Poverty and Vulnerability in Kemijen

Blog by Maja P. Schjervheim, University of Hawaii at Manoa Master of Urban and Regional Planning Student

Although subsidence, flooding and climate change puts the residents of Kemijen at risk, their vulnerability should not only be attributed to external climatic or internal structural and social factors. As our time in Kemijen went on it became clear that poverty was a major source of vulnerability of people in the area. This is for example illustrated by the material adaptations certain people in the area were able to make. Whereas some people in Kemijen have the economic capital and access to materials to raise their houses and improve their sanitary situation, others do not.  Those with higher adaptive capacity might not be experiencing flooding and related health issues as a major impairment to their lives anymore. On the other hand those who still have sunken houses and open disposal of wastewater have to frequently live in flooded houses and are affected by contaminated water and related health issues.

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The resilience concept has been criticized for implying that adapting to disasters and climate change is an internal quality of a community, putting much of the responsibility on vulnerable communities. In Kemijen it was clear that the “internal” adaptive capacity, or at least willingness and motivation to adapt was quite strong and at times remarkable. However the socio-economic and political factors that influence their access to resources and capital often worked against their willingness to adapt. Their poverty is thus strongly linked to their vulnerability. Although flood related expenses perpetuate their poverty, economic deficiency was not caused by climatic factors per se. On the contrary poverty is for many the reason they or their family settled in the area in the first place. People with low economic capacity often settle in disaster prone areas because of low land prices and/or land vacancy.

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The realization that poverty and socio-economic and political root causes is a major cause of vulnerability in Kemijen might seem obvious and source to little action. What are we going to do? Suggest that the issue of poverty and inequality should be solved? Such a suggestion would likely be met with rolling eyes signaling our naïveté. Nonetheless we cannot ignore the recognition that other shorter-term solutions within the community do not solve the broader economic factors that put these people in a vulnerable position, a position that is often inherited by the next generation. At the very least such recommendations should be coupled with efforts towards long-term changes in the macro forces that shape the socio-economic reality of residents in Kemijen as well as other groups in similar vulnerable positions. However impossible it might seem. Ignoring this would be laying an inequitable amount of responsibility on a group of people that are not merely creators of their own reality, but part of a larger system that contributes to these socio-economic pockets of vulnerability in a society.

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