Author Archives: RGS-IBG Managing Editor: Academic Publications

Towards a more ethical geographical praxis: western privilege and postcoloniality

By Mark Griffiths, Northumbria University

j-_vermeer_-_el_geografo_museo_stadel_francfort_del_meno_1669

Johannes Vermeer The Geographer (1669). Available via United States Public Domain license.

Geographers have never been more acutely aware of the historical and contemporary cleavages of which we – or so many of us – are often both critics and beneficiaries. This year’s RGS-IBG Conference carries the theme of ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’, while the other large conference, the AAG Meeting, is currently reacting to the damage brought by President Trump’s recent anti-Islam Executive Orders. These are worrying times that lay bare the legacies of formal colonialism and the persistence of western privilege. Particularly worrying is that geographers from outside the publishing heartlands – whose work is invaluable if we are to know anything at all about diverse places and people – will, as always, feel the brunt of these neocolonial measures brought by the new Trump Administration.

There is then a renewed focus on the haves and have-nots of people across the globe, geographers very much included. In this heated moment it feels very new, but while it might be true that we have never seen anything like Donald Trump before, it is not novel to have privileges skewed across space. This is not at all to dismiss the deleterious acts we’ve seen recently (and the silent complicity of too many), but it does serve to recall that our discipline has grown out of a history of uneven power relations with post/colonial places and people. As I point out in my recently published paper in Area, part of the privilege of western geographers in terms of ‘mobilities, institutional prestige, access to publishing avenues and so forth’ is owed to the spoils of empire.

We can therefore understand the privilege of western academics and geographers as historically constituted, where, say, the ‘permission to narrate’ (as Edward Said put it) or the ability to cross borders is tied intimately with one’s ancestral position within colonial-era relations. Couple this with important feminist interventions on the situatedness of knowledge and positionality as relational, and the self-reflection (or ‘hyper-self-reflection’ as Gayatri Spivak calls for) incumbent on us all when we embark on fieldwork in a “postcolonial context” can reveal much about how the past bears on the present and the means to carry out research.

For me, a white, British man working at a UK institution, those means are great. I therefore must include myself in a loose category of ‘privileged western researcher’ that has – rightly – brought much introspection from that part of our research community involved in working towards a de- or post-colonial praxis for geography, a work that will continue at this year’s biggest conferences.

In my paper* I consider the label of ‘privileged western researcher’ from a postcolonial and historical perspective. I argue that if “our” (a collective term I seek to pick apart) positionality is historically contingent with colonial-era relations, then the attendant colonial histories within that might be (re)considered through their, following the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, heterogeneity. More specifically, I seek to bring the politics of class to disrupt the assumption of equivalence between Britishness (or western-ness) and unvariegated privilege.

To this end I turn to positionality as relational and personal and consider my own relationship with Empire, making what I consider an important point: ‘I’m a working class boy from the Industrial North of England, my parents’ parents … did not study at any of our great public schools or prestigious universities … my forebears did not order the passage of knowledge from Africa and the Orient to Kensington Gore and Oxbridge’. The argument I make therefore is that colonial-era relations across space were and are multivalent and histories of domination cannot draw so clearly the contours of researcher privilege in postcolonial settings.

From here I propose an empirical potential for more a more ethical praxis in the field, making the argument that in the business of talking about the unfairness of unequal opportunities, of assigned societal positions and trajectories, to know what it is to be sometimes outside, a working-class background (finally) becomes an academic resource that may just make solidarity with less-privileged Others come that bit more readily. In the article I give a brief example of how I believe this played out in fieldwork in India.

What this brings to these turbulent times is something of nuance to the idea that western geographers always already carry with them the histories of colonial exploration and expansion; just as gender and race can give the lie to this assumption, so can class. I look forward to discussing this further at the RGS-IBG Conference this coming August. As for what this might mean in the context of the ongoing debate around the AAG and travelling to the US, if little else a painstaking process of (communal) introspection might help us better negotiate the dissonant positions of critic and beneficiary of empire and its spoils.

* Mark’s paper inaugurates Area‘s new regular feature, ‘Ethics in/of geographical research’. The Area Editors welcome submissions from across the geographical community that consider diverse, contemporary concerns that fall under the broad remit of ethics.

About the author: Mark Griffiths is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University. His research is split between two sites: in Palestine he focuses on the political affects of the occupation in West Bank, tracking the embodied aspects of Palestinian activism and resistance. In India his work has focused on NGO and volunteer work on livelihood and sanitation projects in both urban and rural areas.

