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Rohingya crisis anniversary: four years of genocide in Myanmar, four years of protection failures in India

Jessica Field26 August 2021


Yesterday – 25 August 2021 – marked four years since the start of a brutal military assault against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, which forced three quarters of a million Rohingyas to flee over the country’s borders. The deliberate, systematic, and extreme violence used by the Myanmar military to kill, sexually assault, and displace Rohingyas from their homelands and out of the country has rightly been documented as genocidal – i.e. violence ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Though this date isn’t the start of the persecution faced by Rohingyas in Myanmar (which has been ongoing for several decades), it was certainly one of the largest and most systematic of the assaults against the community in recent years.

August 2017 also marks an anniversary date for the deliberate scaling back of humanitarian protections in many neighbouring countries.

Over a million Rohingya refugees are living in increasingly challenging conditions in countries across Southeast and South Asia – denied rights, denied mobility, marginalised and – in several high-profile cases – refouled back to Myanmar, or prevented from making a safe landing to seek refuge. I have spent the last five years researching the humanitarian context for Rohingya refugees in India, and those years have been marked by a drastic breakdown of protection and basic humanitarian assistance.

Prior to 2017, Rohingya refugees in India – who number in the low tens of thousands – were able to register with the UNHCR India, receive refugee cards and visas, and were able to try to make lives for themselves while awaiting the opportunity for safe return to Myanmar. Then, in early August 2017, just a few weeks before the Myanmar military launched its latest large-scale assault on the community in Rakhine state, the Indian government declared Rohingya refugees within its own territory to be “illegal migrants”. This marked the start of a rapid deterioration of protection.

Image: The charred remains of schoolbooks. An entire Rohingya refugee settlement in Delhi burnt to the ground in June 2021. Photo credit: ROHRIngya June 2021.

 

India’s failure to protect and attempts to deport

In a recent Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) briefing I co-wrote with Rohingya activist Maung Thein Shwe and ISI’s Natalie Brinham, we documented that, since the beginning of August 2017, Rohingyas in India have faced:

  • refusals to renew or issue immigration documentation
  • exclusion from national ID cards that are essential for accessing basic services like health, education, and banking
  • discrimination in schools and healthcare facilities
  • denial from Covid-19 relief packages and vaccine drives
  • arbitrary dismissal from work and the withholding of pay
  • sustained hate campaigns from vocal sections of the media
  • discriminatory and inflammatory anti-Rohingya language by prominent politicians
  • precarious living conditions, including fires that have destroyed entire settlements
  • and a significant spike in documentation “verification” exercises and arbitrary detentions.

Also in August 2017, the Indian Government issued an order to authorities to identify Rohingya refugees in the country, and ready for their rounding up and deportation to Myanmar. Then, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Indian government deported a total of 12 Rohingyas back to the country, all of whom were denied access to UNHCR. In March this year, authorities in Jammu rounded up at least 150 Rohingyas for “verification” and to initiate deportation procedures. Then, in April, the government made a failed attempt to deport an unaccompanied 14-year-old Rohingya girl across the border.

Forced deportation of refugees to a country where they are experiencing an ongoing threat of genocide is an egregious breach of human and humanitarian rights that flouts not just customary international law, but protections enshrined within the India’s own constitution. Moreover, Myanmar has got more, not less, dangerous over recent months. The country experienced a violent coup d’état on 1 February 2021, and is now headed by the very military that have committed repeated atrocities against Rohingyas in Rakhine state over decades.

Parallel legal proceedings

Cases have been filed against Myanmar for the crime of genocide – The Gambia v. Myanmar – in the International Court of Justice (ICJ); for atrocity crimes in Argentina (under “universal jurisdiction”); and the International Criminal Court has authorised full investigations into crimes committed against the Rohingya that fall within the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e. genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression).

Cases have also been filed in the Supreme Court of India to block the Indian government’s attempted refoulement of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, progress has been slow, with many worrying statements littering its progression. During a recent hearing, the then-Chief Justice of India stated that “possibly that is the fear that if they go back to Myanmar they will be slaughtered. But we cannot control all that”. This statement wilfully ignores the role that India’s deportations play in enabling atrocities.

Advocates working on behalf of the Rohingya community in India have also filed petitions to try and force the Indian authorities to provide the basics amenities that any human (let alone a refugee fleeing persecution) should be entitled to expect: e.g. access to running water, access to health and education services, basic public health facilities, and safe accommodation. Just as with The Gambia vs. Myanmar genocide case in the ICJ, these cases in the Indian Supreme Court are ongoing, and Rohingya safety and wellbeing in India continue to hang in the balance.

