Reconsidering the North-South divide: A new perspective on vulnerability to flood hazards

By Marlous van Herten

Foto Marlous van HertenLast summer, in 2013, I went on a study excursion to India together with my fellow students from the Master Sustainable Development of Utrecht University. India – being a place so extreme that you either love it or hate it, so they often say. For me, India was both a magical place with its vibrant colours, weird smells and diverse landscapes, and a shocking place at the same time. Especially the enormous scale at which poverty has manifested itself was something I have never seen before. India seems almost alien. And I felt alien many times, when people, who had never seen any other person than the ones from their own village, dropped their jaws at the mere sight of us – foreigners.

My perception of India being more different from my home country the Netherlands than any other country I could think of, was even more strengthened when I saw how Indians deal with flood risk and flood events. While the Dutch transport system would break down completely in case of extreme weather, residents of New Delhi just keep on driving and bicycling through a layer of water 40 cm deep after the streets have been totally flooded within 2 hours of excessive rainfall. Where the Dutch government is quite equipped and the residents are ignorant, the Indian government falls back into a state of paralysis in the face of large flooding events (such as the one in Uttarakhand last summer 2013)[1] while the citizens clean up the mess and carry on with their business. Although the differences between the countries seem extensive, I am not quite sure who is more adaptive and who is the more vulnerable one here.


Figure 1 Flooding Delhi streets

  Figure 1: “ Business as usual” while the streets of New Delhi are severely flooded


Reconsidering the Third-First World dichotomy

Also in the academic literature on vulnerability to flood hazards they puzzle over the differences between developed and developing countries. For a long time, it was widely believed that the most poor and marginalized people of the Third World live in the most dangerous places and are the least capable of responding to flood hazard, because of economic market forces and exploitative power relations induced by the (governing) elites (Collins, 2010). This idea is reflected in statements about greater risk, and physical and social vulnerability that would persist in developing countries as opposed to developed countries (e.g. Adger et al., 2003). For example, the IPCC stated in one of its reports in 1996 that the determinants of adaptive capacity are directly correlated with measures of economic development, such as the GDP per capita (Collins, 2010). However, an ever growing number of scholars argue that this supposed Third – First World dichotomy is not as clear cut as one might imagine (e.g. Adger, 2006; Burton et al., 1993; Collins, 2010).

First of all, empirical research pointed out that the most marginal people do not always live in the most marginal places. For example, in LA the most affluent inhabitants are living in villas on highly hazardous hillsides prone to landslides (Blaikie et al., 1994). We could say the same of large parts of the Netherlands that face an ever growing risk of river and coastal flooding, although the inhabitants do not “sufficiently recognize and acknowledge the potential problems associated with water” (Kazmierczak and Carter, 2010, p. 1; OECD, 2011). Consequently, in 2003 “The Netherlands Live with Water” public awareness  campaign was launched, which however, has not been able to break the taboo around the thought of a flood disaster being a realistic scenario that the Netherlands could face (Kazmierczak and Carter, 2010).

Second, there appears to be a paradox between the expectations of developing countries as most vulnerable or marginal, while on the other hand empirical evidence points out that communities within poor developing countries do have capacity to adapt and initiate coping strategies and activities themselves (Adger, 2006). For example, people in Bangladesh,   generally perceived as being one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change induced flooding and other effects of climate change (e.g. Agrawal et al., 2003; Ali, 1999; Ericksen et al., 1993), have shown to be very enterprising and innovative when it comes to adaptation to disasters (Ali, 1999). Because communities and governments in Bangladesh are used to living with disasters, they initiate adaptation measures by themselves, from the governmental to the community level, from a massive program of constructing cyclone shelters and embankments in the social area to a community-based flood management strategy at the grass-roots level (Ahmad et al., 2004; Ali, 1999). I saw the same happening in New Delhi, where year after year, farmers at the banks of the Yamuna river pack up their homes (yes, literally) when a flood is coming and built a new community and a living at another spot all over again and again. The flexibility with which they deal with floods is astonishing.


