World Disasters Report 2014: Culture and Risk

This year’s World Disasters Report focuses on culture. Culture is an important aspect of disaster management as it affects people’s world view and their decisions. This has implications for disaster risk reduction, not only for less developed countries, but also for more developed countries, particularly as climate change impacts are felt. Culture is something we cannot ignore and need to understand and work with if we are to be effective. The IFRC who published the report have put together a fantastic video explaining the report, shown below, which I highly recommend you watch. What follows are my main impressions and information taken from the report.

Culture benefits

There are many examples of where culture can help in disaster situations. Strong cultural bonds can provide a support network, comfort, sources of communication, and shared information and resources before and after a disaster. Cultural beliefs can help people explain why disasters occur: whether this is because of a higher power punishing the unfaithful, or an unfeeling higher power unknowingly causing damage. Examples of this are the 1692 earthquake that flattened Port Royal, Jamaica, which was seen as punishment for the bad behaviour there; and Namazu, the Japanese myth that a giant catfish lives beneath the islands of Japan, and thrashes about when restless, causing earthquakes. Providing a reasoning behind such devastating events can help people to mentally cope with the “why?” behind disasters.


Namazu, the giant catfish beneath Japan who causes earthquakes

Often, cultural tales provide lessons which are passed on through the generations to keep people safe. An example of this is the Moken, “sea people”, community in Myanmar and Thailand. The number of casualties in this culture demographic caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was very low when compared to other coastal communities. Their survival is attributed to their “legend of the seven waves”, which teaches them to run to the hills if water recedes on the shoreline.

Places of worship can become sanctuaries during a disaster (they are typically better built and safer) and a centre for gathering and providing support after the disaster. They can provide a platform for risk education and a route for delivering information and resources into communities. Working alongside these cultural hubs rather than in opposition will have much more successful outcomes in disaster risk reduction.

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Mosque still standing after Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004

Clash of culture

However, there are times with culture comes into conflict with disasters, with unfortunate results. Culture affects how people make decisions. Home location choices are typically made based on daily needs, such as distance to life sources (fishing, farming, urban workers), which could place people in areas unsafe and at risk from natural hazards. Examples of this are global: fishermen living on the coast in tsunami risk zones in the Pacific, building on unstable steep slopes susceptible to landsliding in La Paz because of access to work. The choice of location increases their vulnerability, and when a hazard hits, disaster typically ensues.

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Buildings precariously located on unstable hillslopes in La Paz

This can often be a problem in resistance to evacuation. Many people decide not to evacuate in the face of an oncoming disaster because the risk of leaving has more immediate impacts which they have more familiarity with, such as being unable to provide for their family, or a higher risk from looters taking limited possessions. Compared to the potential (seemingly unlikely) risk of death or injury if they stay, which they may have little experience with (particularly if hazards are rare on a human timeline in the region), people often choose not to evacuate.

Building back after a disaster has affected a community is also a source of conflict. Despite now having first-hand experience of the danger of, say, living on the coast to tsunamis, people will often wish to build back where they were living originally. Again, this is because they need and want to be near the sources, such as the ocean, for their livelihoods.

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Rebuilding back after Typhoon Haiyan

Culture can also clash with efforts to reduce disaster risk by attitudes of fatalism – “what will be will be”. This attitude is prominent in many cultures worldwide. The perception that nothing can be done makes people resistant to making changes to try to reduce the effect of something they see as natural and inevitable. An simple example of this is provided in the World Disasters Report of wearing a seat-belt. In the UK, this is a requirement of the law and it is highly unusual for someone not to wear a seat-belt. In other countries, it is still the law to wear one whilst driving, however, some people withing certain cultures resist wearing a seat-belt because they believe if they crash, it’s going to happen anyway, and so why bother wearing a seat-belt?

Lessons to move forward

From the World Disasters Report, we can see there are benefits to be gained from and clashes that people working in disaster management experience when coming into contact with certain cultures. One important thing I think to take away, is that we can use the benefits of cultural behaviours to aid our efforts, working with and alongside resident community cultures. It is also important to recognise that certain cultural behaviours will conflict with our efforts. The way around this is not to strive harder to persuade that we are “right”. There are many studies that show that people do not change their beviour based on information or knowledge. It is much more complex than that, rooted in our culture and belief structures, which determine what we value and how we make decisions.

There is a often a clear clash of priorities between disaster risk reduction agents and those trying to maintain a livelihood and survive. The first step to be able to develop this relationship and reduce the clash is to first understand the other’s point of view and values, not with the aim to change their minds, but with the aim to work with them to obtain a better outcome (less risk from disasters, reduced vulnerability etc), which benefits all parties. Unfortunately, there is a lack of studies, methods, and advice on how to proceed when beliefs are responsible for increasing vulnerability.

Perhaps the language and terminology we use needs to change: the narrative of making decisions based on a future potential hazards conflicts with daily efforts to survive. Would it be better to change the narrative to making decisions which will benefit livelihoods, reduce vulnerability, and reduce poverty, which also happen to coincide with disaster risk reduction? Let’s start talking about certain benefits that will matter to people at risk on a personal, daily basis, rather than a potential “less bad” situation when a disaster “might” strike in the future.


Schoolchildren planting mangrove seedlings to help mitigate the impact of climate change:

these will also provide environments for fish to live in, boosting the ecosystem,

and providing more resources for local fishermen’s livlihoods