have been prevented.

Credits to: Fernando Frazão/ Agência Brasil

 

An avoidable disaster

Investments, containment, and protection projects cannot be treated as a surprise or an emergency when rains are forecasted for every beginning of the year. Nature is implacable: it does not wait for political election or the end of the sanitary crisis. Yet, the state’s responsibility is huge. If local powers were used to invoke the lack of economic resources for structural protection, now, the bill will be higher: we need new houses, new streets, new plans, indemnities, sanitary adjustments, investment in public health. This comes along with mourning and suffering in the face of loss of human life. Numerous testimonies of families affected by the tragedy are being published. Those are people who lost their spouse, children, grandparents… as well as their homes and living environment.

The areas impacted by the landslides are known to be risky: the 2007 Municipal Risk Reduction Plan indicated the ‘high’ and ‘very high risk’ areas, which were precisely those affected in the city of Petrópolis. Despite the existence of such a plan, persistent problems of land tenure, irregular occupation, increasingly intense rain and lack of proper urban planning, keep putting vulnerable populations at risk in the region. Specifically, in the Morro da Oficina, more than 700 houses were in danger, with more than 240 identified at the highest risk level. Those are the houses of low-income families who are left with little alternatives.

In a text published in 2013, Eduardo Antonio Licco already pointed out the deficiencies in urban planning and early warning systems in Petrópolis. For instance, interviews with victims of the 2011 floods reveal that the noise of the rain covered that of the alert sirens, and that people did not how to proceed in this type of situation. In the face of existing evidence, one could expect that local and federal authorities would have taken more robust actions to protect the inhabitants of Petrópolis.

The politics of death

This tragedy comes at a time where the Brazilian government is already being accused of crimes against humanity for its bad management of the Covid-19 crisis. For so many of us, it feels like human life does not matter to decision-makers. Scholars and social movements alike have referred to the concept of necropolitics, coined by the African author, Achille Mbembe (2003), which describes the politics of death organized by the state. According Mbembe, in exceptional situations, the state would have an illegitimate use of force to determine who should live and who should die. The abandonment by the Brazilian state of the most vulnerable sections of the population in the face of Covid-19, and now with the landslides in Petrópolis, can be understood as a way of organizing the death of the poorest.

According to mapping conducted by the journal UOL on the Portal of Transparency of the municipality of Petrópolis, in 2021, 2 million BRL (approximately 290,000 GBP) were reserved – but not actually spent – for works of prevention of landslides. In contrast, the marketing and Christmas lighting budget amounted to 5.5 million BRL (approximately 800,000 GBP); twice the budget for disaster prevention. The amount allocated to “scenic, ornamental and decorative lighting for Imperial Christmas 2021” exceeds the resources for containment works in the 1st District – the most affected by the rains – as indicated in the mapping carried out by the Municipal Risk Reduction Plan.

Gender and intersecting inequalities

Finally, we can notice the higher death rate for women; out of the 232 fatalities, 138 were women and 94 men. Although it is way too soon to draw definitive conclusions, and keeping in mind that this proportion may change, we can try to suggest some possible explanations.

Many studies show that women are more vulnerable to disasters, because of a combination of factors such as their social roles, lack of access to resources or political marginalisation. Research on floods points to the fact that women tend to feel more responsible for their families, making them less likely to evacuate the affected-area on time, and that once in a shelter, they will take on all the reproductive and caring tasks to keep their families alive (see for instance Siena & Valencio, 2009).

An exemplary case of these gendered-dynamics is women affected by dams, as in the city of Morada Nova de Minas. Since 1960, with the construction of the Três Marias dam, forced migration and reduced income have affected the population, especially women. In 2019, after the rupture of the Brumadinho dam and speculation of water contamination, it was noticed that despite the loss of work and reduced income, women stayed and resisted on their lands, often mentioning their support network, bonds of affection, and cultural connection.

The burden of care work has been widely debated in the context of the pandemic crisis, and existing data show that women have absorbed the core needs of their households during the lockdown period, often at the detriment of their own remunerated job and well-being. In Brazil, a survey conducted by the feminist organisation SOF shows that 50% of women started taking care of someone during the pandemic, while 40% said that the situation of social isolation put the sustainability of their household at risk. Thus, we could imagine that many women, mothers, and spouses, were at home taking care of the house or of someone else.

What now?

While rescue services are still working to save lives and identify the names of those missing, we can reflect on the state of public policies in Brazil. Rains are nothing new and they will certainly happen again, so it is time that our elected representative make the right decisions and investments, and start valuing human lives. Local plans for risk reduction and emergency response already exist; all it takes is adequate resources to make them effective. How many more tragedies do we need for governments to take action?

If you read these lines and want to support the victims, here is a link with a list of local actors that are accepting donations: https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/nacional/saiba-como-ajudar-as-vitimas-das-chuvas-em-petropolis-rj/.


