Reconceptualising Disasters: Lessons from the Samoan Experience
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
In the early nineties Samoa was hit by two major cyclones, Cyclone Ofa (1990) and Cyclone Val (1991), which caused significant damage and devastation. Although it is more than 15 years since these cyclones, they still factor in people's lives and have impacted on the way individuals and organisations conceptualise disasters in Samoa. The incidence of disasters is increasing globally and Pacific Island nations face ongoing and increasing vulnerability to the impacts of such disasters at both community and national levels. Disasters can result in short and long-term social, economic and environmental consequences and, as Ofa and Val illustrate, entire community survival and livelihood systems can be severely disrupted by a single disaster. As a consequence, disasters continue to pose significant threats to sustainable development in the Pacific region. Villagers from the eastern coast of Savai'i, and Government and NGO agencies in Apia were interviewed during six weeks of fieldwork in Samoa. These interviews and insights gained from participant observation, as well as secondary materials such as maps and official reports are used to explore the ways in which people make sense of disaster and hazard risk in their daily lives and the ways in which their belief-systems (cultural, religious etc.) result in very different understandings of disasters and disaster risk. Building on a growing body of critical disaster literature, this thesis explores the ways in which disasters are more than 'natural' events. It examines the ways in which they are socially constructed, resulting from human actions, rather than 'freak natural events'. This approach challenges dominant understandings of disasters which often underpin disaster planning at both national and regional level, and are often characterised by technical 'fixes'. In contrast, this thesis argues for more locally appropriate understandings of 'disasters' and for the importance of placing disaster events within the context of people's everyday lives and broader development priorities.