There are no natural disasters
Last year at a webinar on Disaster Risk Reduction, the presenter introduced a slide titled — “There are no natural disasters”. After a few moments of scepticism, I found myself intrigued by the idea and decided to study it. Today, , I echo the thoughts of the presenter — there are no natural disasters because there is nothing natural about disasters.
The word ‘disaster’ is commonly used to mean either “a calamitous events” or “something that has a very bad effect or result”. These definitions are often (though not exclusively) associated with outcomes due to climactic events. However, when you boil the interpretations down, disasters are best defined as “…a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity…” — (www.nonaturaldisasters.com)
This definition works really well as it puts the onus of the disaster on our ability to interact with our surroundings, rather an implicit danger or fault of nature itself. Earthquakes, floods and hurricanes are all part of natural processes, and the way we interact with them determines if we experience a disaster.
Given that all humans do not experience a disaster the same way, it becomes even more evident that disasters are more a socio-economic construct than a ‘natural’ one. This interpretation is perfectly described in a letter correspondence between the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire in 1756. In the letter, Rousseau references the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon stating
“… nature did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories […], and that if inhabitants of this great city were more equally spread out and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less and perhaps to no account…”
Common usage today
Sadly, this thinking is not the overwhelming opinion of societies today. Instead, nature’s processes are being pointed out as the reason behind the disasters we face. A simple Google search would show that the word ‘disaster’ is often accompanied with ‘natural’ as its adjective in dictionaries, reports and case studies. Even government departments dealing with disaster management have used the term liberally. Rousseau’s wise words are more essential today than ever before.
But things are changing
That said, recent times have shown a positive trend- the predominantly accepted term among experts for these natural processes is ‘natural hazards’. There are online movements such as #NoNaturalDisasters that are promoting this thinking in a big way. Many larger organisations are also working towards Disaster Risk Reduction objectives, such as IFRC, have also started educating the public about this terminology
Terming natural hazards as disasters has many implications on our psyche. It makes us feel powerless and removes the blame from our own ways of living. Disasters are not inevitable, they are not the faults of nature but a combined consequence of the economic, sociological, and urban planning elements of our society. Accepting this can make a big difference in the way we respond to nature and maybe make us take more responsibility in the way we interact with our environment.