Aerial view of houses in floodwater after natural disaster event at Bekasi, Indonesia

Deconstructing disaster risk creation across Indonesian settlements

10 November 2023
New early-stage research on settlement disaster risk creation processes
PhD candidate Grace Muir shares the motivation for her research on disaster risk creation processes in the built environment and her experience at the Aceh International Workshop and Expo on Sustainable Tsunami Disaster Recovery held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

By Grace Muir, PhD candidate, School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney

Having started my PhD journey in August under the supervision of SSEAC member Dr Aaron Opdyke, I am currently in the early stages of formulating my research directions. Mid-October, I got the opportunity to present my proposed research at the 15th Aceh International Workshop and Expo on Sustainable Tsunami Disaster Recovery (AIWEST-DR 2023), hosted by Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Group photo of conference participants at the 15th Aceh International Workshop and Expo on Sustainable Tsunami Disaster Recovery, hosted by Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

AIWEST-DR 2023 conference participants (Photo: Faculty of Psychology, Universitas Gadjah Mada)

Since my research will be situated in Indonesia, this conference was a great opportunity to learn first-hand about Indonesian (and particularly Javanese) culture. I got to see community-based disaster risk reduction efforts in action and meet with academics involved in a range of disaster risk related research across the country, from tsunami modelling to post-earthquake rebuilding assessments.

My research is motivated by the recognition of a global acceleration in the generation of socially constructed disaster risks, and an associated need for reframing approaches to reducing risks. Disaster risk reduction approaches should not just counter the impacts associated with existing or anticipated risks, but actively target processes which may be routinely creating new risks, such as non-risk-informed development projects.

A community disaster risk management centre in Yogyakarta, showing pump equipment and rescue vests

Conference field visit to a community disaster risk management centre in Yogyakarta (Photo: Grace Muir)

Disaster risk reduction is seemingly central to Indonesia’s national policies and development strategies. Yet despite efforts to reduce disaster risks and increased investment in infrastructural resilience, losses and damages appear to remain high.

With over 650,000 houses damaged nationally in disaster events in the last five years, processes of risk creation could be routinely undermining attempts to reduce risks, providing an important context for research assessing patterns in settlement-related disaster risk creation.

A focus on disaster risk creation processes in the built environment context demands investigating primarily locational (relating to land-use planning) and design (relating to structural conditions) elements. Additional motivation for furthering research in this area comes from some of the preliminary outputs of my literature review which shows that disaster risk trade-offs in settlement developments can drive risk creation. This includes examples of settlements being expanded into known hazard zones, and a general prioritisation of competing political agendas in development planning. I ultimately aim to determine the extent to which settlement design and planning processes could use enhanced assessments of risk conditions to challenge and undermine inequitable patterns of risk creation.

In the context of infrastructure disaster risk, a range of actors can influence the risk landscape, including engineers, local authorities, organisations and community members. For the first phase of my research, I will engage with actors involved in the design, construction and management of infrastructure and disaster risk programs. These discussions will be held at six initial case locations spatially bound by the Indonesian equivalent of community-level administrative divisions (rukun warga), attempting to encapsulate multi-hazard landscapes. These six communities are yet to be determined. The second research phase will look to generate building footprints and risk maps in a smaller sample from the initial six communities, validated through participatory workshops.

Understanding risk conditions are key to their effective management. The resulting analysis of ‘created’ settlement-related risk conditions will form the basis of the final phase, which will work with disaster scenarios co-designed with communities. Focus group discussions will be held to assess how practitioners and communities could apply this form of risk knowledge to settlement design and planning activities. The aim here will be to see whether enhanced conceptions of risk-creating processes combined with settlement vulnerability and exposure data can inform effective risk-reducing strategies and settlement planning procedures.

Overall, some expected research contributions are to make processes of risk creation explicit by developing localised risk knowledge, outline existing risk understandings and their (non-)application in practice, and facilitate participatory approaches to mitigate maladaptive practices under the guise of disaster risk reduction.

Presenting at the AIWEST-DR 2023 conference was a rewarding opportunity that enhanced my understanding of the world of academia and helped me see the directions my research journey could take me on. I am excited to also soon be presenting some outputs from my literature review at the 18th APRU Multi-Hazards Symposium 2023 in Singapore, which should be an equally educational experience.

Please contact me ( if you are interested in discussing anything related to my proposed research. I would be particularly keen to talk to anyone with experience carrying out research in Indonesia. 

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