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Disaster Governance: Analyzing inconvenient realities and chances for resilience and sustainability

English summary


Disaster governance

Analyzing inconvenient realities and chances for resilience and sustainability


A social-ecological systems approach to disaster governance


In many places in the world, people are increasingly exposed to disasters.  A few recent disasters illustrate the global magnitude of the problem: the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, typhoon Hajyan in the Philippines in 2013, hurricane Irma in the Caribbean in 2017, the earthquakes in Nepal in 2015, the volcano eruption in Guatemala in 2018 and the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia in 2018. Disasters such as these lead to a disruption of societies, often cause much damage, lead to loss of lives and pose many challenges for recovery. To make things even worse, disasters are expected to increase in frequency and duration, and the causes of disasters are becoming increasingly diverse and complex. Mainly due to climate change, disasters triggered by extreme natural hazards, such as hurricanes and bushfires, will increasingly strike societies. But also human-induced disasters, such as technological disasters and ecological harms produced by an unsustainable use and exploitation of natural resources, are repeatedly threatening societies.


Although these different kinds of disasters seem rather distinct, a shared characteristic of most of them is that they result from the interactions between people and their natural environment. To illustrate, natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, are directly caused by the forces of nature. Yet, human or social factors, such as the socio-economic vulnerability of communities and the often disorganized governance of disasters, can also be blamed for influencing and exacerbating the impact of disasters. In this regard, the understanding has been growing that disasters are created by humans – or: ‘socially created’ – instead of ‘acts of God or nature’. In parallel, a shift can be observed in disaster studies. Similar to the shift in governance debates from governing to governance, disaster studies show a development from disaster management to disaster governance. This implies a shift from top-down steering by central governments and a focus on short-term solutions and emergency management, towards the multi-actor sharing of governance roles and longer-term post-disaster transitions. This PhD research focuses on the governance of disasters, because governance can be part of both the cause and solution of disasters. Moreover, it delves into those disasters that occur within and manifest the interface between human actions and natural processes. The research builds on a social-ecological systems perspective to grasp in an integral way the different processes, realities and relevant scales of interaction between natural and social processes shaping societies.


Despite the destructive character of disasters, many post-disaster societies express the wish to ‘rebuild-back-better’. From this perspective, post-disaster societies often show many bottom-up initiatives to capitalize the momentum for recovering towards a better system. As such, the aftermath of a disaster provides an opportunity to develop towards more resilient and sustainable societies. Nevertheless, post-disaster learning processes rarely result in widespread improvements of governance systems and the urge to go ‘back to normal’ is often privileged at the expense of the improvement of governance systems to better deal with the dynamics and complexities posed by nature and humans. Why do societies hardly learn from disasters? What explains the societal frustration between different groups of actors in society, often leading to distrust between public, private and civil society institutions? And how can adequate governance systems be created for facilitating post-disaster recovery processes and transitions towards enhanced societal resilience and sustainability? This research contributes to the question what the role is of governance in steering transitions towards more resilient and sustainable social-ecological systems in the face of disasters. It aims to enrich the understanding of disasters and to provide insights in the role of governance and its interaction with natural and socio-institutional processes.


A qualitative case-study research of three disasters


Based on a qualitative international case-study research of three places in the face of disasters, this research analyzes the ways in which governance can stimulate and enable post-disaster transitions. Based on 89 in-depth interviews, participant observation and document analysis in the three different cases, insights are obtained that contribute to a better understanding of disaster governance.


First, the case-study of Christchurch, New Zealand, after the earthquakes in 2011 and 2012 is presented in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 highlights the value of using a social-ecological systems perspective to better understand disasters and their governance. Moreover, the case-study of Christchurch shows that disasters impact societies in a non-homogeneous way, although the governance response is often based on a homogeneous approach. As a consequence, mismatches can be observed between the needs and wishes of impacted people and the focus of the government. Chapter 3 analyzes an essential condition for resilience: learning. In the aftermath of the earthquakes in Christchurch, there were many bottom-up initiatives by civil society organizations to use the disaster as an opportunity to ‘build-back-better’, nurturing the ground for learning processes. Signs of post-disaster learning could also be observed amongst public and private institutions. However, these learning processes did not lead to widespread societal learning, adaptation and transformation, which hindered the resilience ambition of the city. In fact, learning stayed rather isolated and not bridged between different levels of the multi-level governance system.