Figure 2 Farmers Yamuna river banks
Figure 2: Farmers of the Yumana river banks (New Delhi, India) moved their farming practices and homes to higher grounds

According to Adger (2006), this paradox between the expectations and what is found in reality is caused by the two faces of vulnerability, i.e. susceptibility to harm (a state of ‘powerlessness and endangerment’) and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. O’Brien et al. (2005) refer in this respect to the difference between ‘vulnerability as outcome’ (an ‘end point’ approach, viewing vulnerability as an outcome of climate change impact minus adaptation) and ‘contextual vulnerability’ (a ‘starting point’ approach, viewing vulnerability as a general characteristic caused by various factors and processes). Taking a contextual approach to vulnerability, means that people in developing countries are not necessarily less capable to adapt, but that marginalized groups in both developed and developing countries are less capable to adapt (and facilitated elites more capable), because of processes of marginalization and facilitation present in any country. As Pelling (1999, p. 258) states: “it is [about] the processes by which individuals and collective groups are made vulnerable, rather than the explicit vulnerabilities themselves”.


Vulnerable landscapes

The field of political ecology takes an interesting stance on this subject. The new generation of political ecologists rejects the Third – First World dualism previously common in the field of vulnerability research. Rather, they argue that there are vulnerable ‘landscapes’ both within developed and developing countries (e.g. Collins, 2010). The concept of vulnerable ‘landscapes’ beholds that there is not just a global ‘South’ and a global ‘North’, but also the ‘South of the South/North of the South’  and the ‘South of the North/North of the North’ , in which ‘South of the…’ refers to marginal groups in both developed (North) and developing countries (South) and ‘North of the…’  to elites (Collins, 2010). Collins (2010) illustrated this with the Paso del Norte floods in 2006, where hazardous flood landscapes existed at both the Mexican and the USA side.

To be clear, it is acknowledged that the magnitude and patterning of risks and inequalities might differ between the global North and South. For example, Blaikie et al. (1994) state that there are three important differences between the global South and the global North, namely that (1) developed countries have better design and engineering and better infrastructure to provide early warnings, (2) living in hazardous environments is voluntarily for the rich (such as the villas on hazardous hillsides in LA), but not for the poor which are forced to do so, and (3) the consequences are far less for most people in developed countries (who have insurance, reserves and credits available) than for the poor in developing countries. The point is however, that unequal risks and unjust distributions of resources and power are present in any country on a number of scales (Collins, 2010); a new insight which enriches the common understandings about the North-South division.


STAR-FLOOD: diversity and appropriateness are key

For the STAR-FLOOD research project, an interesting implication of these thoughts on vulnerability and possibilities for adaptation is that  context particularities matter. Both in the comparison between the different consortium countries – which are in fact quite diverse in their challenges in and responses to flood risks – but perhaps also within these countries between different cases, places, and situations. In this light, the STAR-FLOOD project offers a refreshing insight with its focus on appropriateness, i.e. “fitting the rule to the situation”. STAR-FLOOD aims to give useful policy recommendations based on what is appropriate, taking into account the specifics of time, place and context, while on the other hand investigating which elements could be more universal (and thus, generalisable) for a larger set of countries.  For example, STAR-FLOOD investigates the usefulness of a diversification of flood risk management strategies in response to different events, places and situations, and general trends regarding this diversification taking place in the six STAR-FLOOD consortium countries. This approach provides both analytical depth and case-specificity as opportunities to draw relevant lessons for other places that are dealing with flood risk management issues. As such, the STAR-FLOOD research project is at the forefront of the new way of thinking about vulnerability and responses to flood risks. I am already curious about the results!




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[1] An interesting statement about this event was done by Tripathi (2013, p. 34): “Compounding the fury of nature in Uttarakhand was the total inability of the state machinery to comprehend or deal with the disaster. The state, located in a high-seismic-activity zone, has no disaster mitigation plan or infrastructure”. The impacts of the flood are severe, “and there is no government in sight”.