Are Governments Responsible for their Inactions?

May 18, 1999
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzThere has been plenty of debate about the degree to which society is responsibile for supporting (or more correctly, covering the losses of) individual actions. A good example is constructing a new home in a known floodplain or on a hurricane-prone barrier island. Should insurance companies cover losses due to an “expectable” natural hazard?

During the 1997-98 El Niño, US TV news repeatedly showed the row of houses built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When the cliffside collapsed as a result of heavy rains and soggy soils, several of the houses fell into the ocean. When interviewed, the owner of one of the houses said that he would rebuild on the same cliff 20 feet from the cliff's edge; his reasoning — the view at sunset was just too beautiful to abandon! So, is it society's responsibility to cover his investment in a high-risk situation? If his losses were not covered by society (directly or indirectly), would he still be willing to make such an environmentally stupid decision?

Smog in Indonesia
Smog in Indonesia
The 1997-98 El Niño made the phenomenon a household word worldwide. Media coverage was so constant and complete that the public referred to it as 'media hype'. Consequently, people have become aware of El Nino's potential impacts on their locales. Societies' responses, both proactive and reactive, to the 1997-98 El Niño could be viewed as a dry run. Some actions proved effective and reduced those impacts, but others were not as successful. By reviewing how different societies (governments, companies, individuals) responded to the 1997-98 event, strengths and weaknesses in those responses can be identified. Such knowledge, if applied, can mitigate the future impacts of El Niño. These societies will then have little excuse for inaction in the face of the next El Niño.

The 1997-98 El Niño is over. It has been followed by a rather lengthy La Niña episode. Not surprisingly, the media dropped its coverage of El Niño like a 'hot potato' when El Niño waned. El Niño is no longer considered newsworthy by most of the media. The media argue that they respond to the public's interest, and El Niño is no longer one of those interests. When El Niño returns — and it will return — it will once again become of interest, for as long as it lasts.

The following story about fixing a roof exemplifies the intermittent (dare I say fickle) interest in El Niño: when it rained, a farmer realized that he had to fix the leak in his roof, but when the rain stopped there was no immediate reason to do it. He would then be reminded that the roof needed fixing when the rain returned. Once again, he'd fix it when the rain stopped ... and so it goes. There is considerable interest in improving societal coping strategies and tactics when it comes to El Niño. But when the event is over, societal interests turn to other issues. Like the farmer, society is again reminded about its neglect when the next El Niño returns a few years later. The time for societies to fine-tune future responses to El Niño events is between El Niños and not during them.

Regarding societal responsibility for known environmentally risky decisions: apply this question to the international community. Instead of individuals, we can talk about countries and governments. Instead of society, we can talk about the World Bank and other lending institutions. The question then becomes: should the World Bank (and other lending institutions) provide financial support to countries that are known to be affected by El Niño's impacts but fail to develop ways to deal more effectively with those impacts between events? Should countries be 'bailed out' following El Niño's adverse impacts, if they failed to support research and application of that research to reduce societal vulnerability?

When asked to undertake a $20 000 assessment of impacts and responses to the 1997-98 El Niño, one government responded by noting that it did not have $20 000 available for such a study. Yet, the damage to its economy and the country's inhabitants could be $20 million or more (as a result of drought, flood, fire, haze). When governments appeal to development banks and other sources to cover the $20 million in damages, what responsibility falls on that government for not having taken previous steps to identify ways to minimize those damages?

The question then becomes — Should the World Bank, for example, provide El Niño-related funds to those countries that do not seek ways to mitigate El Niño's impacts?

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