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
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.