Disasters From Above: When Water And Power Kill

Keywords: Hydrological hazard, power, social processes

We are facing an increasing global threat from natural and man-made disasters in which water brings devastation to rural as well as urban communities, recurring seasonally or when extraordinary events hit, in developing and developed countries. While the hypothetical line separating natural and man-made disasters becomes increasingly thinner and disasters reveal to ultimately be complex social processes, there is a need for a broader dialogue between academics and disaster management experts. The title of this panel calls attention to several dimensions that constitute meanings of hydrological hazards/water disasters as coming from above. Physically: in the form of monsoon rains, storms leading to floods, inundations and mudslides, dams’ overtopping or collapses, towering tsunamis. Metaphorically: in the form of an agency that is perceived as pertaining to specific forms of power, such as the result of poor water management, corruption, or direct technical responsibility (as in several dam-related disasters). Teleologically: in the form of local tales or popular culture interpretations that propose a final cause (human, impersonal or superhuman) in relation to disaster events.

The panel intends to foster a novel critical insight on practices, lived worlds, and underlying worldviews that govern the conceptualisation of disaster at the grassroots level, how the event and following recovery process are experienced, managed and narrated by members of the local communities and professionals, and how they are portrayed in popular culture. Disasters radicalise and problematize the opposition between nature and culture, the relation between the ideological and the material, calling into question the cosmological order. They also impact the identity of local communities, affected by rescue, evacuation, resettlement, material and personal loss, often intensifying pre-existing differences (for example socio-economic, ethnic, and religious) and highlighting individuals and groups’ marginal status in relation to external actors (aid agencies, governments, economic powers).

The panel welcomes contributions from social and forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, development and social workers, geographers, geologists, historians, and disaster managers who carry out research and operate in disaster zones. Papers will address contemporary as well as past hydrological hazards to explore how lessons can be learnt engaging a historically deep approach, rather than privileging a focus on emergency.

Panel chair

Claudia Merli

Cultural and medical anthropologist. She carried out fieldwork research during and in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in southern Thailand. From 2015 to 2017 she was responsible for the qualitative study of comparative respiratory protection from volcanic ash for the Health Interventions in Volcanic Eruptions (HIVE) consortium and has carried out fieldwork in Japan, at Sakurajima volcano in 2016. She is leading an interdisciplinary team researching the long-term social processes of 1963 Vajont dam disaster, Italy.  E-mail claudia.merli@durham.ac.uk (until 31 October 2017) and claudia.merli@antro.uu.se