Jan 11 2017

Children of Katrina

Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

 Children who are the victims of natural disasters may be more resilient than many people assume.

 Children of Katrina _9781477303894


by Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek Children of Katrina, University of Texas Press, 2015, 321 pp.

When disasters strike, children, the elderly and women endure the worst. Children suffer the most, but in silence. Their lived experience goes unaccounted for. It is often explained by adults, parents and caregivers, while children are rarely given a chance to speak for themselves. This scholarly and sociological inattention led Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, seen by some as leaders of the new generation of disaster studies scholars, to pursue a new path in their quest to help child victims of Hurricane Katrina find their own voice. They wanted to give the children a chance to recount their own experiences.

Their methodically plotted, meticulously detailed and aptly named study Children of Katrina was seven years in the making. It captures the magnitude of the catastrophe that displaced 372,000 children. It features the life-histories of 7 children selected from the 650 that Fothergill and Peek studied. These children’s memories of the traumatic event shine a burst of light on their varying paths to recovery. The authors name several pathways: Declining Trajectory, Equilibrium Trajectory and Fluctuating Trajectory. Decliners did not fare well. Those in equilibrium found a balance in life. Those who fluctuated swung between recovery and relapse. In all of the identified trajectories, the accessibility of social and material resources was central to those children who failed to recover, recovered or modulated between recovery and relapse.

Drawing on their findings, Fothergill and Peek challenge three myths that still abound in disaster studies: (i) children are helpless victims, (ii) children are resilient and bounce back from disasters and (iii) disasters are equal opportunity events. On the contrary, the reality of recovery is too tangled to be captured in these oversimplified truths. They paint in bold colors in the hope that experts, planners and scholars will reassess their beliefs. The authors unearth key sociological variables (social institutions, family, friends and support networks, to name the most prominent) that account for the vulnerability or resilience of the children who survived Katrina.

Children of Katrina breaks new ground in the field of disaster research and scholarship. Fothergill and Peek’s approach might be termed “Pediaster,” that is, children’s traumatic experience of disasters. The authors’ compassion is evident. The cover page of Children of Katrina features the art of 10-year-old Joseph, one of their seven informants. Given the frequency and intensity of disasters, Children of Katrina will continue to be read as Children of Disasters, and remain a must-read for disaster scholars.

Jun 29 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts.


Human Security and Natural Disasters, edited by Christopher Hobson, Paul Bacon and Robin Cameron, Routledge, 2014

The United Nations is credited with seeding the intellectual world with the concept of human security in the mid-1990s. The concept has since bloomed into a potential rival to such conventional doctrines as state security. Human security envisions freedom from want and fear. More importantly, it implies security embedded in everyday life. In contrast, state security prioritizes state interests over those of citizens. Hobson et al., in their edited volume, Human Security and Natural Disasters, expand this concept to include environmental security, more specifically “natural disasters.” They contend that natural disasters have been underexplored as an integral part of environmental security.

In arguing that natural disasters have claimed more fatalities than armed conflicts, the editors challenge the long-standing exclusive focus on state security. Additionally, they discuss how natural disasters are not equal in whom they strike and with what impact. Women, children and the elderly, who are already more likely to be destitute, are natural disasters’ choice victims. Natural calamities are not gender-neutral because they impact men and women differently. “Fukushima Fifty,” a reference to the daring band of Japanese men who made a last stand of sorts in the face of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, was the production of socially constructed machismo or “man being the savior” syndrome. Similarly, Lankan women were disproportionate victims of the raging fury of the Indian Ocean during the 2004 tsunami, due to their gendered attire which hampered their flight to safety.

Contributors to this volume do a stupendous job of demonstrating how natural disasters threaten human security by worsening the pre-existing vulnerabilities of their victims. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans made a much faster recovery than the African-American community. The concept of human security engages such vulnerabilities and capabilities. One of the key contributions of this volume is accentuating of the “humanness” of natural disasters, i.e., the human and human institutional behaviors that drive them. Social scientists, including Dr. Freudenburg, reveal the role of the “human hand” in the making “natural disasters,” and thus, question their “naturalness.”

Contributors to this volume are sensitive to these distinctions when they argue that natural disasters are “natural hazards” that humans convert into disasters. Yet their insistence on describing such events as “natural” is puzzling. Climate change is conspicuous by its absence in their theoretical discussion. However, the editors compensate for these omissions (and their troubling conceptualization of disasters) with the originality of the debate, analytical sophistication, the persuasiveness of their arguments, intellectual rigor, and highly readable prose.

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Tarique Niazi, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

All disasters and the responses to them are socially constructed.


Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises: Everyday Politics of Crisis Response, edited by Dorothea Hilhorst, Routledge, 2013

Disasters have long been assumed to be “natural,” and as such, “inevitable.” The founding fathers of Disaster Studies, many of whom were engineers, focused on designing responsive strategies to mitigate the after-effects of disasters. Disaster Studies has since come a long way to recognize the “social construction” of disasters. Environmental sociologists such as Dr. William R. Freudenburg and his colleagues have made major contributions to this way of thinking, arguing for and illustrating how disasters are socially-constituted. From a sociological perspective, “all disasters are man-made,” and hence avoidable.

In this context, not only have Dorothea Hilhorst and her fellow contributors in their edited volume on Disaster, Conflict and Society in Crises furthered this way of thinking, but they have also mapped the ways in which disasters are socially constructed. In particular, they have concentrated on the way that “responses” to disasters or crises are conceived. They deploy discourse analysis to help the reader understand the process of social construction of disaster events and thus uncover the battles that often go on among vested interests. They apply discursive analyses to such disparate events as “terrorist violence” in Sri Lanka and the impact of climate change on Mozambique.

