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Sökefeld, Martin (2012): Exploring the Link between Natural Disasters and Politics: Case Studies of Pakistan and Peru. In: Scrutiny, Vol. 5/6: pp. 1-32


This paper explores the link between “natural“ disasters and politics. It argues that due to its broader perspective on the political, anthropological perspectives have been more attentive to this link than other disciplines like political science. It is pointed out that disaster vulnerability often derives from political conditions. Foucault’s concept of governmentality, “the art of governing populations”, is useful to analyze the link between politics and disasters. Disasters are, in fact, a relatively recent area into which governmentality has spread. Not long ago, disasters were regarded in many cases simply as fateful events, totally outside the control and responsibility of state and government. In Pakistan, for instance, a specialized institution for dealing with natural disasters, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been established only in consequence of the 2005 earthquake. In a post-disaster situation the confrontation of the affected people with instruments and strategies of governmentality - whether employed by the state or by NGOs - multiplies. The reverse of governmentality is that citizens hold the state responsible for almost all areas of life, including disasters and the (in)effective mitigation of their consequences. For affected citizens, disasters may thus become an opportunity to express discontent and to protest against what is perceived as inadequate and insufficient efforts for relief or reconstruction. Thus, post-disaster situations easily become sites of political contestation. For the anthropology of the state disaster situations then provide unique opportunities to dissect conventional images of the state as a huge, powerful and monolithic entity. In other disaster situations the state may virtually disappear from the scene, leaving the field to national or international non-governmental organizations. Relations between NGOs and the affected people are “political” and structured by issues of power, too. Two case studies are presented to analyze relations between politics and disasters: the massive rock avalanche that struck the Callejón the Huaylas in Peru in May 1970 and the much smaller Attabad landslide which hit Hunza in Northern Pakistan in January 2010. It is concluded that disasters are political and that any study of disasters that disregards their entanglement with power relations and political action misses an important dimension without which disaster situations cannot be fully understood.