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Competing Constructions of Calamity: The April 1991 Bangladesh Cyclone

Michael R. Dove and Mahmudul Huq Khan
Population and Environment
Vol. 16, No. 5 (May, 1995), pp. 445-471
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27503418
Page Count: 27
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Competing Constructions of Calamity: The April 1991 Bangladesh Cyclone
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Abstract

On April 30, 1991, a cyclone of unusual intensity hit the coastline of Bangladesh, causing over one hundred thousand deaths and widespread property damage. An international debate ensued over whether the disaster was due to natural phenomena and should be addressed by relief measures, or whether it was due to social, economic, and political factors and should be addressed by structural change in society. This study explores the dimensions of this debate by means of a content analysis of accounts of the cyclone by the Bangladesh media and government, and by the international media and scholarly community. Bangladeshi accounts of the cyclone emphasize its purported inevitability and natural origins. However, scholars maintain that while cyclones are inevitable, disasters such as occurred in April 1991 are not: they are a function of the historically increasing socioeconomic vulnerability of the Bangladesh population. According to this view, the "natural disaster" of April 1991 could more accurately be called a "social or political disaster." The factor chiefly responsible for transforming natural disasters into sociopolitical disasters is occupation of hazardous areas. The Bangladesh media and government suggest that the cyclone's impact was worsened by the irrational behavior of individuals and the limited resources of the nation. Non-Bangladeshi accounts focus instead on the poverty of individuals and the structural inequities of society, which compel people to live in hazardous areas. Bangladeshi accounts attempted to link the cyclone to global warming and the greenhouse gas emissions of the industrialized nations, thus shifting the focus from internal problems of structure and equity to international problems of structure and equity. Debates such as this promise to become more common, as the global environment becomes increasingly "post-natural" and the framing of relations between population and environment is increasingly contested.

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