Panel 1 Slow-onset disasters

Conveners: Reidar Staupe-Delgado (UiT The Arctic University of Norway) and Olivier Rubin (Roskilde University)

Abstract: Disasters differ markedly in their speed and pattern of manifestation, which in turn greatly affects how researchers as well as authorities interpret and respond to them. While theoretical innovations made by disaster researchers over the last century have almost exclusively been developed for the study of large rapid-onset disasters, disaster assessments reveal that elusive and slow-onset disasters affect more people on aggregate. Slow-onset disasters have primarily been addressed as something ‘other’ than conventional disasters, and have largely fallen outside of the scope of disaster studies. We therefore lack theoretical frameworks capable of describing the policy dynamics of slow-onset disasters, largely because existing studies focus on individual slow-onset hazards (e.g. climate change, pandemics or droughts), without aiming for comparative analysis so as to develop better policies for more proactive response.

This panel invites contributions from a wide range of perspectives, ranging from empirical case studies to conceptual debates and theoretical reflections around the topic of slow-onset disaster. The panel is in this way an opportunity to come together to discuss the concept itself, its unique management challenges and the way forward towards bringing the study of slow-onset disasters into mainstream disaster research.

Long Abstract:In principle, disasters with a gradual and creeping onset are easier to manage than are sudden and unexpected ones (Matthewman, 2015; Glantz, 1994). Not only do slow-onset disasters provide a more extended period of forewarning, but also a larger potential for proactive response, which in turn could minimize their adverse impacts. In practice, however, timely response to slow-onset disasters is often hampered by a perceived lack of urgency, causing them to be left smouldering in the background as their impacts gradually build up and strengthen over time – sometimes irreversibly so – until eventually becoming critical emergencies (OCHA, 2011).

Disasters differ markedly in their speed and pattern of manifestation, which in turn greatly affects how researchers as well as authorities interpret and respond to them (McConnell, 2003. They also constitute a significant part of the global disaster burden (UN, 2015). Still, theoretical innovations made by disaster researchers over the last century have almost exclusively been developed for the study of large rapid-onset disasters. The unique management challenges posed by slow-onset disasters therefore remain poorly understood.

Many studies exist on particular slow-onset disasters – such as pandemics, environmental degradation, droughts or climate change – although these phenomena have generally received a separate treatment and have in this way not been subject to combined analysis. What commonalities can be identified between various slow-onset disasters and which implications can such work have for disaster risk research and practice?

The concept of slow-onset disaster is also a contested one. From a vulnerability perspective, James Lewis (1988: 4) famously argue that ‘all disasters are slow onset when realistically and locally related to conditions of susceptibility’. What should we then call disastrous impacts that are triggered by a hazard that occurs gradually? How can this conceptual dilemma be overcome?

This panel invites contributions from a wide range of perspectives, ranging from empirical case studies to conceptual debates and theoretical reflections around the topic of slow-onset disaster. The panel is in this way an opportunity to come together to discuss the concept itself, its unique management challenges and the way forward towards bringing the study of slow-onset disasters into mainstream disaster research.

Potential panel topics include but are not limited to:

• The unique disaster management demands posed by slow-onset disasters

• The science-policy nexus as it relates to slow-onset disaster response

• How slow-onset disasters may cascade into or otherwise trigger sudden-onset disasters

• Political analyses of slow-onset disasters

• Conceptual discussions surrounding the concept of slow-onset or creeping disasters

• Methodological reflections of slow-onset disasters

• The role of early warning in securing proactive response to slow-onset disasters

• Findings from field studies involving slow-onset disasters such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance, protracted geological hazards and so on.

• Macro-level perspectives, including new perspectives on the economic burden and human toll of slow-onset disasters

References

Glantz MH (1994) Creeping Environmental Problems, The World & I, June issue.

Lewis J (1988) On the line: An open letter in response to ‘Confronting Natural Disasters, An International Decade for Natural Hazard Reduction’, Natural Hazards Observer, 12(4)

Matthewman S (2015) Disasters, Risks and Revelation, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

McConnell A (2003) Overview: Crisis Management, Influences, Responses and Evaluation, Parlament Aff, 16(1)

OCHA (2011) OCHA and Slow-Onset Emergencies

UN (2015) Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015