60-world2 AAG Council 2017 AAG Statement on President Trump’s Executive Order http://news.aag.org/2017/01/aag-statement-on-president-trumps-executive-order/ 

books_icon Chakrabarty D 2007 Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference  Princeton University Press

60-world2 Fenton S 2017 Theresa May ‘very happy’ to host Donald Trump on state visit, despite petition reaching 1m signatures The Independent 30 January 2017 

books_icon Griffiths M 2017 From heterogeneous worlds: western privilege, class and positionality in the South. Area, 49: 2–8. doi:10.1111/area.12277 (free to access)

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective Feminist Studies 14, 575-99

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics Progress in Human Geography 21, 305-320

books_icon Said E 1984 Permission to Narrate Journal of Palestine Studies 13, 27-48

books_icon Spivak G C 1999 A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present Harvard University Press

Multiple stressors and ecological surprises

Geo: Geography and Environment

The expanding global human population, now about 7.5 billion, is increasing the pressure that we as a species put on the environment.  2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, and temperature records continue to be exceeded. Each year, more natural ecosystems are lost to dam construction, deforestation and urbanisation. Rates of species invasion are increasing, and pollution events continue to pressure native wildlife. Many ecosystems are now threatened simultaneously by these multiple human-caused stressors, yet we still know very little about their combined interactive impacts.

In our paper in Geo (Linking key environmental stressors with the delivery of provisioning ecosystem services in the freshwaters of southern Africa) we review the impacts of multiple stressors on ecosystem services in freshwater ecosystems in southern Africa (e.g. the Okavango Delta; see photo). We chose these systems because freshwaters contribute disproportionately to ecosystem services despite covering less than 1% of the earth’s…

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How landscape managers think about local landscapes influences their approaches to climate change adaptation

By Vera Köpsel, Cormac Walsh and Catherine Leyshon 

kopsel

A sign warning visitors of coastal erosion at the protected landscape of Godrevy in Cornwall (UK) – Source: © Vera Köpsel 2016

Climate change is likely to alter the appearance of many rural and coastal landscapes, for example through extreme weather, river flooding or cliff erosion . A prominent example of such impacts, often connected to climate change, was the 2013/14 winter floods in the southwest of England . Inasmuch as the climate is changing, so are our responses to its impacts as we try to both adapt to new conditions and reduce future change through mitigation.

A suitable example for researching the connections between perceptions of landscape and place, and adaptation to climate change, is Cornwall in southwest England. Many of the region’s famous landscapes are under special designations such as the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or the properties of the National Trust. As a peninsula stretching into the Atlantic Ocean, moreover, Cornwall is already experiencing an increase in extreme weather events, storminess, as well as river and sea flooding.

Cornwall’s coastal and rural areas are valued places of everyday life and cultural heritage. They are filled with personal attachments but coastal and rural areas are sometimes valued very differently by different groups within a society. This includes the staff of organisations responsible for managing these iconic landscapes (e.g. the National Trust, Natural England, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Cornwall Council) who bring different priorities and perspectives to their work. These subjective perceptions of places remain largely under-researched when it comes to understanding the dynamics that shape climate change adaptation processes. In our new paper, published in The Geographical Journal, we explored the different perceptions of Cornwall’s landscapes held by local landscape managers who are faced with dealing with the impacts of our changing climate. We asked how these perceptions influence their climate adaptation approaches.

The theoretical approach of our study was that of constructivist landscape research, a concept rooted deeply in human geography and focusing on subjective and collective perceptions of landscapes. By conducting qualitative interviews with local staff of organizations such as the National Trust, the AONB Partnership, Natural England and Cornwall Council, we uncovered four different narratives – in other words, storylines – about what Cornwall’s landscapes are, how they are affected by climate change, and how one should adapt to these changes. These four narratives conceptualise the Cornish landscapes as:

  • the region’s basis for economic growth
  • an intermediate result of an ongoing human-environment relationship
  • a mosaic of wildlife and habitats;
  • and a space for production, e.g. of agricultural goods.

By identifying these different narratives, we show that although superficially often understood as one and the same thing, the concept of landscape means very different things to different actors concerned with its management. These varying understandings of the landscapes have direct implications for how they should be managed in the context of a changing climate: from preserving the status quo and rejecting any built interventions through a focus on community-led action, to a call for hard engineering – different constructions of landscapes result in potentially conflicting demands for adaptation measures in Cornwall. Understanding which landscape perceptions underlie such differing approaches to adaptation becomes especially important when the adaptation activities of one group negatively impact on what another group values about a landscape.

Leaving unarticulated the taken-for-granted constructions that landscape management actors have of their local landscapes holds great potential for misunderstandings and can present an obstacle to sustainable climate adaptation. As climate change adaptation is a societal challenge which demands the transdisciplinary cooperation of many different organizations and actors on the local level, our research makes an important contribution to furthering constructive dialogue about how to adapt landscapes and places to the impacts of a changing climate. With ever greater emphasis on multi-agency working to achieve climate change adaptation in landscape management, it is important that future research investigates the diverse perceptions people have of the places they manage, to secure effective action at the local level.

About the author: Vera Köpsel and Cormac Walsh are both research associates at the University of Hamburg. Catherine Leyshon is Professor of Human Geography at the Univesity of Exeter. 

60-world2 Carrington D 2016 Study reveals huge acceleration in erosion of England’s white cliffsThe Guardian 7 November 2016.

60-world2 Herald Express 2016 South Devon beaches have ‘not recovered’ after ferocious storms of 2014. 27 Nov 2016.

books_icon Köpsel, V., Walsh, C. and Leyshon, C. 2016 Landscape narratives in practice: implications for climate change adaptation. Geogr J. doi:10.1111/geoj.12203

books_icon Radford T 2016 Stronger storms coming to Europe’s Atlantic seaboard The Ecologist 8 April 2016

60-world2 Vaughan A 2014 England and Wales hit by wettest winter in nearly 250 years The Guardian 27 February 2014. 

 

Mobilising affinity ties for humanitarianism at the war-torn China-Myanmar border

By Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho, National University of Singapore

idp-camp-at-china-myanmar-border

Figure 1. An IDP camp at the China-Myanmar border. Source: Author’s own, 2012.

A few days after Christmas 2016, a social media post caught my eye. It stated,

‘Dear Humanitarian Agencies, [the] IDPs regret to let you know that all the humanitarian assistance you provided […] has been abandoned again last night due to the offensive war of [the] Govt Military’.

The IDPs referred to internally displaced persons at the border of China and Myanmar, while the ‘Govt Military’ in question was the military arm of the Myanmar government.

On 8 November 2015, international news agencies had reported the landslide victory of the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It appeared to herald a new era of democracy in Myanmar. But the civilian government has no oversight over the military, which retains the right to a quarter of the seats in parliament, and power over key ministries to do with defence, home affairs and border affairs. As the Washington Post reports on 28 December 2016, fighting at the border areas of Myanmar has escalated as the Myanmar military intensifies its attacks on ethnic groups it considers insurgents.

The IDPs mentioned in the social media post were displaced from their homes in Kachin state (henceforth Kachin IDPs) as a result of armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state of northern Myanmar. The breakdown of a ceasefire agreement (1994-2011) between the two parties renewed a civil war in Kachin state. Regional newspapers such as The Irrawaddy provide fuller coverage of the hostilities happening in Kachin state, Myanmar.

IDPs who fled further north to the border area that Myanmar shares with China were barred from crossing the border into Chinese territory. This act of refusal in turn prevents the IDPs from being recognised as refugees who have crossed an international border and thereby entitled to protection under international law. For several years following the renewed conflict, local humanitarian workers faced challenges channelling humanitarian aid to the IDP camps at the China-Myanmar border. The remote location of camps at the border area meant the supplies could be delivered only via routes controlled by the military in Myanmar or the government in China.

However, both parties denied international humanitarian agencies access to the camps citing sovereignty reasons or concerns over the safety of international personnel in the conflict zone. Only in recent years has advocacy by humanitarian workers succeeded in pressuring the Myanmar military to provide safe passage for the international humanitarian agencies to assess the IDP camps and the needs of the IDPs. Even so, as the social media post above informs us, the humanitarian supplies remain at risk of being destroyed through ongoing conflict.

Considering these humanitarian challenges is an article published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers which examines the geographical and geopolitical constraints that deter international humanitarian assistance, yet provide opportunities to engage a different set of humanitarian actors at the China-Myanmar border.

The paper first argues that the Kachin IDPs are treated as surplus populations by the sovereign states in both Myanmar and China. Surplus populations come into existence when nation-states impose punitive measures that compromise the survivability of populations that are considered threatening to national sovereignty. Second, the paper examines how mobilising affinity ties enables Kachin humanitarian workers to leverage the citizenship resources of empathetic Chinese nationals across the China-Myanmar border for negotiating humanitarianism constraints.