Discursive strategies, they argue, help government and non-government actors construct “disasters” and “response to disasters” in a way that tangibly shapes state aid policies, aid governance, and aid politics. In discursive battles, words grow into fighting deeds that shape the outcomes of responsive strategies. Also, the authors argue that conflicts and disasters are emblematic of a breakdown of social order (i.e., chaos and disruption). They also contend that disruption and chaos create opportunities to reorder and reconstitute the institutions that deal with disaster events (referred to as continuity and discontinuity).

Hilhorst, the volume’s editor, employs the idiom of “everyday politics” as a frame to uncover the political and social dynamics of aid politics. The first part of the book focuses on the social construction of disasters, responses, and the manner in which local government and non-governmental actors securitize (or depoliticize) their strategies. In the second part, local institutions transform a crisis and become transformed by it, while the third speaks to a variety of interventions that are possible in crisis events. The book offers a wealth of theoretical and empirical ideas in accessible language, providing an invaluable contribution to the discipline of Disaster Studies.

Apr 24 2014


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University


Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, by Daniel P. Aldrich, University of Chicago Press, 2012

Over the last decade the topic of resilience in response to natural disasters has moved from the academy to mainstream practice. Dozens of hazard mitigation plans now offer strategies for enhancing municipal resilience in the face of escalating climate impacts. Aldrich’s new book makes a compelling case for social connections as a critical dimension of a community’s ability to recover from disasters. Further, Aldrich also illustrates the methodological hurdles necessary to establish claims of resilience.

Long before Putnam’s Bowling Alone, scholars and practitioners advocated the importance of social capital – the power of human connections in providing resources and services. According to Horwich, while physical capital is the most visible, human capital is the most important economic resource (2000). Aldrich highlights the various mechanisms by which social capital helps to facilitate recovery including deep levels of social capital provide informal insurance and mutual assistance, dense and numerous social ties help solve collective action problems through spontaneous coordination and cooperation, and strong ties create louder collective voices (than individuals can) which can fight for additional resources. On the other hand, perhaps because social capital is difficult to measure and create, it has been ignored in many recovery plans.

Aldrich combines qualitative and quantitative analysis in assessing four disasters that span both time and culture. His findings on the relationship between population growth rates post-disaster (dv) and dominant drivers of recovery (iv) such as magnitude of impact, population density, income levels, foreign aid, and institutional strength, show mixed results. When controlling for these factors, however, social capital, measured in terms of voting rates, tenure, and participation in civic activities, consistently correlates positively with growth.

The main actionable message of Building Resilience is that disaster aid must move beyond restoring physical infrastructure to emphasize investments in the development of social capital. Aldrich reminds us that social capital generates both benefits and negative externalities (for out-group nonmembers). An iconic example of the hindrance that social capital can create is the opposition FEMA faced when it attempted to site temporary trailers post-Katrina. Neighborhoods with high levels of social capital resisted their imposition. In response, Aldrich suggests that decision makers should aim to build, recognize, and support neighborhood ties before, during, and post-disasters. For example, prior to disasters, cities can invest in trust-building interaction among neighborhood groups as well as expand efforts to include previously excluded groups. During recovery, managers can formulate emergency response plans that don’t unintentionally break communities apart. Finally, following a disaster, decision-makers can use the event as a catalyst for building new social capital.

Mar 4 2014

A JOURNEY IN THE FUTURE OF WATER, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly)

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Development Analyst and Columnist, New Delhi, India

Water binds together the past and the future and helps explain our evolution as a species.


A Journey in the Future of Water, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly), I. B. Tauris, 2013, 262 pp.

Marked by huge amounts of waste and competing demands, the supply of water is presumed to be the precursor to a probable third world war.  Situations with respect to water sharing come perilously close to what Mark Twain once said: ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.’ It seems the universal fluid that will shape humanity’s future could be soaked with blood.

Not deterred by threatening changes in the global climate that may accelerate glacial melting and transform water flows in major river basins, Terje Tvedt portrays an optimistic picture of humanity’s water future after traveling through some of the most amazing locations across five continents. With a professional background in geography, history and political science, the author offers multiple perspectives for the reader to choose from. While Tvedt is forthright in saying that ‘howsoever grandiose attempts to manage water may be, water does not allow itself to be completely controlled’, he is equally candid in concluding that ‘qualified technological optimism is the only optimism that endures.’

He organizes his immensely readable narrative on water into three distinct sections: the impact of ‘water blindness’ across countries; the implications of ‘water control’ in contested river basins; and the power of science and technology to usher in a bright ‘water future’. Tvedt avoids taking an ideological position as to whether the glass is half full or half empty, instead leaving it to the reader to make an objective assessment of impending water crises. However the world responds to these imminent crises, water fundamentally binds together the past and the future and points to the continuity of our evolution as a species.

A Journey in the Future of Water suggests that the new age of uncertainty will have a dramatic impact on water landscapes. Not only are water conflicts likely to escalate, but control over water will be in the hands of those possessing technological and economic power. The temptation to use this power in despotic ways is unlikely to disappear. So, we need binding international laws and regulations backed by resource-endowed international institutions to ensure that human and ecological rights to water are met.

Although this book was originally published in Norwegian in 2007, the English translation by Richard Daly is refreshingly original. More than a travelogue, it is an authoritative treatise on water that makes for compelling reading. It is one book that I intend to keep close at hand. I will use it as a ready reckoner of exotic places should an opportunity arise for me to undertake such interesting travels. If I sound envious of Terje Tvedt, so be it. He has helped me to learn a great deal about water issues.


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