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Security lessons amid disaster ruins

Disasters like the tsunami are so destructive that in their wake, everything has to be rebuilt. This destruction actually leaves a blank slate upon which societies can inscribe more equitable norms, more sustainable structures and more rational processes, says Swarna Rajagopalan on the fourth anniversary of the Asian tsunami


Four years ago, early on the morning on December 26, my bed shook violently but I turned and went back to sleep, not thinking that disaster was about to strike Chennai in a little while. It had already struck the coasts of Indonesia and Thailand and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but in Chennai, lulled to a pleasant winter night’s rest by the music season, our wake-up call was still about an hour away. For everyone in a tsunami-affected area, this is a ‘where were you when…’ moment that we will never forget—either in grief or in gratitude.

In that moment when a disaster strikes, life changes irrevocably. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes and other disasters, natural and manmade, are milestones in the human story, serving both as endpoints and starting lines. The deluge that bookends mythical epochs across cultures as well as the words we use (disaster, catastrophe, calamity) reflect our awareness that disasters are significant beyond their physical consequences. The frequent clubbing together of disasters and conflicts in relief and reconstruction contexts as well as impact comparisons suggests that these are comparable in the way they reflect pre-existing insecurities and inequities on the one hand, and in their disruptive ways. The fourth anniversary of the Boxing Day Indian Ocean tsunami that hit communities all the way from Indonesia to Somalia is an appropriate time to reflect on what disasters teach us about security.

By causing death, destruction of property and displacement, disasters rend the social fabric of a community. Spouses are lost or killed, children orphaned and families separated so that the most immediate source of security and support is lost to individuals in affected communities. The home is the site where women work and spend the most time, and the loss of the home is more to them than the loss of a physical shelter. From this emotional trauma follow many practical challenges. Who will take in the children, especially adolescents? How bereaved parents will rebuild their families and who will make decisions about this, is another issue.

Disproportionately more women and girls die during disasters.1 Right after the tsunami, an Oxfam report provided several instances, such as Cuddalore where there were 391 female deaths to 14 male and Aceh where only 189 out of 676 survivors were female.2 The fact that girls don’t learn to swim, it was found, contributed to their inability to save themselves. As death, trafficking and displacement alter the sex ratio of a community, other insecurities arise, especially for women. Early marriage, forced marriage, forced polyandry and a loss of reproductive rights are some of these; after the tsunami, there were many cases where women felt they had to opt for recanalisation surgery in order to rebuild their families.

When women survive the disaster, the relief environment is often hostile to them at multiple levels. Their most immediate needs for privacy, hygiene and safe and clean sanitation are seldom met. Relief planning has traditionally been centred around male heads of households, and while this is changing, the personal needs of women and girls still get overlooked when camps are set up and amenities distributed. A place to bathe, change and wash that is safely accessible at all times without fear of teasing, stalking or molestation is a simple need which unmet, creates tremendous strain, insecurity and health problems for women and girls.

When livelihoods are destroyed, as the tsunami did when it destroyed boats, how are families to pick themselves up and start over? The loss of livelihood is a challenge that aid packages do not address. Where the development process has encouraged a diversification of livelihoods, through the teaching of other skills especially, people have something of a safety net. Where a community depends on one source of income and one kind of work, recovery is particularly long-drawn-out. Women preponderantly work in the agricultural and informal sectors which disaster seems to disrupt most. Finally, the organisation and delivery of disaster relief is also a problem when the heads of households are killed or displaced, and when the household is separated. Even today, disaster relief all too often is designed around male heads of households, making it difficult for surviving females, alone or as heads of households, to access any sort of help. In their consequences, natural disasters reflect and perpetuate existing injustices.

The loss of family and livelihood increases vulnerability to violence even as disasters, like other moments of crisis, seem to lead to increased levels of violence in society. Child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation are likely to become more common after a disaster, according to a 2005 World Health Organisation report.3

Disasters displace five times the number of people than are displaced by conflict, with the numbers being estimated to cross 200 million each year. The same report adds that displaced persons living in a disaster-affected area are especially vulnerable because they are already cobbling together a living, away from their homes and original livelihoods. Moreover, because the presence of large numbers of refugees sometimes contributes to environmental degradation, the area itself is more vulnerable.4 If there are multiple communities of displaced people in an area, resentments arise between them when the levels of international, state and community support to each community varies.

Where civil society is weak or exists in opposition to the state, there are simply fewer hands on deck; information and resource-sharing are problematic and political considerations trump humanitarian ones. The Maldives and Burma are good illustrations. The impact of the tsunami in the Maldives facilitated a brief period of cooperative engagement between nascent civil society groups, which seized the moment to draw attention to the movement for reforms. The grudging political concessions yielded in the aftermath of disaster became the first steps to the democratic transition the atoll-state saw in 2008. In Burma, while the space for political activism is extremely small, reports suggest that civil society organisations did manage to get relief materials and food to Cyclone Nargis-affected communities. The cyclone has provided an opportunity for them to prove their seriousness of purpose and also as in the Maldives, to draw attention to the military regime’s callousness and cupidity.5

There has also been some interest in whether disasters alter inter-state relationships.6The 2005 Kashmir earthquake necessitated the opening of transit points and communication links between the two sides of the ceasefire line between the two states, and thereby facilitated some confidence-building between the states. Conversely, the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir meant that sometimes the shortest route to deliver relief was not accessible to either side and in general, security considerations preclude joint disaster mitigation planning and information-sharing.