Overall, the paper considers how physical and cognitive borders establish taxonomies of social difference but also provide opportunities for identifying connections and forging transversal dialogues (henceforth transversal webs of connections) to bridge people of different social positionings. The paper argues that transversal webs of connections engender affinity ties that can be mobilised towards nurturing empathetic identification and caring relationships in societies characterised by cultural diversity and social complexity. This approach provides a potential ethical stance and productive analytical lens for advancing wider migration and citizenship debates.

About the author: Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. Elaine’s current research interests include China-Myanmar borderland migrations, Chinese diaspora and transnationalism, Asian forced migration, and urban aspirations of new immigrants in China. 

books_icon  Ho, E. L-E. 2016 Mobilising affinity ties: Kachin internal displacement and the geographies of humanitarianism at the China–Myanmar border. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12148

60-world2  Htusan E 2016 Kachin rebels see more Myanmar attacks, no hope for peace The Washington Post online Dec 28 2016

60-world2  The Irrawaddy http://www.irrawaddy.com/

Commodity geographies: bringing liveliness into the fold

Maan Barua, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

figure-1-panda-bees

Left: The ‘panda effect’: giant pandas escalated Edinburgh zoo visitation rates and merchandize sales © Credit: Todorov.petar.p CC-SA 4.0; Right: Transporting bees to pollinate orchards is now a growing industry © Credit: Migco CC-SA 4.0.

In December 2011, a pair of giant pandas arrived in Edinburgh zoo. Flown in 5,000 miles from Sichuan, they triggered what some have called ‘the panda effect’: visitation rates and merchandize sales escalated. Income increased by 53%, rescuing the zoo from almost going bankrupt (Anon., 2013) . In an analogous vein, transporting bee hives to pollinate crops is a growing industry in the USA and Europe. Crashes in pollinating insect populations means farm and orchard owners are now willing to pay as much as $200 per hive for the service (Kleinman, 2016). Pandas and bees are examples of ‘lively commodities’ par excellence: commodities whose value derives from their status as living being.

Lively commodities strike at the heart of conventional geographical and political economic thinking about production, consumption and exchange. In no way are they made by capital, although they can become part of capitalist accumulation and reproduction. If socially-necessary labour time embodied in a thing indexes the value of commodities (cf. Marx, 1976), the value of lively commodities cannot be understood through analytics solely focused on human actions. As Sarah Whatmore, presciently observed in Hybrid Geographies over a decade ago, what is at stake are ‘lively currents’ in an ‘inter-corporeal commotion’. They amount to much more than ‘traffic in things set in motion by exclusively human subjects’ (Whatmore, 2002; p.118).

In my recent paper titled ‘Nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation: the geographies of a lively commodity’, I develop a set of relational diagnostics for understanding how liveliness – living potentials and material forces – configure political economies of capitalist accumulation. Tracking archival stories of lion trophy hunting in colonial India, and subsequent commodification of lions in 20th century ecotourism enterprise, I show how liveliness emerges at particular historical junctures and assay the circumstances in which it is brought into the fold of capitalist reproduction. Central to this endeavour is to make evident commodity lives: how animals’ worlds undergo changes when commodified and conversely, ways in which material and ecological lives have bearings upon the commodification process. I then turn to mobilizations of lions as ‘lively capital’ – the various ways in which animals, or their body parts, are set in motion to open up possibilities for further valorization.

Drawing upon these empirics, the paper posits a triad of concepts – nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation – that provide insights for understanding relations between ecology and the economy.

Nonhuman labour is an intransitive activity performed by animals and plants, immanent to many commodities that are on sale in contemporary economies. Nonhuman labour goes into circulating animal and plant bodies as well as their parts. The production of ‘ecosystem services’, the generation of consumptive encounters with charismatics in zoos, are contingent upon bodily labours of animals. Nonhuman labour is integral to the generation of what I, following Donna Haraway (2012), term encounter value: the value of a commodity derived not just from human labour embodied in it, but co-configured by lively potentials themselves (also see: Barua, 2016). When considered part of a tripartite structure with use and exchange value, encounter value enables understanding ways in which nonhuman labour becomes vital, value-forming practice (Barua, 2015). The labour of bees in co-producing many of the commodities that end up in supermarket shelves are a case in point.