It is no coincidence that genocide in Myanmar and persecution and humanitarian failures in India are running in tandem. Amal de Chickera – co-founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion – remarked in a recent webinar that “this is a moment of impending crisis… the marginalisation of Rohingya is part of a deeper, longer term erosion of the democratic rule of law in India and elsewhere in the world”.

Rohingya refugees are being deliberately marginalised through hate speech and discrimination, and then that marginalisation is used to frame this refugee group as a security threat and justify repressive actions – eroding the rule of law in the process. Relatedly, humanitarian assistance and the provision of safe refuge are presented as “gifts” to be enjoyed by select communities on the basis of (often discriminatory) conditions, rather than as basic rights rooted in a shared humanity.

Recognising all aspects of violence

The 25 August 2017 commemoration date must serve as a marker for all aspects of the violence faced by Rohingyas. It must continue to draw international attention to the persecution and suffering of Rohingyas by the Myanmar state as well as the Rohingya community’s need for justice, for citizenship in Myanmar, and for safe living conditions in their own country. This anniversary must also draw international attention to the huge humanitarian and protection failures of refugee host countries like India, where state-supported marginalisation, intolerance and anti-Rohingya hate speech are creating punishing living conditions and risk further facilitating genocide.


This blog is an adapted version of Jessica Field’s presentation at the 4th Rohingya Genocide Anniversary Commemoration event, hosted by Restless Beings on 25th August 2021 in London. 

For further reading, see briefs published by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion:

Ahead of the G7 and COP26 “Global Britain” reneges on humanitarian commitments, costing lives

Jessica Field11 June 2021

Ahead of the G7 and COP26 “Global Britain” reneges on humanitarian commitments, costing lives


Authored by: Jessica Field


The IRDR annual Humanitarian Summit is almost upon us. After the developments of the last few months, there’ll certainly be a lot to discuss next Wednesday.

Today, leaders of the world’s seven largest ‘advanced economies’ will descend on Cornwall for a G7 meeting to discuss pressing issues, not least COVID-19 recovery and strengthening of the world’s health systems. While ‘Global Britain’ is celebrating its leading role as host for this important event (and the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow), its recent actions instead show a retraction from global leadership and responsibility – particularly around humanitarian action.

In September 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago in these stretched-out pandemic months), the UK’s Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – a vehicle for apparently more aligned development and diplomacy. Commentators were worried about what this would mean for the UK’s world-leading role in overseas development assistance. And they were right to be.

Sign for the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Photo: FCDO/2020, Creative Commons Licence. Available on FCDO Flickr.

 

Just two month later, in November 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the UK government was going to renege on its global commitment – and legal obligation – to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance (ODA). The new 0.5% amount means a £4.5 billion ‘black hole’ in the humanitarian and development budget compared with 2019 figures. The effects of this have been immediate and catastrophic for many essential programmes across the world, and will have damaging ripple effects for many years to come.

Devex’s Will Worley has been tracking the cuts in a handy timeline. Seeing them listed one after the other, week after week, exposes the huge scale of the UK’s retraction from its obligations. Some of the more devastating include a 60% reduction in funding to Yemen, which is seeing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises as a result of conflict, mass displacement and famine-like conditions. After announcing this cut in March, the UK government admitted “we haven’t done an impact assessment”, putting millions of lives at risk as well as completely undermining its credibility as a donor.

That same month, the UK slashed its Global Challenges Research Fund almost in half, leaving a £120 million gap. This meant dozens of research projects and programmes (which were years in the making and based on long-standing partnerships) were decimated or closed, virtually overnight, rendering people jobless and halting research previously deemed essential for tackling the climate crisis, displacement, human rights violations and other global challenges. Again, with no impact assessment. Even basic communications about the cuts were incoherent, lacked basic guidance and were branded “a shambles” by those affected.

A Rohingya woman pictured at a World Food Programme food distribution supported by UK aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2017. Photo: DFID/Anna Dubuis, Creative Commons license, DFID Flickr, 2017.

 

In May, the UK announced it would cut its contributions to the Rohingya crisis response by 42%, reducing its £47.5 million pledge from 2020 to £26.7 million this year. Aid organisations working with Rohingyas – in what is the world’s largest refugee crisis – have described the consequences as “catastrophic”, and expect Rohingya children to be particularly affected.

