Unnatural disaster: assessing social vulnerability to hazards, case study of Kya sands informal settlement

Rangata, Mahlogonolo
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Informal settlements across Johannesburg were home to approximately 220 000 households as at 2012 (Ciurean, et al., 2013). Given the fluidity of tenure in informal settlements, this figure has most likely increased to date. Often located on the urban fringe, on land that is low-lying and considered undesirable for dwelling, informal settlements are usually victim to disaster because of harsh weather conditions. Furthermore, the dwellings are constructed using materials that are flammable or easily washed away by water, further heightening vulnerability. The disasters that arise from this are considered artificial or unnatural as they are largely the result of material inequalities which have little to do with the disaster event itself, and are further exacerbated by a lack of social infrastructure to prevent it. Vulnerability, however, cannot be equated to poverty and, while informal settlements are more vulnerable to disaster, this vulnerability is never homogenous within a locale. This study conceives and operationalises vulnerability quite broadly, allowing a wide variety of hazards to be examined. Using Kya Sands Informal Settlement in the north of Johannesburg as the study site, this study qualitatively investigates social vulnerability to disaster in Kya Sands, and how the intersection of various drivers of social vulnerability produces vulnerability. It investigates the risk perceptions of residents and how they mitigate against disaster. This is done through in-depth interviews with residents which were analysed using the grounded theory method. The researcher has also taken “best-practice’’ social vulnerability indicators and asked residents how they experience these as affecting their vulnerability. This study brings together three streams of theory: unnatural disaster, social vulnerability, and intersectionality. More specifically, it uses intersectionality as a lens through which vulnerability and disaster can be studied. It argues that the perception of disaster adopted in literature and the perception of disaster adopted by the residents are different; residents do not base their notion of disaster on the magnitude of the disaster event and the losses incurred as is often done in risk studies, but rather on the spatial and temporal proximity of the hazard. Residents feel like they are in a constant state of disaster which ultimately supersedes whatever perception they may have of their exposure to hazard. The perceptions of residents of the drivers of social vulnerability also differ greatly to what is commonly suggested. The sense of precarity and community shared is so strong that cultural and individual indicators are inconsequential to their overall vulnerability. Residents feel that structural and economic indicators render them socially vulnerable. Moreover, the possession of a single characteristic, i.e. being female, is never a determinant of vulnerability; rather it is the exhibition of two or more characteristics that influences vulnerability. Because of this, and the fact that people are unique social entities, vulnerability can never be homogenous. Evidence of varying levels of social vulnerability exist and this is driven by the interaction of the various drivers. Studying vulnerability through intersectionality has allowed a greater view of vulnerability that extends beyond the physical characteristics of the said environment, to include a view of how it interacts with the individual, cultural, and social characteristics of the study population. This study highlights the importance of factoring in the perceptions of those considered vulnerable in vulnerability studies, whilst also highlighting the need for a way to translate social research into actionable policy initiatives
Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Science by research only May 2019