Do you know how many legs a fish or a chicken has? This is not a question to trick you, to check how good you are at maths, nor to test your cooking knowledge. As part of the 365 disasters campaign, we wanted to raise with you the question of what is a disaster and how it is measured, and that is when we learnt that the number of legs of a hen matter.
The European Commission’s (EC) Guidance for Recording and Sharing Disaster Damage and Loss Data published by the Joint Research Centre include as an indicator of damage - “the number of 4-legged animals lost, regardless of the type of event”, excluding any other kinds of animals.
In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than a million chickens and half a million ducks1. If you were one of those unlucky farmers who lost their 2-legged chickens in the cyclone, your loss was not counted in some global databases, based on this EC guidance. If any fish farms were destroyed by Nargis, they were not recorded either. Does this mean that if a typhoon only destroys fish farms that it would not count as a disaster in the eyes of the EC, as no ‘losses’ were recorded? I imagine you will agree with me that losing your livelihood is a disaster from the farmers’ point of view.
There are many published definitions of disasters, all different in some way or another. In 2004 Kelman and Pooley put together a list of 41 definitions of disasters from a wide range of sources.
“People have tried to objectively define what disasters are for international databases, usually with criteria around the number of people killed or affected”, says Marcus Oxley, Executive Director of GNDR, “but there are a number of small scaled disasters that don’t reach that number of deaths [as set by international database criteria], yet for the local community are a disaster”. He follows “One of my concerns is that these international databases, usually compiled by national government loss databases, under record a lot of small scale disasters. I would like to see the bar lowered as to how these databases define disasters”.
Because defining disasters and measuring their impacts is a subjective effort, it is vital to remember that, at the end of the day, and beyond all the multiple definitions, “people are in the position to judge whether they are experiencing an exception to what is their normal life”, says Marcus.
The difficulty of defining disasters increases when we talk about the blurred line between large and small scale disasters, and between acute or chronic events. Terry Gibson, GNDR Operations Director, recalls the time when he was working in Benin on the first Views from the Frontline programme: “I was taken to meet communities in Cocotomey, and I asked about the kind of disasters they face. They talked about seasonal heavy rains that they see every year, that cause floods due to poor drainage. They told me they have to shut the dispensary, the markets and schools. They can’t access healthcare and education and it is difficult for them to carry on trading. And I thought, this is an everyday disaster: it’s not something that gets in the news and they have limited ability to do anything about it.”
Terry adds “what we are investigating in Frontline is what people perceive as the things that create shocks and stresses and impact their lives and livelihoods which they have limited ability to control. That is my definition of an everyday disaster”. In fact, says Terry, “local communities in South America tend to discount intensive disasters when discussing the threats they face” based on the results of the Frontline pilot.
Others instead describe these everyday disasters as chronic development failures, rather than disasters at all, but “people do describe things in different ways, and they are simply mutually complementary – there isn’t just one definition of disaster”, says Terry.
Jargon and language add to the complexity of the definition of disasters: “When designing Frontline as a process to explore the disasters communities face, we decided not to use the word ‘disaster’ as it creates a frame of reference. People have perceptions of what constitutes a disaster. So we used the term ‘threat’ instead.” says Terry.
So are there any basic fundamental characteristics shared by all definitions of disasters? Marcus believes that there are “a number of key elements that make up a disaster. First, he says, a disaster “is not the norm; it’s something different from the normal every day events. Other criteria are that it has to result in losses: social, economic or environmental; it must exceed the usual coping capacities of the scale of unit that we’re discussing – whether it be country or community”; and “it must be acute rather than chronic, causing severe disruption”.
One contentious element, part of many definitions, is when people say that the event has to be ‘extreme’ or ‘serious’. According to Terry “extreme is relative and it also sits within your specific definition of resilience. If your definition of resilience is survival, then you could define many of these communities coping with these small scale disasters as resilient. But, in my opinion, it’s about more than survival. If you define resilience as about being able to adapt and advance in spite of shocks and these community members are seeing their livelihoods held back, then that is not resilience.”
When asked if he would find useful to have a universal definition for disasters, Terry disagrees “The local is not the only view, but it is an important one”, because “different pictures of disasters have different utilities, and all together they are contributions to a multi-perspective understanding of resilience.”
The 365 disasters campaign is reporting one disaster every day for a year. Because of this, we wanted to debate with you about what is a disaster, and what is not. So if you want to comment, make suggestions or raise questions, join this GNDR Facebook group to share your thoughts. At least I hope that you and I agree on the number of legs that chickens have, and that counting your chickens, after they hatch, is important.
1 Reed, Sheila, Joanna Hayter, Maung Mar, Kay Mar San, and Tin Sin. 2009. Joint Appraisal of the IASC Response to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. Draft report. Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC).