New families arise from Asia’s disasters

Author: Helen James, ANU

Asia, which hosts the largest proportion of the world’s population, suffers the most from the world’s natural disasters.

Between 1999 and 2008, Asia was affected by 40 per cent of the world’s identified natural disasters. Of the 2.7 billion people worldwide who were affected on average on each of those years, 85 per cent were Asian. Asian countries also incurred 64 per cent of the estimated total US$4.4 billion costs.

In view of these losses, on the 10th anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in Kobe, the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction developed the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. It set out a policy agenda encouraging countries to mitigate risks, enhance preparedness and reduce vulnerability to disasters. The public policy focus subsequently shifted from post-disaster response and recovery to community and individual resilience, identified by Norris et al (2008: 127, 135) as a ‘process linking a set of networked adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation in constituent populations after a disturbance [emphasis added]’.

In recent years, the resilience of Asian populations affected by major natural disasters has been apparent in the varied approaches to forming new families. For example, in China in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008, exceptions to the country’s one-child policy were introduced for those who had lost children or spouses. The death toll ranged from 80,000 (the official figure) to over 400,000 (according to a Taiwan researcher) across 11 provinces.

Initial research suggested that within two years of a disaster, there were perceived trends to seek to replace lost children, to find a new spouse and to rebuild, as part of the psycho-social aspects of recovery.

At Yingxue, the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake, an attractive newly built town commemorates the many town children who were lost when the primary and middle schools collapsed. A memorial conference park is situated opposite the former schools site.

At Beichuan, another town in the disaster zone, 20,000 of the town’s 30,000 people died. The entire town has been preserved as a memorial site while, at a cost of more than US$2 billion, a new city has been built some 50 kilometres away, in an ostensibly safer area. This cost was borne by the prosperous province of Shandong at the direction of the central government. Again, the site of the collapsed schools is preserved as a memorial at which haunting music continually plays while a steady stream of mourners attends. Here, the local UN Population Fund chief and mayor of the town provides evidence that about 1400 women have so far had approval to have a ‘replacement’ child. However, given that many of the children were teenagers at the time of the disaster, and their mothers would have been past the normal child-bearing age, the central government and the provincial governments have felt it imperative to provide special reproductive services to assist these women, where applicable, to have another child.

In this case, the central government considered the extensive losses caused by the disaster and its impact on the next generation presented a potential spark for civil unrest. Public policy thus centred on addressing both the emotional and physical concerns of the survivors. It was recognised that the physical reconstruction of buildings would not be sufficient to set the community on its pathway to recovery.

A similar earthquake in 2003, south-west of Bam, Iran, provides a contrasting case. The earthquake levelled the town and the ancient citadel and caused over 30,000 deaths. As part of the recovery effort, government policy has been to provide financial assistance and incentives for families to re-form, in accordance with cultural and religious values. Evidence to date suggests that where the surviving partners originated from Bam, the new families formed appear to have thrived; but where one of the new partners (perhaps lured by government incentives to land ownership in the area) comes from a different part of Iran, the subsequent marriages frequently failed. In Bam, the human inclination to replace lost children and lost families is again apparent.

In Myanmar, this pattern is repeated in the Irrawaddy delta, which was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, with over 140,000 dead or missing. There were no deaths in the delta’s south-west, among the Karen villages near the town of Amar, but all the dwellings were destroyed when a two-metre-high wave swept through the area. Villagers and local non-government organisations helped in reconstruction. In one village of 1400 people, 133 children have been born since 2008, or around 30–40 per year since the cyclone. The Burmese village of Byi Chaung on the south-eastern side of the delta had a pre-Nargis population of around 300. It lost one third of its population in the storm, 70 of whom were children. Here a similar post-disaster birth rate appears to have occurred. The village population in November 2012 stood at around 500. Some 23 marriages occurred since Cyclone Nargis, producing around 20 children per year since 2009.

While the above data are preliminary, the pattern of seeking to re-establish a family circle after losses, and of seeking to bring ‘replacement’ children into the world, appears to be occurring in all three of these widely disparate cultural and governance contexts. The pattern also seems to be correlated with psycho-social recovery and is independent of the physical reconstruction context which, again, in all three cases, is widely divergent. This suggests that the long-term demographic impact of major disasters in Asia requires further extensive research.

Helen James is Associate Professor at the Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute, the Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘Demographic Transition’.

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