Degrees of Separation and Disaster Response in the Pacific

The theory of “six degrees of separation” is people connect to each other –globally- within a chain of six relationships. In the Solomon Islands there is a smaller degree of separation. The smaller degree of separation affects the social impact of disasters. Currently, the concepts in this article are based on observation. Further research -to create a base of evidence- is needed to validate or invalidate solutions I pose.

Flash Flood in the Solomon Islands

April 3, 2014 there was a flash flood in Guadalcanal. The death toll was twenty-two people. The disaster affected 52,000 people (11.7% of the total population). By international standards this was not a large disaster. However, locally people felt it was a challenge like none they had ever faced. The numeric impact of the disaster was disproportionate to the social impact.

Loti Yates, director of the National Disaster Management Office in the Solomon Islands, stated,

“The floods were not just the worst I have seen in my 14 years with the National Disaster Management Office, but in my whole life” (OCHA, “Solomon Islands Worst Flooding in History”, Para 5, April 2014).

For people living on Guadalcanal this disaster had come from no-where and completely crippled them.

Five months after the disaster I did an evaluation with World Vision Solomon Islands. I heard many stories about the disaster. Some -who had not witnessed the disaster directly, but heard stories of it- still had sleepless nights. Others had lost loved ones or seen people lose loved ones and lived in fear of the same happening to them. For most the disaster was still alive in their daily lives. As I reflected on this disaster the numbers and social impact -narratives I heard- did not add up.

Previously, I had worked in Emergency Services in the United States and oversaw disaster responses in the Philippines. Using typical measurements the scope of the Guadalcanal disaster was not congruent with the observable social impact.

Mismatch of traditional initial assessment measures and social impact

Possibility #1 – Disasters in locations with fewer degrees of separation have a greater social impact than locations with larger degrees of separation

The degree of separation affects on the social impact of disasters. Because of a smaller degree of separation -in the solomon islands- disasters have a higher social impact than nations with a larger population – and higher degrees of separation (See figure 1 and 2). The higher social impact calls for a different form of assessment and response than nations with higher degrees of separation.

Assumptions to be tested

  • There is a smaller degree of separation in the Solomon Islands (and possibly in other small island nations) vs. nations with higher populations.
  • Smaller degrees of separation causes a higher degree of connectedness to an event. People’s connectedness to the events increases levels of secondary trauma and loss. Increased secondary trauma and loss increases social impact.

Equation for social impact of disasters based on degrees of separation

X = Number of people affected by the disaster

N = Degrees of Separation.

Y = Country Population

Disaster Social Impact Formula

Future scale to be developed

If the above worked for measuring social impact a scale for disasters which take place in similar situations – as the Solomon Islands – which looks at social impact would be developed. This scale would be a common interval 1-5 scale which would bring meaning to the level recorded as the Disaster Social Impact equation.

Possibility # 2- Broken Circle of Care

Another possible reason for the high level of social impact is the percent of population effected on the island -the event happened – as compared to the overall country population. People who live in the Solomon Islands often express a higher level of ethnic identity as compared to national identity. Support networks are based on strong ethnic (family) ties.

The first degree of separation is wide. The family or household is much more extended than the typical western ‘family’. Further, those in your ethnic network are called Wantok (one talk). Wantok describes how people rely on their ethnic networks as the major part of their social safety nets. The Wantok –not the government- provide the social safety net. This creates a circle of care within the family and ethnic group. If a larger percent of the first degree of separation (Wantok) relationships are strained the circle of care breaks. The Wantok safety net is stretched to it’s limits.

In the Solomon Islands Flash Flood 32.8% of the Guadalcanal and Honiara population was affected by the disaster. Much of this group was from the same ethnicity (although even in this geography -especially in Honiara- there is diversity).
Making an initial assessment based off 32.8% of a population is very different than the number commonly reported which was 11.7% of the overall country population.

Using 11.7% assumes a strong national identity and safety net that would go along with that identity. 32.8% assumes a strong ethnic identity and safety net (Wantok).

Assumptions to be Tested

1) Support in the Solomon Islands comes predominantly from family or ethnic groups (Wantok).

2) When a certain percent of the Wantok population is overwhelmed the entire population has a harder time absorbing loss.

Ethnic Group Impact Equation

X = number of people affected

Y = population of ethnicity

Future question

At what point does the impact of Ethnic Groups (Wantok) hit a tipping point at which people need external support?

Small changes, exponential impact

In the World Risk Index four of the top fifteen nations are in the pacific (with Vanuatu and Tonga ranking first and second; Solomon Islands ranking 6th) (World Risk Report, 2012, p. 9). If standard means of measurement for disasters are lacking for the context of the Solomon Islands this could also be true of other Pacific Island nations which have similarities to the Solomon Islands.

If found valid the above equations could be used as part of the initial assessment of disasters in the Solomon Islands and nations that have similarities to the Solomon Islands. Small changes in disaster response -early-on- have exponential impact through the recovery.

Note: To give credit where credit is due, Peter Weston (World Vision Solomon Island, Program Quality Manager) and I had many conversations about the impact of the flash flood and the wantok support system. Not to equate the effects of the flash flood to a genocide, but Peter pointed out using percentage of a population versus total numbers is similar to one part of how agencies determine Genocide. Genocide is not based on the terrible act of a large population of one ethnicity being killed. This would be a war crime. Genocide is based on the percentage of an ethnic population that is killed.


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