Katastrophenhilfe – Katastrophe oder Hilfe?
A new movie shows results of a FWF study on the devastating consequences of disaster aid on the Nicobar Islands in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. © Simron Jit Singh

Disaster aid is a humanitarian obligation. The logistical process involved in the provision of such aid is often highly professional, and innumerable lives are saved. However, the people whose lives have been saved are not always able to continue living as before: disasters can destroy living conditions permanently. The idea though that the disaster aid itself can also have this effect is new – and one of the findings of a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and carried out by the IFF – Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies of the Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt. Researchers from Columbia University in New York assessed the project amongst many others as particularly exemplary and presented it on the Internet as teaching material. The process leading to the project's results – and the personal commitment shown by the scientists, local population and research partners –  has now also been documented by filmmaker Raphael Barth and presented in a 100-minute work of striking intensity.

Complex disaster

The film recounts the unfolding of a "complex disaster" – whose initial description and conceptual record of the event is one of the main outputs of the research project. Project leader Marina Fischer-Kowalski from the Institute of Social Ecology at the IFF explains: "A 'complex disaster' arises when humanitarian intervention in the aftermath of a natural disaster severely reduces the capacity of the indigenous population to achieve rehabilitation and develop sustainable ways of life that do not require continuing external aid. We were able to document, analyse and publicise this phenomenon for the first time in the aftermath of the tsunami on the Nicobar Islands." Indeed, the project demonstrated the general irreconcilability of the logic of humanitarian aid and the need to re-establish sustainable economic systems. The team working with Fischer-Kowalski developed, among other things, computer models for the post-tsunami period, which now provide information about the forms of economic activity that may be deemed worthy of support when the culture, resources and demographic developments in a disaster area are taken into account.

The second flood

The scientific results were just one product of the project teams' multi-faceted activities. Based on these activities, the team also contributed to concrete rehabilitation efforts on-site and was able to capitalise on its close relationship with the local populations and in-depth knowledge of their way of life. Team member Simron Jit Singh had already carried out research on the local culture before the tsunami and had made friends with Prince Rasheed Yusuf, spokesman of the well-respected Nancowry-clan, who approached him for assistance in the aftermath of the disaster. Together with journalist Denis Giles, the two worked on the post-disaster rehabilitation efforts. Their failures, small successes, the lessons they learned from the mistakes made and the commitment shown by the innumerable actors who accompanied the process now provide the content of a recently completed film: "Aftermath – Die Zweite Flut (The Second Flood)" is a film by the Austrian filmmaker Raphael Barth. It reports on the impact of money, plastic bottles and fast food on an indigenous population, which traditionally lived on fishing and coconut processing. It also depicts the inability of numerous non-governmental organisations (NGO) to adapt their post-tsunami aid efforts to the cultural needs of the population – even in response to the concrete wishes expressed by the Nicobar people. The film also demonstrates the commitment shown by Singh, Prince Rasheed and Denis Giles in establishing their own NGO, which focuses on facilitating self-help by the local population, aims to establish a sustainable economy and organises training for young Nicobarese. Powerful words and images illustrate the findings presented by Fischer-Kowalski in her FWF-funded project. The combination of targeted research and creative visual presentation marks the attainment of a new level of quality in the communication of scientific research, and makes an important contribution towards raising awareness among organisations about the long-term consequences of disaster aid in the context of traditional economic systems.

Personal details Marina Fischer-Kowalski is founder and long-term director of the Institute of Social Ecology. She is Professor of Social Ecology at Alpen Adria University. Her research interests are Social Ecology, Sustainability transitions, Theories of social change, Environmental Sociology, Societal resource use and Environmental Information Systems.