PhD thesis

The Progression of Vulnerability:

A multi-scalar perspective on disasters, the case of Chaitén, Chile


Resume (100 words):

I devise the case of Chaitén, a disaster induced by a volcanic eruption in southern Chile in 2008, to illustrate how specific multi-scalar processes such as the institutional forms for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk management (DRM) and decisions making during an emergency are unfolded from major to minor geographical scales. The actions and inactions of national, regional and local officials related to DRR and DRM between 2008 and 2013 have largely contributed to the current situation of Chaitén; a city split in two where unforeseen effects of policies are unjustly distributed and the population is unevenly exposed to hazards.


While it is widely acknowledged that disasters are socially constructed, the practice of governments in attempting to reduce disasters is still dominated by ‘techno-centric’ approaches that tend to underestimate the importance of underlying root causes of vulnerability, and likewise restrict such causal factors to specific local conditions. Disaster studies scholars have thus acknowledged the necessity to expand knowledge on the social, economic, political, and cultural causal factors for disasters and vulnerability, and therewith the need to conduct more social science research from a multi-scalar perspective; addressing both major and minor scales factors. This thesis therefore investigates the ‘progression of vulnerability’ and the Pressure and Release (PAR) model from a perspective of scale to better understand the causation of disasters. This is addressed in the thesis through its contribution of an interdisciplinary integration of both disasters and scales literature. This is specifically done in respect to the case of Chaitén in Chile: a case which lends itself particularly well to the exploration of the debate on the social construction of disasters from a multi-scalar perspective. The case of the Chaitén volcano eruption in 2008 and the subsequent evacuation, recovery, and reconstruction processes are examined by qualitative methods at different geographical scales; from national and regional decision making, institutional and documentary analysis, in-depth interviews, and field observations. The case reveals how temporally and spatially distant macro processes such as national decision making and the state territorial organisation of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk management (DRM) in Chile have influenced the ‘materialisation’ of specific local ‘unsafe conditions’ in Chaitén, these being: the uneven distribution of environmental risks; limited access to services; erosion of trust in public authorities; and the weaknesses of emergency planning.

Keywords: Disasters, Vulnerability, Scales, Chaitén