Do natural disasters discriminate based on socioeconomic status and gender? 

As social beings, humans can empathize and sympathize with those who face great difficulties. Whether or not this urge to help others is simply a diabolical plot by our genes to ensure that they are passed on and our species continues, there is no denying the pain that we feel and the compassion in our responses when we see bodies strewn across a beach in Tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, bodies crushed under the rubble in earthquake devastated Haiti, or houses underwater in flooded Pakistan. With human induced climate change contributing to the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, we can continue to expect more destruction, devastation, and death. However, experts are still undecided on the classification of natural disasters. What is clear is that the damage will disproportionately affect less developed nations, less fortunate populations in richer countries, and more countries with a history of political and civil unrest. The increased frequency of natural disasters will effectively render the coping mechanisms of the already suffering individuals useless. This will further increase the despair and helplessness in these populations and ultimately leave them more susceptible to exploitation and human trafficking. In turn, this would lead to the increased division between the wealthy and the poor reinforce gender discrimination, and ultimately vast amounts of people would be subject to domestic, sexual, and psychological abuse- it’s a cycle of devastation.

The United Nations (UN) has defined natural disasters as “the consequences of events triggered by natural hazards that overwhelm local response capacity and seriously affect the social and economic development of a region”. Therefore, while a region may be afflicted with particularly inclement weather, if the local response is sufficient to address the needs of the population, then it is not a natural disaster. As a result, it becomes particularly difficult to determine how “natural” a natural disaster is. That is, to what degree could preventative action and pre-disaster planning mitigate the damage inflicted by the event? This was clearly demonstrated when in 2008, Haiti and Cuba were faced with a barrage of 4 hurricanes. While 800 Haitians lost their lives, Cuba was relatively unscathed, reporting only 4 deaths . While vast numbers of people may die due to acts of nature, our ability to identify whether these events were certainly freak acts of nature or the result of government negligence is impaired.

Aerial view of the devastation in Port de Paix (Haiti). Photo by Marion Doss.

It is commonly believed that Mother Nature does not discriminate when she goes on a rampage, brutally killing people of all faiths, colours, and socioeconomic status, the last factor does seem to matter. In a 2016 UN analysis of 7000 natural disasters wherein 1.35 million individuals had died, it was found that 90% of the victims were from countries categorized as low and middle- income nations . Natural disasters cause pain, suffering, and destruction wherever they go, but the price paid is not always equal. While richer countries suffer economic losses, poorer countries pay with their lives. This disparity is clearly demonstrated when we flip through the history books to Armenia in December 1988. At the time, Armenia, a former Soviet state, was hit by one of its largest natural disasters in its history in the form of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. Once the rubble had settled, 55,000 Armenians were killed and 500,000 were left homeless and internally displaced . Less than a year later, earthquake magnet San Francisco was hit by 7.1 magnitude earthquake in October of 1989 . Even though the earthquake was stronger, only 62 people were killed and 12,000 were left homeless. While it may be tempting to make the generalization that the disparity is only between rich and poorer countries, poor and marginalized individuals also bear the brunt of the damage of natural disasters within countries, as it was seen in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. With most its population living in poverty, many had no choice but to take up residence in dreadfully built slums and shantytowns without proper foundations . When push came to shove, the shoddily built structures gave way to the power of the earthquake and buried their inhabitants under layers of scrap metal and mud bricks.

Earthquake aftermath in Haiti, 2010. Photo by Vicente Raimundo.

As demonstrated by the disparity between the rich and the poor, natural disasters are not completely blind in whom they effect. In fact, they are also able to distinguish by gender as well. Researchers at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex found in a survey of 141 countries that natural disasters have been found to disproportionately affect more women than men and aggravate existing gender inequalities and pre-existing vulnerabilities . Bound by social and cultural traditions, women are incapacitated in their ability to escape or mitigate the damage of a natural disaster. Some studies have even shown women to be 14 times more likely to die as compared to men, boys, and even young girls when a disaster strikes . Once the rubble had settled after the Indian state of Maharashtra was hit with an earthquake, most of the bodies recovered were those of dutiful housewives who had adhered to cultural standards while their husbands worked the fields . Even more striking is the finding that during the 1991 cyclones that ripped through Bangladesh, many women and children died in their homes as they waited for their husbands to come home to make the decision to evacuate. In an Oxfam study, it was found that 4 times as many women died during the Indian ocean tsunamis due to their inability to swim or climb trees as they were not culturally required to learn such skills . Due to their circumstances, poorer women tend to find themselves less equipped, not involved in the planning process in an emergency situation, and are less knowledgeable about natural disasters.

The loss of family members and loved ones is but one of the grueling side effects of natural disasters. Generally, those who are impoverished are already conditioned to cope with harsh circumstances, only to find themselves driven to a state of hopelessness after a natural disaster. As a result, many families resort to marrying off their daughters in an effort to reduce the burden on the family, thrusting them into a forced marriage arrangement . Children separated from their families are often lured by the promise of being reunited with their families, yet, they often find themselves in forced manual labour, as domestic unpaid servants, or in brothels enthralled in the sex trafficking industry. However, it is important to note that this does not occur in all countries where natural disasters occur. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has noted that this generally occurs in countries with a history of social or civil conflict. Thus, poorer, less stable countries are much more vulnerable. This was seen by the lack of trafficking reports in the aftermath of the 2012 tsunami that battered Japan.

Tsunami aftermath in Japan. Photo by Yisris.

Finally, while much is being done to combat the disparity in outcomes of natural disasters, things will have to get worse before they get better. Countries have started to tackle poverty, a major factor in this natural disaster disparity, with world leaders promising to end poverty by 2030. Those efforts seem to be making some headway as the World Bank announced in 2016 that the number of people living in extreme poverty had fallen by 100 million and now stands at 767 million in 2013 . However, the elephant in the room is the effect of climate change. With the occurrence of natural disasters doubling in the last two decades, our efforts could be diminished if this is not addressed. While rich countries will be affected, poorer countries will be the ones who pay the greater price. When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, 138,000 people lost their lives. However, when the Cyclone Yasi hit Queensland, Australia in 2010 at full strength, fortunately, no lives were lost .

Undoubtedly, damage afflicted by natural disasters and socioeconomic status are highly intertwined, as statistics have demonstrated time and time again. Though natural disasters themselves cannot be prevented on a grand scale, we can work towards reversing the effects of climate change and lessening the severity and frequency of these natural calamities. After all, it is the actions of First World countries that result in much of the environmental and social unrest in Third World nations. This gives even more weight to the saying that “the globe is a village” – if so, it’s time the villagers unite and work towards making the impossible (eradication of climate change and poverty), possible.

By Hussein El Khechen 

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.