Dr Louisa Acciari is Research Fellow and Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Disaster at the University College London (UK), and Research Associate of the Núcleo de Estudos em Sexualidade e Gênero (NESEG) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Louisa is also the Global Network Coordinator for GRRIPP.

Email: l.acciari@ucl.ac.uk

Recent publications: Pinto, C., Acciari, L., Brites, J. et al. (2021) Os sindicatos das trabalhadoras domésticas em tempos de pandemia: memórias da resistência, FACOS-UFSM: https://www.ufsm.br/editoras/facos/os-sindicatos-das-trabalhadoras-domesticas-em-tempos-de-pandemia-memorias-da-resistencia/

Acciari, L., del Carmen Britez, J., & del Carmen Morales Pérez, A. (2021). Right to health, right to live: domestic workers facing the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America. Gender & Development, 29(1), 11-33.

Mônica Ribeiro is a doctoral student at the Graduate Program in Sociology and Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, researcher at the Núcleo de Estudos em Sexualidade e Gênero (NESEG). Mônica is Professor of Scientific Methodology at the Instituto de Ensino Superior Planalto – IESPLAN and Coordinator of the Scientific Journal of the Institution.  

Email: monicatsribeiro@gmail.com

Recent publications: Ribeiro, M.T.S. (2021) Vozes Submersas: Políticas Públicas, desenvolvimento e resistência lá na Morada. Belo Horizonte: Editora Dialética.

https://www.amazon.com.br/Vozes-Submersas-pol%C3%ADticas-desenvolvimento-resist%C3%AAncia-ebook/dp/B099SCKWS4/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

Ribeiro, M. T. S; Collares, I. Z.; Calazans, D.R.N de S. et al (2021): The construction of the Três Marias dam and the absence of public policies for the arrival of the waters in the municipality of Morada Nova de Minas in Brazil. Edward Elgar Publishing:

https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781800889361/9781800889361.00023.xml

International Women’s Day 2022

Olivia Walmsley8 March 2022

Written by Olivia Walmsley and Virginie Le Masson


Yesterday, on the 7th of March, the IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster celebrated its fourth anniversary, providing a multi-disciplinary space for connecting researchers, students, policy makers, NGOs and anyone who shares a desire to work collaboratively to answer difficult questions that relate to gender (in)equality. This year, the theme is #BreakTheBias.

A gender equal world is one free of bias, discrimination, and stereotypes; three issues that we choose to challenge in academia and in our research practice. With gender equality being the central pillar of the centre, our work, particularly through the GRRIPP project connects existing networks of scholars, policy makers, and practitioners to support the integration of gender and intersectionality in research and development approaches. GRRIPP supports 22 projects across Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and South Asia, that tackle gender inequality and bias head-on through a multitude of lenses such as documenting systems of care during the Covid-19 pandemic; bringing intersectionality in university curricula on Disaster Risk Reduction; or piloting women-based and low-carbon transport solutions in the context of climate change.

GRRIPP was recently host to an exploratory set of virtual events on the ‘Feminist City’. Featuring a diverse group of speakers from all geographical regions, debates focused on such questions as: “what is a feminist city?” and “what does feminism and the city mean in practice?” All five sessions are available for viewing here.

To find out more about these projects, head to the GRRIPP website and register to receive monthly newsletters which include project updates and information about the team and upcoming events.

The centre is involved in several projects that bring a gender perspective to different sectors:

  • Health: Who Cares? Rebuilding Care in a Post-Pandemic World (funded by ESRC). We support a deeper understanding of the care economy after the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the disproportionately negative impacts on women, particularly women of colour, migrants, and refugees, both as essential care workers and as recipients of care.
  • Disaster Risk Reduction: RiskPACC (funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020) to facilitate interaction between citizens and Civil Protection Authorities to jointly identify needs and develop solutions to build enhanced disaster resilience, based on new forms of digital, community-centred and gender-responsive data.

In addition to the exciting work happening through these various projects, our team has also been tackling gender bias through the collection of references as part of the Gender and Disaster Reference Guide Series. The bibliography series (now available as a database) compiles journal articles, blogs, reports etc. that cover themes in disaster-related research with a gender perspective. The next volume will prioritise references written in various languages, other than English, to diversify sources of knowledge and perspectives.

To find out more on the Centre’s research interests and current activities, please visit our webpages and do not hesitate to contact us to share interests and ideas for collaboration.

Centre for Gender and Disaster Website

#BreakTheBias #IWD2022

Twitter: @UCL_GD | @grripp

LinkedIn: @cgdonline


The Centre for Gender and Disaster based in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at UCL, aims to develop awareness of, and responsiveness to, gender considerations in the contexts of risks, disasters and conflicts, through excellence in research and teaching.