Connecting the Local and the Global: Haiti and Ottawa

Written by guest blogger Denise Deby, who has worked in international and community development, and is currently trying to figure out how to connect the local with the global in her everyday life.

I’ve had this little dilemma.  In the days following the earthquake in Haiti, I found it difficult to write about other topics.  Most things seemed insignificant in relation to the scale of the tragedy there — the loss of lives, disrupted families, and destroyed livelihoods, homes and infrastructure.  The world didn’t need seem to need another blog post about it, though.

But I couldn’t help thinking about the connections between green living in Ottawa and the earthquake in Haiti.  I struggled with some ideas about the links among the environment, vulnerability and development, and how our local connects to Haiti’s, and about the fragility of our planet, but I wasn’t sure how to see in it a way forward.

Then I came across a blog called Aid on the Edge of Chaos that brought it all together for me.  Blogger Ben Ramalingam writes about seeing natural disasters through the lens of  complex systems.  Usually we interpret natural disasters as isolated events with natural rather than human causes.  But another view is that natural and human factors interact to create the effects of the “natural” disasters.  We need to look at all of the variables, both natural and human, and at how these variables interact to affect the severity of the “disaster”.

In other words, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake on a geological fault, in a populated area with substandard buildings, in combination with highly unequal distribution of resources, wealth and power, led to the devastation we’ve seen in Haiti.

Even if we can’t do much about the natural events themselves, we can influence the human factors.  For Susan Cutter, who is quoted by blogger Raima Larter in Complexity Simplified, this means improving social conditions and living standards to reduce our vulnerability, and building human settlements that are sustainable.

What it means for Ottawa

Certainly the quake has touched many lives here in Ottawa.  People have lost family members, friends and colleagues.  Many Ottawa residents have taken action by donating to organisations supporting disaster relief, medical assistance and rehabilitation.  Even my neighbourhood community centre and my kids’ school have organised to raise funds.  (One grade three class alone collected over $500 from families and neighbours for earthquake relief.)

Ottawa has emergency planning procedures in place, but what about our resilience to natural disasters and environmental threats?  With house fires, for example, we can see that people who are less well off or who lack community ties might be more adversely affected by the loss of their homes and belongings.  Disaster planning shouldn’t just be about preparing for and dealing with the aftermath of natural events.  It’s also about investing in community and social development and access to services, addressing poverty and inequality, and safeguarding the environmental resources we depend on.  It means building strong communities, where people have resources and connections to draw on in times of need.

Come to think of it, those connections could be local ones, but they can be global as well.

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