Second, the case-study of Chiloé, Chile, in the face of the Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) disaster is studied in chapter 4. Chiloé, an island in southern Chile, which locates a large industry of salmon production, was impacted by the virus Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in 2007. The ISA disaster disrupted the local society and caused severe social, economic and environmental problems. The case-study of Chiloé analyses how resilience of some subsystems can be so rigid and inflexible that it hinders the resilience of other parts and the sustainability of wider systems. As such, this chapter explores the role of governance in interaction with socio-natural processes and found that the strong biotechnological resilience of the salmon industry, on the one hand, hinders changes aiming for resilience of the wider system, on the other hand.


Third, chapter 5 presents the case-study of the earthquakes caused by gas extraction in the province of Groningen, the Netherlands. This case-study embodies the social creation of disasters in a very direct way by exploring social processes that lead to a widespread human-induced disaster. Like the first two case-studies, this case highlights the value of a social-ecological systems perspective for understanding the socio-economic vulnerabilities, political-institutional factors, technological and natural dimensions that in their combination lead to the earthquakes and related problems. The case-study focuses on governance processes that aim to increase societal resilience and sustainability, but in reality seem to hinder these ambitions due to the too rigid entanglement of public-private institutional structures, the nature of the disaster and societal distrust.


Chapter 6 discusses the findings of the three cases in an integral way through the lenses of multi-level governance for encouraging post-disaster transitions. Despite the frustration and decreasing trust amongst many actors in society, various socially innovative governance practices and processes can be observed in all three cases. Yet, the lack of inclusive planning, risk awareness, risk acceptance and disaster politics seem to hinder the institutional embedding of learning processes to allow wider societal transitions.


This PhD research shows that disasters have the power to uncover inconvenient realities, on the one hand. These realities often contribute to the unfolding of the disaster in the first place. On the other hand, disasters also have the power to trigger chances for resilience and sustainability. However, post-disaster learning processes do only rarely lead to broad societal transitions. Only when resilience refers to learning, adaptation and transformation, and encourages in an integral way the social, economic, and natural pillars of sustainability, post-disaster transitions towards enhanced resilience and sustainability can be enabled.


The heterogeneity of disasters


Disasters have the potential to shake societies and their governance systems not only temporarily, but often for years afterwards as well. It is therefore highly important to create governance processes that are both adequate to meet the needs of society in the first phases of emergency response and to also facilitate multi-actor decision-making processes about longer-term shared ambitions. Recovery processes after disasters, nevertheless, can often be characterized by frustration and a growing distrust amongst different actors in society. People often call for a more socially inclusive process as they want to have their say about the future of their places, want to get recognition for the problems they face and tend to organize themselves in all sorts of initiatives. However, people often feel discouraged in their participatory wishes by the governance approaches pursued by governments and/or private institutions.


These diverging views in post-disaster contexts can be explained by the heterogeneity of disasters, resulting in a variety of challenges that disasters pose to societies. The heterogeneity of disasters refers to both the causes and consequences of disasters. From the perspective of the social creation of disasters, a natural hazard does not lead to a disaster per se, but when it intersects in a negative way with societal characteristics, a disaster is born. As such, there are different causes and in particular mixes of causes that result in disasters. In the case of Groningen, the earthquakes are not caused by natural processes, but by gas extraction conducted by humans. Moreover, the governance response to deal with the consequences of the gas extraction exacerbates the problem. The ISA disaster in Chiloé is also a specific example of the combination of natural and social processes through which the disaster is caused. The ISA virus was able to spread very rapidly and towards a big geographical area mainly due to an unsustainable exploitation of the ecosystem, lax regulation and low local governmental power and responsibility. Consequently, there were hardly possibilities to control the industry and collaboratively discuss about sustainable solutions for the industry, local society and environment.


As to the consequences of disasters, in the case of Christchurch, there are different needs and wishes related to different temporal stages and geographical areas. To be concrete, some people in badly affected neighborhoods still lived in emergency situations, whereas others already regained their normal life. A disaster response by the government focusing on the future of the city center meant a mismatch with the realities of people that still lived in disaster situations. In the case of Groningen, people are not only differently affected in a physical way by the earthquakes, but also perceive the impact of the problems caused by gas extraction in a different way. Consequently, homogenous governance approaches for post-disaster recovery for all temporal stages and geographical areas are inadequate. Instead, a hybrid, multi-level and more flexible governance constellation would be more suited to capture the plurality of post-disaster needs, wishes and realities.


