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Our disaster management needs to do more for diverse voices

Wednesday 1 November 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Editorials, Opinion


Our disaster management needs to do more for diverse voices
Okawa Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. 74 out of 108 students that attended the school were washed away in the 2011 tsunami that hit the region. Photo credit: Emily Mosley. SUPPLIED/23103102

After watching the fast-developing Cyclone Lola over Vanuatu before the cyclone season starts, whether we are prepared as a nation to protect our most vulnerable in a disaster has been on my mind, writes Merita Tuari’i.

In September, I had the opportunity to visit different monuments and sites of past disasters in Japan, such as Okawa Elementary School, where 74 children and three teachers were washed away in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Each monument was a reminder to me of the ultimate unpredictability of disasters, and how we need to include diverse voices at every stage of work in reducing risk to disaster.

In March this year, Te Puna Vai Mārama, the Cook Islands Centre for Research, conducted a survey of the general public on Rarotonga. The survey examined knowledge and use of disaster early warning systems, along with climate and weather services and information. Its results revealed that women were slightly more affected by weather events on Rarotonga than men, and that knowledge and use of cyclone services in Rarotonga is low. The research indicated that the ways in which climate services and early warnings should be delivered in the future must be diverse in order to capture both men and women’s attention.

Even for a developed country such as Japan, catering to the diverse needs of the most vulnerable during a disaster is still an overlooked issue. The largest number of deaths from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake were those over 60 years old, most of whom were women. Disaster experience is never gender neutral, women are often more vulnerable with more limited access to resources than men.

In the disaster of Cyclone Martin over Manihiki, most of those who passed away or went missing were elderly, women and children.

In Japan, there was an attempt to include gender and diverse perspectives into disaster risk reduction, through the Gender Equality Bureau at the Cabinet Office established in 2001. However, women still make up only six per cent of members of the Municipal Disaster Management Councils, and Japan ranks 121 out of 153 countries on World Economic Forum’s gender equality index.

Here in the Cook Islands, it is not much better, most of those with decision-making power in disaster response and management are men. There is an over-reliance on the community sector, particularly women’s groups, to be the change agent or do the gendered work of climate services.

To make sure we are reducing risk to our most vulnerable, we need to make sure women, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, people living in the Pā ‘Enua and other vulnerable groups have a role in all aspects of disaster, from early warning and information, to response and recovery.

We cannot be complacent, without a fundamental shift in the way we include diverse voices in decision-making, we will see our most vulnerable lost again.

  • Merita Tuari’i is a Senior Research Fellow at Te Puna Vai Mārama Cook Islands Centre for Research and member of the Australia Institute of International Affairs Indo-Pacific Co-operation Network.