The list goes on.

But there has been a fight back – from within the ranks of the Tory Party, as well as humanitarian and climate crisis advocates.

This reduction in 0.7% spending was not debated or approved in Parliament, and Boris Johnson has faced a rebellion about it among his own MPs. In recent weeks, a group of Conservative MPs have been vocal about the damage the government was doing to vital programmes overseas, as well as the UK’s reputation as a world leader in ODA. On Tuesday, Tory rebels tried to secure a vote on the aid cuts – convinced that if a vote was allowed, the government would be defeated. These efforts failed on this occasion, and the Prime Minister reasserted that there was no plan for reversal, nor to give MPs a vote on the matter.

These rebel Conservative MPs have plans to force the government’s hand in other ways, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll make much headway. Nonetheless, as this national debate collides with the G7 summit today and preparations for COP26 – censure might come from other ‘world leaders’ and global organisations, too.

Whatever happens, these issues will make for lively debate at next Wednesday’s IRDR Humanitarian Summit. One of our timely panels is on the different risks and challenges facing the humanitarian sector and humanitarian studies – political and financial, as well as from conflict and COVID-19. Join us and contribute to discussions. Sign up here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/irdr-humanitarian-summit-2021-interrogating-changing-risks


Jessica Field is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

 

Mutual Aid: Community Power During a Pandemic

Joshua Anthony24 May 2021


In times of crisis, it is common to see the union of communities overcome the unique challenges that each disaster brings. Following the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, neighbours and relatives were rescued from building debris by locals immediately on the scene, while others set up temporary shelters for those in need. Independent tech-wizards during the 2010 wildfires in Russian built an online ‘help-map’ which pin-pointed danger zones and platformed aid-requests and -offers during the event. Most notably reported by the media, the Occupy Sandy group, which emerged in response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could boast an impressive twenty thousand meals a day delivered to those in need.

Now, as the world collectively lives out a disaster, through the course of which its citizens have been told to socially distance and clinically vulnerable individuals advised to stay indoors at all costs—even for shopping and pharmacy visits—it is now that the power of and need for community action has become increasingly evident.

Figure 1. “In this together.” Marked under CC0 1.0. (Creative commons licence)

23rd March, 2020, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the start of England’s first nationwide lockdown. By the next day, NHS England had launched their “rallying the troops” campaign, urging the English people to help their neighbours and families who were shielding with medication pick-ups, hospital visits and over-the-phone support. Such a call-out from the national healthcare service suggests it is ordinary people who are acknowledged to hold the power to tackle these wide and unique circumstances. Short of a Braveheart-esque ignition of national pride, one can commend the efforts of NHS to recognise and utilise the dormant community resources—but Community had already gotten there.

As early as the 12th March—before Matt Hancock’s address to parliament on the 16th March advising people to reduce “unnecessary” social contact—locally-led, self-described “Mutual Aid” support groups had begun to form across London. They offered a wide range of assistance for everyday needs such as grocery shopping, medication pick-up, and providing information and advice, and emotional support; and more bespoke aid was provided, including: technological repairs, online ordering, facemask distribution and flower deliveries—though, this list is surely not exhaustive.

By the sheer speed and timely nature of this community action, one is left wondering whether inadequacies within the institutional emergency response frameworks are what spurs communities on to take the direct action seen here.

Previous research shows that the emergence of new crisis response groups, the “emergent group” is the result of fresh challenges for which adequate facility to resolve them is not present or immediately available within existing institutions. In many disasters, this is a common feature that occurs at the early stages of the disaster cycle [1]. Uniquely, it appears as though some mutual aid groups, which in line with the emergent group research, formed at the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020, have either maintained support or reactivated as the situation progressed and further lockdowns were imposed. This sustained activity is indicative of an environment whereby the needs of society have been continually supplemented throughout the crises by the work of grassroots groups.