Disaster governance: multi-level, hybrid and political


In this PhD research, governance was analyzed by zooming in into the level of institutions to capture the roles of different public, private and civil society actors and mixes between them. All three case-studies emphasize the importance of including the local level and social engagement in disaster (recovery) processes. The case of Christchurch shows that people want to participate in the reconstruction of their city. In Chiloé, the local government, NGOs and local communities claimed enhanced spaces of participation during the post-ISA period, as they have knowledge about the salmon farming situation which they want to share to improve the governance systems alongside the biotechnological upgrades. In the case of Groningen, people wanted to be engaged in the governance processes in order to have a say in the damage assessment of properties, policies for the future of the region and decision-making about the gas extraction. Moreover, a growing sentiment of distrust in the government only strengthens the call for participation.


However, the uneven impact of the disasters made homogeneous governance responses pursued by the governments inappropriate. This applies as well to ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to include public participation in post-disaster governance. People in some situations might ask for a leading role of the government, whereas other situations might call for collaboration. Post-disaster governance should, therefore, be hybrid and able to take on flexible forms according to specific time and place needs. The maturation hybrid governance can therefore help to design tailored, time- and place-specific governance systems aiming for enhanced resilience and sustainability.


Another important dimension of disaster governance is politics. Disaster politics influence the framing of disasters, the recognition of the scope of the problems, and debates around who can be held responsible for a disaster. In addition, whether a situation is recognized and officially labelled as a disaster (or not) is a highly political decision. Certain actors might have an interest in not labelling a situation as a disaster. For instance, the earthquakes in Groningen are not generally classified as a disaster. This is mainly due to the interminglement between public and private interests regarding the gas extraction. The rigid endurance of the entangled institutional set-up seems to block a transition towards an improved governance system that can seriously deal with the problems. Moreover, when the power of governments is questioned and when they are blamed for intermingling economic and corporate interests with the interests for the safety of the population, situations of distrust are difficult to avoid. All three cases of Christchurch, Chiloé and Groningen manifest the relationship between trust, politics and public participation. In countries such as New Zealand and the Netherlands, where trust in public institutions is relatively high, it is a huge risk and hard endeavor to regain trust in governance once it is lost.


Governance can, therefore, be regarded as a double-edged sword: it can be a means to facilitate multi-level interactions and post-disaster transitions towards more resilient and sustainable societies. Yet, governance mismatches and mistakes in the institutional set-up can also be part of the cause and/or factors exacerbating a disaster.


Post-disaster transitions towards resilience and sustainability


Despite the destructive impact of disasters, places affected by a disaster are often supposed to be rebuilt in a more resilient and sustainable way. One important aspect of resilience is learning and hence post-disaster learning is crucial. Yet, many societies are repeatedly overwhelmed by disasters. The cases studied in this research show various reasons that explain why post-disaster learning processes do not necessarily lead towards societal and systemic learning, which is highly needed to facilitate adaptation and transformation towards enhanced resilience and sustainability.


First, individual (groups of) actors can learn, but when these learning processes stay isolated and are not linked, systemic learning can be hindered. The case of Christchurch shows that public, private and civil society institutions did learn through all sorts of innovative post-disaster processes and activities. These initiatives range from special-purpose state institutions, to civil society initiatives to enable public participation in recovery processes. For instance, there were many bottom-up initiatives to keep people attached to the city and to experiment with sustainable practices. Also, the government launched a big public participation project as part of the recovery process. As such, ‘learning by doing’ was occurring. However, the learning experiences were not bridged and scaled-up towards wider governance improvements. Consequently, better linking and synergising learning processes amongst different levels is essential for enhancing resilience in post-disaster societies.


