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Political Capital Lost in the Wake of Natural Disasters

800px-VOA_People_walk_through_Jakarta's_flooded_streetsExtreme weather events are making headlines around the world.  ReliefWeb’s global disaster map shows over 2,000 ongoing disaster events. Not showed on the map is the political fallout that often plagues governments that inadequately prepare for, or respond to, these disasters. Though such political consequences are nothing new (see here for more on “disaster politics”), as extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, it is quite possible that political volatility could also increase in frequency and intensity. Below is a sampling from around the world of governments currently dancing with disasters.

Canada: Tim Harper of the Toronto Star penned an article titled “Extreme weather response now a vital political skill,” where he details the backstory to Newfoundland premier Kathy Dunderdale’s recent resignation. Harper states:

Among the factors responsible for the end of the reign of the first female to be elected premier on The Rock was her slow and soulless response to power blackouts earlier this month that left as many as 190,000 Newfoundlanders cold and angry.

Indonesia: In “Flooding threatens Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and Indonesian presidential hopeful” Elliot Brennan of Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy notes:

Flooding in and around Jakarta has severely affected an estimated 130,000 people this week, with 63,000 people having to be evacuated. More rain is forecast for the next seven days and waters are expected to rise as flood waters from surrounding areas drain through the capital.

Flooding is common in Jakarta. The megacity of 10 million inhabitants is subject to flood waters that destroy infrastructure and stall the country’s trillion-dollar economy on an almost annual basis.

However, this year the flooding could become an issue in the presidential election set for 9 July. Some commentators believe it will be a litmus test for the Jakarta Governor and presidential hopeful, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. Jokowi is currently a front runner in the polls.

Argentina: An ongoing heat wave is continuing to bear down on Argentina. Hugh Bronstein with Reuters wrote an article in December on the potential political ramifications of the heat wave: “Analysis: Fernandez image wilts in year-end Argentine heat wave,” stating:

Argentina ends 2013 with a heat wave that has sparked protests over electricity shortages, taking another chunk out of President Cristina Fernandez’s popularity as she faces a rocky final two years in power.”

In each of these situations existing economic, social and political conditions played a part in the erosion of legitimacy for public officials, but the disasters themselves added an extra stress.

In an article published in May in the Washington Post, Dan Hopkins of Georgetown University notes that one of the difficulties of avoiding political fallout from disaster response is that disaster preparedness is often a thankless task. He quotes research by Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra:

… Healy and Malhotra examine whether voters reward spending on disaster preparedness alongside spending on disaster relief. As it turns out, we don’t. We reward spending to respond to disasters by backing incumbents more strongly, but we shrug when it comes to spending to get us ready for a disaster down the road. They also estimate that a dollar spent on disaster preparedness reduces subsequent damage by $15, making such investments highly cost-effective.”

One solution to such an impasse is adequate investment in both disaster preparation and disaster relief. This could help save lives, money and political careers. Despite the fiscal constraints of the day, the rationale and the resources can be found – if the political will is there.

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