I further argue that contemporary capitalist economies gravitate toward producing spectacular natures. They are specular: encounters with lively commodities are constantly orchestrated, reiterated and amplified, giving them a currency of their own. They are also speculative. As I show in the case of lions, the animals are deployed to set new forms of accumulation in motion, with dynamic effects and promissory orientations in dispersed spaces. The consumptive spectacle triggered by pandas is yet another example of spectacular accumulation at work.

With nature fast becoming a frontier for accumulation, ongoing geographical debates on commodification have significant charge and critical import. Understanding how lively potentials configure or thwart such processes adds to these debates. Furthermore, products of nonhuman labour are not automatically aligned with the logics of capital. They retain the potential for being value-forming for other socio-ecological projects. Attending to these tensions is likely to be a fruitful geographical intervention, especially in a world that is increasingly becoming contingent upon the exchange, sale and consumption of lively commodities.

About the author: Maan Barua is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, and is also an Early Career Fellow of Somerville College. Maan’s work engages political ecology and posthumanist thought to develop new understandings of the geographies of nature.

References

60-world2 Anon. 2013 Edinburgh pandas help zoo to turn around its fortunes. BBC News 07 May 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-22441069

books_icon Barua M 2015 Encounter: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities Environmental Humanities 7 265-270

books_icon Barua M 2016 Lively Commodities and Encounter Value Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 725-744

books_iconBarua M 2016 Nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation: the geographies of a lively commodity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12170

books_icon Haraway D 2012 Value-Added Dogs and Lively Capital in Sunder Rajan K ed Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics and Governance in Global Markets, Duke University Press, Durham and London 93-120

60-world2 Kleinman Z 2016 Can tech keep the world’s bees buzzing? BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37386490

books_icon Marx K 1976 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Fowkes B trans Penguin Books London

books_icon Whatmore S 2002 Hybrid geographies: natures, cultures, spaces. Sage London

Planting the seeds of a quiet activism

Laura Pottinger, University of Manchester

LP allotment pic.jpg

Author’s photo

Though seeds are fundamental to all food systems they have evaded scrutiny in much of the discourse around local and alternative food networks. With rising interest in community gardens, urban allotments and ‘growing your own’ food, some gardeners have begun to question the provenance and suitability of commercially available seeds, and have learnt how to save their own.

‘Seed savers’ are gardeners who cultivate their own fruits and vegetables before selecting, drying and storing the seeds to provide future crops for themselves and others. They claim that home-grown seed is better suited to small-scale, organic systems. What’s more, self-sufficient seed production provides opportunities for resisting the control of what is argued to be an increasingly corporate and concentrated industrial seed system.

Conservation networks, like Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library and local seed swap events connect seed savers so that they can share their seed harvest and source unusual varieties at a low cost. In doing so, seed saving networks extend gardeners’ individual and everyday practices with plants and seeds among a wider gardening community, and contribute to the biodiversity of British gardens.

On February 5th 2017, Seedy Sunday takes place in Brighton and Hove. As the UK’s largest and longest running annual seed swap, the event brings gardeners together to swap seeds (one packet can be swapped for either another packet or a fifty-pence donation), exchange gardening advice and skills, listen to talks and learn about local food projects and environmental groups.

seed swap table.jpg

Seed swap table. Author’s photo

In a new paper in Area, I explore how seed savers’ practices of cultivating and exchanging can be understood as a kind of ‘quiet activism’. Though the relatively mundane activities of tending plants and sharing seeds may seem at odds with the vocal and combative protest often associated with traditional accounts of activist behaviour, they can contribute to environmentally and socially progressive goals.

Seed savers propagate and protect rare and heirloom seeds that are outlawed by EU legislation prohibiting the sale of unregistered varieties. Swapping and gifting seed also generates feelings of connectedness amongst extended collectives of growers. As plant material is circulated and sown, it forges links between diverse growing spaces, connecting gardeners over space and time.

A Guardian article exploring ‘the cult of quiet’ highlights a contemporary desire for quietness, and explores the recent trend for silent reading parties, dining and even dating. Occupying a purposeful rather than passive embodied stance, quiet activism seems to promise both radical potential and the possibility of retreat. Seed savers suggest that their tangible practices of making and growing hold greater currency in cultivating environmentally and socially just food systems than vocal, antagonistic protest. But is there also a risk that these quiet acts go unheard?

This research with seed savers prompts geographers to look beyond noisy and disruptive activism to expose small, quietly subversive acts of gardening, crafting, making and doing. These varied forms of action provide a rich terrain for researchers to explore activisms performed at varying volumes, and their unique possibilities and limitations.