To facilitate their operations, mutual aid volunteers were making posters, leafleting, researching information, translating, coordinating other volunteers, managing community finance pools and running phone-in services. And though there was some seeming structure of administration and coordination, an important principle that underpins much of these groups’ organisation was that they were non-hierarchical, independent and self-organising. More generally:

Mutual Aid as a mode of organisation refers to a horizontally structured relationship between voluntary participants from which help or aid are available mutually and free-of-charge between parties, at each’s own discretion, in the face of adversity—most commonly a shared one— unsanctioned by an overriding authority.” [2]

Figure 2. Mutual Aid finds it roots in Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”, exploring concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation within societies. The text is widely cited within anarchist literature. “Mutual Aid Mural” by eshutt is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Groups existed at the Borough scale down through the town, ward and even residential building level, with each scale of locality maintaining independence through to the volunteers themselves (see Figure 3 for a schematic diagram). Each group was unique: some welcoming new members immediately, while others were more guarded and required postcodes and reasons for joining; some had clearer organisational structures with dedicated officers and coordinators; group admins contacted for questionnaires surveys varied in their willingness to allow researchers access to the groups, some feeling a duty of care towards their group members. Responses have helped shed some light on common themes of organisation and activity between groups [2], but it is their anarchistic and amorphous nature, which makes them so hard to track and study, that could be their key strength in fighting an emerging and changing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 3. Chain of Mutual Aid group formation displaying spontaneous formation at all geographical levels, Borough, Ward and Neighbourhood, with horizontal autonomy at each group level down to individual volunteers [2].

Despite a rich history of such emergent groups surfacing during disasters worldwide, no provisions in recent British pandemic-influenza response plans were made to include such groups. Though unfortunate, this is not surprising when observing the UK emergency response framework, which operates largely under a command and control structure [3], and is incongruent with the non-hierarchical and seemingly counter-establishment structure of mutual aid groups [2]. This is evident in the tensions that have arisen when councils have interfered and ‘micro-managed’ Mutual aid efforts [4].

All emergency response is local in effect, even when filtered through a centralised system: it is those on the ground that sort through the rubble, build the shelters and cook the food, not the ministers and policy makers. Mutual aid groups are no different, except that they have bypassed the centralised aspect of the emergency response chain and affected direct action. Looking at the impact they have had, it would be unwise to suggest that a rational integration of mutual aid groups and institutional emergency response would involve the placing of such groups within a hierarchical chain; rather, those in positions of power should acknowledge the legitimacy of their efforts and empower them through outreach and communication.

Fortunately, reaching out has been made possible through social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp, which have given Mutual Aid groups operational power by allowing both those in need and able to help to communicate and coordinate online. Where the emergence of citizen groups typically relies on prior social networks [5], online networking has facilitated the quick establishment of community ties while also conforming to social distancing guidelines. Additionally, for interested researchers, a surprising benefit of online group presence is that group information and membership numbers were made accessible (in most circumstances), allowing for the gathering and analyses of emergent group data that could otherwise be too transient or chaotic under regular disaster conditions.

Analysis of borough-level mutual aid Facebook groups reveal that membership numbers are somewhat correlated positively with the percentage of those aged 25-34 years of age, and negatively with borough crime rates and the percentage of those classified by Government statistics as BAME (black and minority ethnic) [2]. However; explanations for these results can only be speculative. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated that the predominant ages of volunteers generally tends to fall within the bracket of 65-74 years of age, while those least likely to volunteer were in the 25-34 bracket; however, the risks posed to the older populations from COVID-19 is likely to have turned this balance on its head. Similarly, research has suggested that ‘BAME’ community members could be at a greater risk to COVID-19 [6], which, alongside key factors such as involvement in key worker jobs and family caring responsibilities, could limit availability for participating in mutual aid group activity.

Other independent Borough socioeconomic factors such as the index for multiple deprivation, household earnings, and internet usage did not produce significant correlations, but the analytical power of the modelling approach is limited by sample size and the informal nature of Mutual Aid groups—especially within a crisis—that makes the navigation of data difficult [2].

Though results are inconclusive and liable to error, current research efforts show that there is opportunity to better understand the phenomena of emergent mutual aid groups, which could enhance the effectiveness of their intentions in future times of turmoil. To these eyes, there are two alternate visions tugging against each other: one, where community power is harnessed and nurtured by emergency planners and institutions; and two, where institutional responses are effective enough to preclude the necessity for citizen action.

One thing this pandemic demonstrates for certain is that the subjects of disaster are not passive recipients of aid and can and have participated in affecting vital response. Time and time again we are reminded that chaos is not an inevitability of hardship, and that, when duty calls, communities have summoned the power that lies dormant beneath their lines in order to tackle catastrophe together.

References

[1] Twigg, J., & Mosel, I. (2017). Emergent groups and spontaneous volunteers in urban disaster response. Environment and Urbanization, 29(2), 443–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247817721413

[2] Anthony, J. (2020). Modelling the Emergence of Mutual Aid Groups in London (UK) during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic.

