On the Bay of Bengal near Kalapara at the mouth of the Rabnabad River, with Orissa on the skyline.

International construction inspection as a Chartered Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects provided on-site experience of environmental hazards: snow, ice and periods of drought in New York State, cyclones and severe rainfall and in Hong Kong. Senior Research Fellowships at Universities of Bradford (Disaster Research Unit) and Bath preceded flooding in Bangladesh, earthquakes in Algeria and impacts of environmental hazards upon a coastal settlements and island states - indicators of an essential need for working relationships towards the reduction of disaster risk.

James Lewis | Datum International

email: jameslewis@datum-international.eu

Tuvalu: The Maneaba

Datum International

Datum International was established in 1980 for the undertaking of overseas consultancies with United Nations organisations and agencies (UNCTAD,UNEP, UNESCO, UNHabitat and WHO), the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation and the European Commission, in Algeria, Bangladesh, and island states of the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

Rigorous environmental consideration became a creative extension of architectural thought; exploration of reasons why buildings collapse, crucial significance of siting and of design for flooding, earthquake, and storm, and measures for existing buildings to take account of climate change and its extremes.

Vulnerabitity to natural hazards

School in El Asnam, Algeria, destroyed by earthquake in 1980.

The vulnerable state of populations and settlements is as much a contributor to the cause of ‘natural’ disasters as are the physical phenomena with which they are associated over time.”. What are called ‘earthquakes’ and ‘hurricanes’ are the natural forces; what are seen afterwards are the results of the impact of those forces on human settlements (where) damage destruction and death are conditioned by the decisions and actions of society.
James Lewis Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability 1999 pp4-5. IT Publications (Practical Action). London.

Many places may have an inherent vulnerability to hazards, such as earthquakes or tropical cyclones, and occupants of those places, communities or buildings, knowingly or unknowingly inherit and become part of the vulnerability of the place they inhabit.

What is done, or not done, to a place by people in distant or recent pasts, can come to affect not only its occupiers at that time, but also those that follow, recurrently for many years and in perpetuity.
(Lewis & Kelman ACME 2010 p194).

In the same way, external pressures upon people may contribute to their susceptibility, and consequently to their vulnerability: their exploitation and that of land, community displacement, social exclusion and corruption in government, for example, lead to impoverishment and poverty and are known examples of causes of people’s vulnerability.

Disasters, therefore, are rarely “natural” - they are created by humankind. Most people’s exposure to disaster risk has been created by others, in recent times and in historical pasts.

For millions of people there are few options for where, in what, or how they live, having been forced or obliged to occupy places most exposed to floods or landslides, on land not required for commercial agriculture or other purposes, or in conditions so overcrowded and without basic utilities that self improvement has become impossible.

Social and economic conditions in which a majority of people live are created by the actions and inactions of others, made in their own political and commercial self-interest. These actions and inactions and the authorities that issue or condone them, invariably have become institutionalised, “permanently” ingrained and “every day”.

Domination and control have become a significant negative characteristic of everyday life because the power to effect change remains with those who benefit, not with those who suffer the consequences of oppression, discrimination, exploitation - and consequent poverty and vulnerability.

If we want to reduce the impact of disasters and reduce disaster risk, we should limit and prevent such actions and inactions.

Bangladesh: Dingabanga, Kutubdia 1993


Corruption is an engine of poverty and vulnerability. Impoverished communities suffer a disproportionate share of losses and are rendered less able to counter daily needs or subsequent extremes.

Corruption is a significant cause of building failure in earthquakes. Reinforced concrete, used all over the world, will fail if cement and steel are not adequate. Buildings will collapse and occupants, users and neighbours will lose their lives. Only afterwards does wreckage and rubble reveal the causes of failure, the deaths, injuries, bereavement and loss, in what should have been the social purpose of building.

Earthquakes don’t kill people; collapsing buildings do. While earthquakes may not be preventable, it is possible to prevent the disasters they cause. Many deaths ... result from buildings that folded in on themselves because concrete was diluted, steel bars were excised, or otherwise substandard building practices were employed.
James Lewis, Global Corruption Report, 2005 Transparency International. Berlin. p23.


Climate change

Extremes of weather brought about by climate change expose prevailing and new vulnerabilities and may cause the incidence of disasters to increase. Cyclical consequences of domestic and community displacement create new and exacerbated vulnerabilities. Impacts of climate change are greatest upon cities, ports and harbours due to sea level rise, and other settlements on low-lying coastlines and deltas, upon poorer countries and upon poverty everywhere, and upon countries with weak governance and endemic corruption as prime causes of under-development.


Solomon Islands: Nggela from Guadalcanal

Though they may be missed by tropical cyclones that impact the shores of larger countries, the proportional impact of tropical cyclones, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions upon individual islands and island states is much greater – to the extent of almost all dwellings demolished or all crops lost (Lewis 1979). Numerous islands have been fought over and colonised, often more than once and some archipelagos include active volcanoes; superimposed vulnerability becomes exacerbated by recurrent natural and other hazards.