About the author:  Laura Pottinger is a Research Associate and Senior Tutor in Geography at the University of Manchester. Laura’s research explores ethical food consumption, focusing on alternative food initiatives. 

References

books_icon Pottinger L 2016 Planting the seeds of a quiet activism Area doi: 10.1111/area.12318

Sokell A 2016 Saving seeds, one teaspoon at a time The Guardian Online Retrieved 12 December 2016

60-world2 Williams L 2016 Ssshhh! How the cult of quiet can change your life The Guardian Online Retrieved 12 December 2016

60-world2 Seedy Sunday http://www.seedysunday.org/

60-world2 Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl

 

 

United and divided responses to complex urban issues

By Christina Culwick, Gauteng City-Region Observatory, South Africa

img_4776

Flood damage in Ekurhuleni, 2011. Author’s photograph

In November 2016, Ekurhuleni (South Africa) was hit by a spate of heavy floods that left people dead, houses washed away, cars under water and infrastructure irreparably damaged. These floods came in the wake of an extended drought which was experienced across the country. A quick assessment of the situation may lead to the conclusion that freak weather events are on the rise, and that floods are the inevitable consequence of extreme rainstorms. However, cause and effect are seldom so neatly defined, particularly in urban settings.

There are increasing suggestions that extreme weather events and climate change will have the greatest impact in cities, where people are concentrated and many of the natural systems that could provide buffers against extreme weather have been removed or degraded. When one starts to deconstruct the causes and impacts of natural disasters, the messiness and interconnectedness of contributing factors quickly become evident. Natural disasters occur at the intersection of social, political and environmental systems.

There is growing emphasis within both academia and practice on the need for integrated knowledge and disaster management solutions (Mercer et al 2010). However this is only possible through rethinking problems and combining a range of knowledge which is traditionally kept separate (Robinson 2008). Disasters, such as those experienced in Ekurhuleni, provide opportunities to reflect on the current understanding of disasters and approaches to managing them, and find more effective ways of anticipating, preparing and coping with disasters.

A recently published article in Area (Culwick and Patel, 2016) uses set of floods in Atlasville, Ekurhuleni, which took place between 2006 and 2010, to make the case for transdisciplinary approaches in disaster risk reduction. The Atlasville community experienced a series of floods between 2016-2010. Depending on who one spoke to, different people had different assessments of what led to the unprecedented floods in the areas. There was evidence to support some claims that the floods were associated with heavy rainfall events, or extended periods of rain. Other claims placed greater emphasis on the failings of the municipality in proactively managing flood risk by neglecting maintenance of the stormwater system, allowing upstream developments without sufficient rainwater management interventions and poor coordination between municipal departments. Based on their assessment of the cause of the floods, different people came to different conclusions about what flood management response would be most appropriate.

However, if the range of knowledge and perceptions are combined it is possible to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. Culwick and Patel (2016) explore how, when people are able to reframe the problem in ways that cut across sectors and individual perspectives, it becomes much easier to see interconnections, blindspots and where different components have a compounding effect. The interventions that emerged from integrating the different knowledge and perceptions highlighted the importance of not just a single approach, but a multi-pronged approach that deliberately enhances the absorptive and adaptive capacity within each of the natural, infrastructural, municipal and social systems.

The significance of the research findings is twofold. Firstly, the community’s knowledge and social capital emerged as an important resource to assist with monitoring, adaptation and disaster response. Secondly, in the context of disaster management, individual factors in isolation may not pose major threat of disaster, however when these factors compound they can lead to significant disaster risk. It is thus critical to adopt an integrated approach to understanding and managing disaster risk.

About the author: Christina Culwick is a research at Gauteng City-Region Observatory. Her research interests lie in urban sustainability transitions, resilience, environmental governance, and transforming Gauteng towards a liveable, inclusive and just city-region.

References

Chernick I and Mbangeni L 2016 6 Killed in Gauteng flood horror IOL News

Joubert J 2016 SA drought not broken after driest year in history The Tines

books_icon Culwick C and Patel Z 2016 United and divided responses to complex urban issues: insights on the value of a transdisciplinary approach to flooding risk Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12282.

books_icon Mercer J Kelman I Taranis L and Suchet-Pearson S 2010 Framework for integrating indigenous and scientific knowledge for disaster risk reduction Disasters 34 214–239

books_icon Robinson J 2008 Being undisciplined: Transgressions and intersections in academia and beyond Futures 40(1) 70-86