[3] Alexander, D. E. (2016). How to Write an Emergency Plan (1st ed.). Edinburgh and London: Dunedin Academic Press

[4] Tiratelli, L. & Kaye, S. (2020). Communities vs. Coronavirus. The Rise of Mutual Aid. New Local Government Network

[5] Quarantelli, E. L. (1984). Emergent Citizen Groups in Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Activities. Final Project Report #33, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/1206

[6] Race Disparity Unit, Cabinet Office (2020).Quarterly report on progress to address COVID-19 health inequalities


Joshua Anthony is Editor of the IRDR Blog and a PhD student within the institute.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

Kashmir’s lockdown increases disaster risk

Jessica Field19 August 2019

On 5 August 2019, the Government of India unilaterally reorganised Jammu and Kashmir state into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – and revoked Article 370, which contained protected privileges for the disputed territory. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed to the region, tens of thousands of tourists and workers have fled

Since 4 August, Kashmir Valley has been on a communications blackout and curfew, which poses serious disaster risks for the population as well as everyday challenges, fear and fury.

Kashmir Valley and Ladakh are frequently lauded as two of the most beautiful parts of South Asia. The Valley is bounded by the Himalayan mountain range and has the nickname “paradise on earth”; Ladakh is high up in the desert mountains and often called “Little Tibet,” or the “Roof of the World”.[i] Their location and climates, however, make them incredibly hazard-exposed.[ii] Most of the Kashmir region falls under a seismic zone V (the highest earthquake risk category), and the entire erstwhile state is prone to a variety of hazards. During winter, intense snowfall can cut off large parts of the region for months. Avalanches and landslides are commonplace. From July to September, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are at particular risk of flooding – Kashmir from heavy rains, Ladakh from cloud bursts and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. These risks are often exacerbated by poor city planning and illegal developments in flood plains.

Dal Lake, Srinagar. Photo: J. Field

As a result of a number of recent disasters,[iii] local government officials across Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have been attempting to improve their Disaster Management planning – both in terms of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and emergency response. Ladakh began developing its own District Disaster Management Plan after severe floods in 2010 and since 2017 has been working to update it. Reacting to the devastating 2014 floods in Kashmir, the district administration moved to develop its own Disaster Management Plan shortly after.

These Disaster Management Plans are still under development and have a long way to go before they effectively incorporate inclusive and vulnerability-responsive DRR and plan for a more effective emergency response. The Government of India’s latest moves in the region have potentially pushed their development back several paces, and the the total security lockdown of Kashmir may significantly increase disaster risks for an already vulnerable population.

As Ilan Kelman and I have argued elsewhere, some of the weaknesses in effective emergency planning have long existed as a result of the protracted security environment in Kashmir and Ladakh, where hazard-centred and military-led responses have too often been prioritised over longer-term DRR or more inclusive emergency planning.

Since 5th August 2019, these challenges have multiplied.

In this current moment, residents of Kashmir are experiencing lockdown and a widespread communications blackout. For 12 days, mobile phones, landlines and internet services were entirely cut (with sporadic access only coming to some areas in recent days). A strict curfew has been imposed, and the Valley’s political leaders have been put under house arrest. People have not been able to access medical treatment, withdraw cash, or travel out of the area. In Ladakh, Kargil too has faced lockdown. These restrictions have serious disaster risk implications.

Firstly, effective disaster management and emergency responses require active and accessible communication: i.e. operational early warning systems, communication infrastructure that connects residents to each other as well as their government, and access to information (reports suggest that some Kashmiris didn’t know why they were under lockdown several days after the constitutional change, let alone what they should do in a hazard scenario). Worryingly, communication blackouts are not tools deployed in extraordinary circumstances in Kashmir – they are a regular occurrence, with 54 internet shutdowns in 2019 alone.

Effective disaster management and emergency responses also require mobility and access to healthcare services: i.e. the possibility to visit hospitals when required (and for those hospitals to be stocked with sufficient supplies); the possibility to evacuate to a safer location in the event of a hazard; the ability to visit and check on vulnerable family members, or get personal supplies from stores.

