Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Causes Disasters?

When you picture a disaster, what comes to mind? The Asian Tsunami? The Haitian Earthquake? Hurricane Katrina? What about the Syrian Civil War? Is it a disaster? Most people think of disasters in terms of the natural hazards that act as the trigger; earthquakes, cyclones, floods and tsunamis are some of the most widely perceived hazards. The prevalence of this outlook produces a myth of disasters as natural occurrences. This masks the fact that disasters occur due to complex social, political and economic choices and circumstances.

Certain cities, countries and regions are undeniably more exposed to natural hazards than others. Residents of New Zealand and Japan understand and accept the likelihood of earthquakes impacting on their lives, just as residents of the Philippines and Caribbean island nations understand and accept the likelihood of destructive typhoons/cyclones. In many cases, relocation away from a hazard is not a possibility.

However, not every individual or community or nation that faces a high likelihood of natural hazards occurring due to location is equally affected. Impact is determined by factors other than the strength or the frequency of the hazard.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have witnessed significant changes in every aspect of our society. Much is made of the "progress" of the human race since then. However, as much as the wealth and health generated has allowed our species to flourish, more people have been the victims of this progress than have been beneficiaries. Billions of people today suffer from hunger, thirst, poverty, discrimination, conflict and other injustice, often stemming directly from the "progress" of others.

Disasters are simply inevitable in this world of deep injustice, where the majority have been left behind (and in many cases left worse off) as the privileged few have moved ahead.

We can analyse people that have been left behind at different levels. Certain countries benefited greatly from colonisation and more recently, globalization. In both cases, the majority are left to serve the minority from a position of powerlessness. This translates into a widening divide between the rich and the poor. Rising inequality is not only a growing issue between countries, but between communities and classes in most nations. At the scale of the individual, personal characteristics and circumstances are key.

Right now, in 2016, it feels as though we are hurtling towards catastrophic collapse. From the refusal to take real action on climate change (and in many cases outright denial of the problem) to the power-grab by reactionary political elements, strengthened by public discontent with the neoliberal status quo. Rhetoric is becoming more divisive, more hateful, more intolerant.

Our finely tuned ecosystems are breaking down. The "progress" of the human race has resulted in great losses for all other life on earth. Our coral reefs are dying. Our oceans are being emptied. Our forests and jungles are being destroyed. Almost all agricultural diversity is being lost. Species are becoming extinct at 1000 times the background rate (without our influence). We treat everything (living and otherwise) on earth as a resource to be exploited for profit.

We are in the middle of a mass extinction and we carry on as if things have never been better. Hubris. Blissful ignorance. Dangerous delusion.

When I started on my research journey in this field, I wrongly assumed that the best I could do was discover how to manage disasters more efficiently, competently and sensitively. Of course, I quickly realised that this approach is based on a highly reactive ideology that does not offer real hope for reducing losses in the future, particularly in a world changing in the way that it is. To commit to only managing disasters seems to assume that we cannot do more.

My view is that we need to advocate for an approach based on a deeper understanding of and concern for the reasons why disasters happen, why people are vulnerable in the first place and what the human and non-human impacts of disasters are.

We must respond to the needs of our planet and all forms of life on it. We should not accept disasters as natural, or associated losses as an inevitable outcome. A disaster risk reduction approach is committed to addressing the socially constructed root causes of disasters. Scholarship in this field asserts that pre-existing vulnerability is always the main predictor of disaster impact, and efforts to reduce risk begin invariably with root causes rather than symptoms.

By finding ways to help people become less vulnerable, and opposing the political, economic and social norms that hold them back, it is still possible to envisage a world with less disasters.


  1. An interesting observation. I can see how 'disaster' is one of the undeniable consequences of the larger problems that humanity continues to face. Unresponsive domestic policies, economic and social marginalization of people within a country, politically and economically motivated conflicts, and a global system that makes the poor subservient to the rich are all factors that impact preparedeness and responses to disasters. I agree that what we need is getting to the roots of the problem rather than reacting to it.

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