Why "natural" disasters aren't all that natural

Source(s): openDemocracy
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Storm surge hitting a light house
Damian Harrison/Shutterstock

By Ksenia Chmutina, Jason von Meding, JC Gaillard and Lee Bosher

Disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes result from a combination of natural hazards and social and human vulnerability. Calling them 'natural disasters' artificially naturalises the harms they cause.

Summer 2017 has been full of stories about (not so) ‘freak’ weather events. Floods in Japan and Italy and hurricanes in the USA have been extensively covered in news broadcasts (while other disasters in low-income countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and India have been largely ignored). Disasters and the risks they pose are thus becoming more and more prominent on political and media agendas as the damages caused by these disasters are on the increase.

In May 2017 over 6,000 policy makers, local governments’ representatives, NGO, community leaders, researchers and academics from around the world gathered together for the UN’s Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico. A week of discussion and debate focused on the global agenda to reduce disaster risk.

A number of key messages were presented under the slogan ‘From Commitment to Action’. These highlighted the importance of continuing work on the Sendai Framework for Action’s priority areas and identified other areas that should be mainstreamed in the implementation of disaster risk reduction. This includes ensuring coherence with the sustainable development and climate change agendas, gender-sensitive and inclusive disaster risk reduction, and international cooperation initiatives for critical infrastructure. 

Whilst impressive, these messages were largely tokenistic: spoken at the audience from ‘ivory towers’ of elitism and privilege by high-level (and largely male) panellists, the discourse remained largely aspirational and did not provide clarity on how the actions should (and will) be delivered. Words alone are not enough to reduce disaster risks. What’s more, some words and phrases that have been widely used by such high level panels may actually have a negative impact. One such widely used but now highly contended phrase is ‘natural disasters’.

Over 40 years ago O’Keefe et al. (1976) stated that the term ‘natural disaster’ was a misnomer, and questioned how ‘natural’ so-called ‘natural disasters’ were. They highlighted that many disasters result from the combination of natural hazards and social and human vulnerability, including development activities that are ignorant of local hazardous conditions. Nevertheless 40 years on, politicians, media, and INGOs further disconnect the ‘ivory tower’ of decision-making and the reality of the most vulnerable by continuously blaming “nature” and putting the responsibility for failures of development on ‘freak’ natural phenomena or “acts of God”.

The explanation is simple: a hazard cannot be prevented, disasters can be. Earthquakes, droughts, floods, storms, landslides and volcanic eruptions are natural hazards; they lead to deaths and damages – i.e. disasters – because of human acts of omission and commission rather than the act of nature (UNISDR, 2010; Wisner et al. 2011). The Haiti earthquake in 2010 was particularly devastating due to the extensive damages caused to the built environment, which largely resulted from a low quality building stock and lack of enforced building standards. Structures were often informally constructed in an ad-hoc manner and some buildings were built on slopes with insufficient foundations or steel supports.

In contrast, the Chilean (Maule) earthquake that occurred one month after the Haiti earthquake was a higher magnitude (8.8.Mw) event but it killed far fewer people (525 deaths in Chile compared to approximately 160,000 -200,000 deaths in Haiti). This significant difference is commonly attributed to more sophisticated building codes in Chile that incorporate seismic design and the historic enforcement of those codes. A hazard becomes a disaster because its impact threatens the lives and livelihoods of people.

Once we establish that there is a difference between a “natural hazard” and a “disaster”, it becomes clearer why so many argue that disasters are not natural. A disaster does not happen unless people and cities are vulnerable due to marginalisation, discrimination, and inequitable access to resources, knowledge and support. These vulnerabilities are further – intentionally or unintentionally – enhanced by deforestation, rapid urbanisation, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Moreover, vulnerabilities are too often enhanced not because the information about dealing with hazards does not exist, but because decision makers (and those responsible for the development of the built environment) do not use this information appropriately (or at all). For example, 30 years of hydropower development in Vietnam has displaced thousands, degraded the environment and forced many ethnic minority communities into an ever more tenuous situation. Although these most marginalised people are routinely killed during disasters, the development approach is not altered.

But this situation is also pertinent in the high-income countries. In England in the last 30 years nearly one in ten new houses have been built in areas with known high flood. Hurricane Harvey also presented a prime example of this: instead of introducing and enforcing more stringent land use plans and building codes, for years the preferred approach to urban development has been focused on expanding population density – and therefore built-up – flood-prone areas.

What these examples show is that occurring in the context of neoliberal policy-making, urban areas have been rapidly developing thanks to the state’s focus on enabling investments in construction through the provision of infrastructure, financial mechanisms and making land available for development. Neoliberal reforms have been a great motivator for the intense growth in urban populations and have produced an ideological trilogy of competition, deregulation and privatisation. Such ideology is hostile to all forms of spatial regulation, including urban and regional planning, environmental policy and economic development policies.

Powerful interests have suggested that what is needed is complete reliance on market mechanisms for planning and regulation of urban processes. Regulatory controls have simultaneously been reduced (or ineffectively applied) to enable the ‘free market’ to work, meaning that disaster risks (and other environmental concerns) have been often poorly considered in urban development decisions.

Inadequate land and policy planning leads to the creation of ‘parallel societies’: some parts of the cities enjoy the benefits of urban life, whereas others live in worse conditions than those in the rural areas, increasingly left to provide their own water, energy and food supply.

Inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations are the root causes of vulnerabilities that turn natural hazards into disasters. Inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations are the root causes of vulnerabilities that turn natural hazards into disasters, making some more vulnerable than others. Women die more frequently than men in coastal storms and tsunamis; they suffer domestic violence and other forms of gender violence and insecurity after disasters; and they bear large work burdens during recovery as well as barriers such as those faced by widows in Nepal trying to obtain grants to rebuild houses when all documentation was in the husband's name.

At the the Global Platform, whilst many national and international organisations acknowledged that inequality and social injustice intensify the impacts of disasters, these issues were largely discussed under the banner of ‘natural disasters’. Here semantics matter: by saying ‘natural disasters’ the responsibility for destroyed livelihoods lies on nature; instead such responsibility should be taken by us – humans.

The public at large will never comprehend the complex root causes of disasters if media messaging constantly reinforces the “natural” aspect. In order to contribute to this shift in thinking and discourse, the “experts” in the field, including individuals and organisations, need to be more deliberate on this issue. The lack of consistency fuels a cycle of misinformation.

We must push back against short-term profit oriented thinking. One thing we can do is communicate more clearly and accurately.

Labelling disasters as “natural” enables those who create disaster risks by accepting poor urban planning, increasing socio-economic inequalities, non-existent or poorly regulated policies, and lack of proactive adaptation and mitigation to avoid detection. It is important to events like the Global Platform promote and encourage the use of terminology that actually helps the disaster risk reduction community to reduce risk. It is also important to remember that nature is natural; disasters are not.

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