Importantly, effective disaster management and emergency responses require trust. You need responsible and accountable individuals in charge of planning, monitoring and emergency responses (not locked up under house arrest in Kashmir, or feigning ‘peaceful’ stability from Delhi). The Government of India should recall its record of centre-led disaster relief in the Valley is not such a good one. Its failure to effectively respond, compensate and rehabilitate survivors of the 2014 floods in Jammu and Kashmir fomented a sense of disaffection that fed into the 2016 violence in the Valley.[iv]

Beyond the immediate challenges, in the medium term the existing Disaster Management Plans currently held by Srinagar and Leh administrations may well have to be completely redrawn, as protocols for coordination and resources will likely be redundant now the state has been broken into two Union Territories. These drastic governance changes were literally brought in overnight without warning, preventing any Disaster Management transition. All of this has occurred at a time of year when flood risks are typically high.

For residents in Kashmir and Kargil, who are parlty or wholly cut off from the outside world and held under a military curfew, the basic needs of the present are the most urgent. But the lockdown is significantly increasing their vulnerability to hazards, too. The government needs to seriously consider their responsibility in this regard as they have created this situation. Moreover, effective disaster risk reduction and emergency response plans are highly sensitive to the surrounding context and do not simply materialise when a hazard strikes.

Tuturk in Nubra Valley, Ladakh. Photo: J. Field

Dr Jessica Field is an Associate Professor of International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University, India, and a Research Associate at IRDR, UCL. Her research interests are in the history and politcs of humanitarianism and disaster management.
Jessica has been a Researcher/Co-Investigator on two of IRDR’s recent research projects: Increasing Resilience to Environmental Hazards in Border Conflict Zones, and Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours. On these projects, Jessica has led field research in Ladakh, Hyderabad and Calcutta, undertaking interviews with crisis-affected communities and archival research on the wider context of disasters and displacements.

Notes

[i] J. H. Fewkes, Trade and Contemporary Society Along the Silk Road: An entho-history of Ladakh, London: Routledge, 2009, p.19.

[ii] Kshitij Gupta, ‘Long Term Disaster Recovery in Kashmir’, in Long Term Disaster Recovery in Kashmir, Southasiadisasters.net, AIDMI, Issue no. 163, (October 2017): 13-14; Mihir R. Bhatt, ‘Risks in High Altitudes: How to Think About Action?’ in Community Managed Disaster Risk Reduction in High Altitude Areas,Southasiadisasters.net, AIDMI, Issue no. 85, (June 2012): 3-4.

[iii] On 6 August 2010, Ladakh experienced a cloudburst and severe flooding, which killed over 200 people and devastated Leh city and nearby villages. In September 2014, the wider Kashmir region in both Pakistan and India saw the worst floods it had experienced in decades, killing over 400 and displacing almost a million. In August last year, flash floods caused serious damage across Jammu and Kashmir.

[iv] F. Espada, ‘On Authority and Trust: A reflection on the effectiveness of disaster management in Bangladesh, India and Nepal’, in ed. Espada, F. (London: Save the Children & HCRI, 2016): 123-155. Available: http://humanitarianeffectivenessproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/South-Asia_Fernando_Espada_HAT.pdf

The 2019 Global Assessment Report (GAR)

Rebekah Yore31 May 2019

Post written by Prof. David Alexander 

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction was born out of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, 1990-2000. On 1st May 2019 it was renamed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. UNDRR remains a relatively small unit of the United Nations, but it has a truly world-wide reach. DRR is thus now truly mainstreamed at the global level.

UNDRR has a recurrent initiative for assessing the state of disaster preparedness around the world, and this results in a document, the Global Assessment Report(GAR), which is issued biennially to coincide with the UN’s Global Platform on DRR. The 2019 report is accompanied by an executive summary called GAR Distilled. The GAR proper consists of 15 chapters in four sections: introductory, the Sendai Framework (SFDRR), its implementation (and interaction with sustainable development), and managing risk nationally and locally. The document is decanted from many different studies, some of which have been commissioned specially for it. These may be published separately in an academic journal. An example of this for the 2013 GAR can be found in Di Mauro (2014). This edition of the GAR is the first to report on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR.

The 2019 GAR starts with a quotation from UN Secretary General António Guterres, who observes that in the modern world global challenges are more and more integrated and the responses are more and more fragmented. This is a powerful argument for joining forces and using a common agreed policy at the world-wide scale.

