What is a Disaster?

There are many ways of defining a disaster. Often a disaster is seen as a calamitous event that goes beyond the ability of a community or society to cope without outside assistance. The word ‘disaster’ is very dramatic, and often leads us to think about large-scale environmental catastrophes like hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. But these also form part of more everyday experiences of hazards in many parts of the world, and communities have generated inventive strategies for adapting to challenging climates.

In some cases, the experience of disaster may refer as much to the difficulties communities face in rebuilding their homes, and reconstructing their lives and livelihoods, as it does to the hazardous event itself. Such difficulties become real problems when responsibility for disasters is not addressed, or when people who have not been affected by the disaster seize opportunities to make changes without full consultation and consent.

Environmental hazards become large-scale disasters when communities are placed in positions of vulnerability – when different factors come together to prevent them from being able to protect themselves from hazardous events. These factors include poverty and underdevelopment, and are also linked to historical processes, as many of the world’s most vulnerable states and communities continue to bear the scars of colonial exploitation and domination. Vulnerability can also be connected to global processes like climate change; to the way we are using natural resources; and to the many social conflicts that are experienced as long-term catastrophes throughout the world.

Consider the following chart of trends in numbers of disasters that are reported globally (click for larger version):

Trends in Reported Disasters

(Number of reported disasters p.a. since 1900. Credit: Riccardo Pravettoni, UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

There’s a huge spike in the number of reported disasters since around the end of World War II. During the same period, the number of agencies that have been established to minimise the risk of global disasters has increased at the same rate. Why has greater knowledge about the causes of disasters not helped us to prevent them?

To address this question, we need to think carefully about the way global economic processes might be accelerating vulnerability to disasters. To what extent do we need to consider environmental disaster alongside long-term crises such as chronic poverty, pollution, and global warming?

The following illustration is a map of the world in which different regions are blown up or made smaller according to the number of deaths caused when disasters occur (1970-2010):

Disaster deaths

(Source: World Bank staff based on EMDAT/CRED data)

What do such distortions tell us about patterns of vulnerability to disasters? Is the lack of vulnerability in richer nations linked to the severe vulnerability experienced by poorer ones? How might histories of colonialism and globalisation help us understand why people living in some places suffer so much more from disasters than those in others? And what are our shared responsibilities for mitigating disasters and assisting long-term recovery?

These are important questions as they challenge the way in which disasters experienced elsewhere can seem like distant, unlucky events. If disasters are not simply ‘accidents’ but are produced by human actions, we also need to consider how social crises like wars and genocide are also disasters whose roots can likewise often be found in historical conflicts, power relations, and pressures on local environments. This may change the way we think about disasters and our responses to them.