Historians to study how natural disasters have influenced change in the Indo-Pacific

September 1, 2015

Emeritas Professor James WarrenHistorians from Murdoch's Asia Research Centre have secured funding to investigate the relationship between natural disasters and major social and political upheaval in the Indo-Pacific region.

The project, entitled Hazards, Tipping Points, Adaptation and Collapse in the Indo-Pacific World, will be led by Emeritus Professor James Warren and Dr Joseph Christensen from the School of Arts and will be funded by a $374,516 grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The researchers are aiming to create a new understanding of Indo-Pacific history since the 10th Century and will investigate whether or not natural events in this region could be the cause of major change.

The Indo-Pacific world is a region that extends from India to China to Japan and also South-East Asia and Australia's northern tropical coast. Around 70% of the world's cyclonic activity takes place in the region and the Alpine-Himalayan Orogenic Belt, a major seismic and tsunamigenic belt, is a key feature.

Professor Warren cited Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda as a natural disaster which is having a devastating and lingering impact on the Visayan Islands group in the Philippines since it made landfall in November 2013.

In an article for Asian Currents, Professor Warren said since Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippine economy had experienced lower growth, and the disaster itself had resulted in economic losses valued at $US15 billion, or five per cent of the Philippine’s gross domestic product of around $US300 billion.

A year after the disaster, more than 2.5 million people remained without proper housing and more than 100,000 displaced people were living in unsafe coastal areas in temporary shelters.

“Psychosocial problems had increased as displaced communities and grief-stricken individuals struggle to restore their lives and livelihoods,” he said.

“Agriculture has reached a lamentable state in various typhoon-prone areas of the Visayas. Farmers are facing growing indebtedness and uncertainty about their future on the land, and if conditions of deprivation and social inequality continue to persist, there will be periodic starvation in the future.

“At the end of 2014, charities reported large numbers of indebted people leaving for Manila and other cities in search of work, including young women entering the sex industry to support their rural families.

“A well-developed culture of response to disasters, rather than a deeply embedded culture of mitigation, has existed among Philippine governments, donors and humanitarian organisations. But, in the aftermath of Haiyan, that kind of short-term thinking to strategic disaster management no longer prevails to the same extent.”

Professor Greg Bankoff from the University of Hull, a Distinguished Sir Walter Murdoch Visiting Scholar who will also be working on the project, said the researchers will develop an innovative analytical framework to understand the inter-relationship between natural environmental cycles and events.

Professor Warren added: “Our approach owes much to Fernand Braudel's argument that conventional frameworks of historical analysis are inadequate as analytical tools because they largely ignore environmental factors, natural cycles and related temporal spans, particularly climate and major geophysical and weather phenomena.”

The project will incorporate international specialists in both social and natural sciences from organisations such as the Indian Ocean World Centre, McGill University; the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) at Nanyang Technological University; Center for Integrated Area Studies, Kyoto University; Laboratory of Physical Geography, University of Paris; Manila Observatory, Ateneo de Manila University; ANU College of Asia and the Pacific; Institute de Chandernagor; Institute of History, Leiden University; and the Department of History, University of Hull.

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