The GAR uses the ‘pressure-and-release’ model of Wisner et al, (2004) in an adapted form, consisting of: context, stressors, thresholds (nowadays known as ‘tipping points’ and impacts (which it terms ‘systemic failure’). One great lesson that the modern world teaches us is that changes that we thought were gradual can be suddenly overwhelming. Perhaps we are unaware when the ‘tipping points’ are passed, and that is a dangerous situation to be in.

The GAR urges that international agreements (the Sendai Framework, the Sustainable Development Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the New Urban Agenda) be viewed collectively through the lens of systemic risk. It is clear that the world is still struggling to achieve the transition from a focus on responding to disaster impacts to one on reducing the risks associated with future impacts. The verdict on major risk is a resounding “sooner than expected”, which, of course, reduces the time available to prepare. Initiatives need to coalesce around “risk informed sustainable development”.

I have argued elsewhere (Alexander 2017) that the number of times the word ‘should’ is used in an official document is an inverse indicator of its utility. The road to the nether regions is paved with things we should do (but for one reason or another have not done), and so a high ‘should ratio’ (the number of “shoulds” per page) is a proxy indicator for an ineffective instrument. The ‘should ratios’ of the GAR and GAR Distilled are 0.26 and 0.32, both below the alarm-signal threshold of 0.40. However, parts of the GAR bristle with “shoulds”. Moreover, there are only two mentions of ‘rights’ and none of ‘human rights’. The latter are very important to disaster risk reduction because they constrain or determine what can be done in the way of preparedness, action and reaction. UNISDR had a tendency to shy away from human rights issues, perhaps because it needed to remain engaged with countries that have a poor record in this respect.

The section of the GAR on ‘challenges’ is welcome, as the challenges are indeed legion. However, the two short paragraphs devoted to political challenges are extremely weak. It could be argued that political decision making is the greatest barrier of all to successful disaster risk reduction. We live in a world in which Terry Cannon’s ‘cure to damage ratio’ is paramount. Globally, about a thousand times as much is spent on hydrocarbon exploration and extraction than on the mitigation of the climate change that results from burning fossil fuels (Mechler et al. 2019). Unofficial voices have suggested that the ‘cure to damage ratio’ for natural hazards is 1:43. In any case, there is no doubt that much more is spent on making the problem worse than on solving it. What is needed is a brutally honest assessment of why this is the case.

Notably, the GAR has finally come around to the view that we all bear the burden of reducing disaster risk. In putting individuals at the centre of a diagram of actions we see people either crushed between the rock of hazards and the hard place of risk-informed sustainable development or as protagonists in combatting the former with the latter. The GAR notes that “we all live in communities”. No doubt we do, but the DRR community needs to do more to define what a community is, how it functions and whether it is really the right vehicle for solving our problems.

One of the most intransigent problems with the predecessor of the Sendai Framework, Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015, was its resolute reliance on a ‘top-down’ approach. Studies showed that the HFA had had little impact at the local level (GNCSODR 2015). The Sendai Framework and all the United Nations impedimenta that goes with it tend to perpetuate this issue, despite the launch in 2010 of the UN Safe Cities programme (about 1% of towns and cities have signed up for it). Consequently, the greatest present-day challenge is to achieve change from the local level against rigid power structures and massive vested interests at the national and globalised levels. For the sake of survival, it must be done. The GAR helps, and no one would deny that a coordinated world-wide approach is needed, but there is a growing feeling that progress will never be rapid enough until there is a fundamental reorientation.

Further Reading

The full and abbreviated Global Assessment Report 2019 can both be freely downloaded from https://gar.unisdr.org

Alexander, D.E. 2017. The ‘should ratio’. Disaster Planning and Emergency Management, 18 July 2017.

http://emergency-planning.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-should-ratio.html

Di Mauro, M. (ed.) 2014. Global probabilistic assessment of risk from natural hazards for the Global Assessment Report 2013 (GAR13). International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction10(B): 403-502.

GNCSODR 2015. Views From the Frontline: Beyond 2015. Recommendations for a Post-2015 Disaster Risk Reduction Framework to Strengthen the Resilience of Communities to All Hazards. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Teddington, UK, 12 pp.

Mechler, R., L.M. Bouwer, T. Schinko, S. Surminski and J-A. Linnerooth-Bayer (eds) 2019. Loss and Damagefrom Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options. Springer Open, Cham, Switzerland, 557 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 25 pp.

UNDRR 2019a. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2019. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 472 pp.

UNDRR 2019b. GAR Distilled. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 26 pp.

Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon and I. Davis and 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters(2nd edition). Routledge, London, 496 pp.