Second, resilience of some subsystems of society might hinder the resilience and sustainability of the wider societal system. In the case of Chiloé, the approach pursued by the government and salmon industry to solve the problems caused by the ISA disaster was dominated by a biotechnological discourse. The solutions to stop the spreading of the virus and other diseases were restricted to chemicals, antibiotics and regulations for the salmon production, whereas the local government and population asked, for instance, for a devolution of government mandates to the lower levels. As such, biotechnological solutions were implemented to solve a much wider societal problem. Consequently, it can be argued that the strong biotechnological resilience of the industry hindered changes aiming for resilience of the wider system. The contradicting interests of different actors limited the installment of an institutional system to support wider societal transitions. Moreover, when resilience of some subsystems stays limited to sectoral adaptation and becomes rigid and inflexible, it can hinder transformation and the sustainability of the wider system and its governance. Resilience, therefore, needs to embrace the three concepts of learning, adaptation and transformation in order to contribute to sustainability.


Third, post-disaster learning and (socially) innovative governance practices might create a fertile ground from which transitions can grow, but it often proves difficult to capture and use the post-disaster momentum to embed the experiences into institutional structures. The realities that disasters can uncover might be inconvenient for actors with an interest in the status quo. Prevalent governance systems in society might be examples of these realities and can be part of the reason why a hazard grew into a disaster in the first place. Consequently, the institutional system needs to be able and suited to embed the post-disaster learning processes. Chapter 1 and 6 present a classification of the elements in society that can lead to a disaster. This classification shows that having well-developed institutions is not necessarily enough to facilitate transitions, if these institutions, technical expertise and preparedness are not the most optimal for a specific kind of disaster. In addition, there can be a lot of technical expertise about a certain type of disaster in a particular area, but when a disaster hits another area, it is not that straightforward that the expertise is also present in this area. These aspects make that certain institutions can in fact contribute to the growth of a disaster, and thus need to transform to become adequate for an appropriate governance response. It is therefore highly important to create a governance system that has the ability to formally institutionalize (local) initiatives, governance processes and socially innovative practices.


In sum, disasters can be a trigger for transitions towards enhanced resilience and sustainability, but the three processes above explain why post-disaster learning is often hindered instead of enabled. An integral understanding of disasters and governance can allow multi-level linkages and bridges between actors in different areas and from different disciplines, that are needed to enable societies to use disasters as a trigger to ‘build forward’ after a disaster.


Policy recommendations


In the conclusions of this thesis, policy recommendations are presented for disaster governance. In sum, these are:

1. Acknowledge the differences in impact of a disaster for different places and groups, and tailor governance responses to the more specific needs and wishes. This can mean to have a general view on disaster governance that applies to the overall disaster situation, which needs to be translated into more specific strategies tailored to particular places and/or people.

2. Designate a situation as a crisis or disaster in a combined bottom-up and top-down way. This more adequate designation process does more justice to an acknowledgement of the perceptions, realities and problems of people, and encourages the design of governance systems in which governance roles are shared between a plurality of actors.

3. Facilitate and enable the linking and bridging of learning experiences between different levels, through for instance informal and formal participatory meetings between (central) governments, businesses and local people. Also, encourage learning from other cases through international collaboration and policy-making.

4. Approach disasters in a multidisciplinary way to include all aspects of disasters in disaster governance. Furthermore, enable integral besides domain-specific collaboration, as well as create a bridge between science and policy.

5. Foster and use the concepts of resilience and sustainability as guiding compasses in their entireness. When transitions are not fully resilient or sustainable, these ambitions might rather contradict instead of complement each other.


Ultimately, four forms of governance can be distinguished from the findings of this research: control, coordination, cooperation and collaboration. These forms relate to both the size of the role of different actors and to the kind of role. Control refers to low freedom for the private sector and civil society and much power to the state to decide on governance processes and actions. Collaboration entails working together and sharing responsibilities between the state, the private sector and the civil society. Cooperation means that the state has a leading role, but cooperates with the private sector and civil society. Finally, coordination refers to a style of governance in which the state coordinates between, and perhaps facilitates, the activities and roles of other state actors, the private sector or the civil society. Different people, geographical areas and time phases ask for different and hybrid forms of governance. Applying this categorization to the governance of disasters would aid in gaining a better understanding of disasters and for creating disaster governance systems to better deal with them.


Date:1 Oct 2016 →  28 Mar 2019
Keywords:sustainability, social-ecological systems, disasters, earthquakes, governance, resilience
Disciplines:Economic geography, Human geography, Recreation, leisure and tourism geography, Urban and regional geography, Other social and economic geography, Urban and regional design, development and planning, Geomatic engineering, Other social sciences
Project type:PhD project