Disasters like the tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake and Cyclone Nargis are so destructive that in their wake, everything has to be rebuilt. This destruction actually creates a blank slate upon which societies can inscribe more equitable norms, more sustainable structures and more rational processes. But this is an opportunity that is squandered time and again.

Relief operations are predicated on existing social relationships and reconstruction assiduously puts back together the unequal playing field that nature destroys. Property rights are an example. If land titles are usually registered to men, it is hard to get that changed in favour of female heads of households. Assistance flows to those who are in a position to access it, and quite often that excludes those who need it most. In the aftermath of the tsunami, distribution of food in some parts of Tamil Nadu was organised along caste lines, recognising and reinforcing traditional dining protocols. Even the dire need of earthquake victims could not completely dismantle India and Pakistan’s anxiety about sharing intelligence and allowing overflight. 

Security for an individual begins with the right to life and is rounded off by the right to live well. Security for a community begins with the right to co-exist with other communities, explicated by cultural and economic rights. Security for a state should mean the security of individuals and communities within its territory as well as their institutions of governance, but it comes to refer to ever-narrower groups and sometimes to the survival of a specific political dispensation. Disasters undermine all these, and therefore, are arguably security crises in their own right.

Natural disasters do not target particular actors, groups or collective entities. Undermining national state and continental demarcations, razing to the ground resorts, government offices and tenements and engaging every willing hand in the operations that follow, they illustrate the limits of old ways of viewing politics (and the arena of policymaking) and security.

Deforestation on one side of an interstate border causes landslides and avalanches on every side. Floods redraw watershed maps without regard to administrative divisions. The use of air-conditioning in Hyderabad contributes to global warming and rising sea-levels which threaten coastal communities around the world. At the impact end, coping with a disaster like the 2002 Gujarat earthquake, all within one state’s limits, involves volunteers, resources and supplies from across the world. A global effort to coordinate relief and reconstruction was one of the earliest responses to the 2004 tsunami, with India using the moment to simultaneously assert its self-sufficiency and underscore that by despatching assistance to other affected areas. Natural disasters also pay no heed to the presence of security bases, battleships, cantonments and alas, nuclear installations, compounding every security threat manifold.

Disasters might in fact be described as security challenges. Recent scholarship includes ecological threats under the rubric of security; where environmental degradation causes disasters, by that logic, they are a security problem. On the other hand, the consequences of disasters create security problems in multiple ways whether through the economic pressure created by refugee flows, or the reconfiguration of landscapes, or the destruction of military facilities. Moreover, the frequent use of army, navy and air force resources for disaster relief underscores the disaster-security equation.

Disasters share with conventional security crises several characteristics. With the best technology and intelligence, they still catch us by surprise every time and just as we always prepare for the last terror strike we experience, we prepare for the last disaster and not the next. They present dramatic ruptures at the individual, community and state levels, and  disasters and conflicts alike illustrate how human actions, threats and vulnerabilities form a continuum or spectrum across these levels. The consequences of disasters and conventional security are both designated complex emergencies, with death, destruction and displacement being complicated by administrative crises, economic loss and the breakdown of order in everyday situations.

A series of terrible disasters hitting South Asia practically on-camera in the last decade, have raised our awareness of issues and challenges in disaster settings. We are also beginning to recognise the limitations of our responses, and that we do not seem to learn from our mistakes. A similar learning needs to happen with regard to security.

What could be some of these lessons that we learn, based on what disasters teach us? First, human beings, individually and collectively, belong at the core of any thinking about security, just as they do at the core of disaster mitigation and management. Second, you cannot secure one set of human beings while placing others at risk. Security, in any context, is truly indivisible. Third, just as collaborative and cooperative action improves the chances of mitigating disasters and minimising their impact, so do they improve the security environment for individuals and communities. Fourth, just as disasters are best mitigated by governance processes that are democratic, accountable and responsive, so in fact are security threats. In neither case does this mean that action should faithfully follow the rising and falling tides of popular opinion but that informed and thoughtful public engagement with policy is desirable. Finally, the destruction wrought by disasters represents an opportunity for creating a new, better society rather than fashioning a xerox copy of the old. A good security dispensation is one that serves all (or the preponderant number of) individuals and communities equally well, and so security crises, conventional and non-traditional, reflect failure and represent openings for renegotiating relationships, recrafting rules and redesigning the structures of a society and polity.


  1. The Global Fund for Women (GFW). 2005.  Caught in the Storm: The Impact of Natural Disasters on Women. (December) Accessible at
  2. Oxfam. 2005. The tsunami’s impact on women. Oxfam Briefing Note. March. Accessible at
  3. World Health Organization. Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention. 2005. Violence and disasters. Accessible at
  4. The State of the World’s Refugees 2006: Human displacement in the new
    . United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, pages 26-28.
  5. After the Storm: Rethinking International Engagement in Post-Cyclone Burma, East-West Center, June 12, 2008,
    ; Post-Nargis Analysis–The Other Side of the Story, October 2008, Accessible at
  6. Kelman, Ilan. Disaster Diplomacy. Radix Online. ; Chaitanya—The Policy Consultancy. 2005. Post-Tsunami International Relations: A Sea Change? Chaitanya Brief. Volume I Number 2 (June 24). Accessible at

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit (

InfoChange News & Features, December 2008