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5 reasons why disasters are not ‘natural’

by Katie Giles 14/06/2023

The term ‘natural disaster’ is commonly used – however disasters are not ‘natural’.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and extreme weather events such as drought and flooding happen due to natural processes in the earth. But it is how they affect people or the environment that makes them a disaster. You can test your knowledge of disasters and their causes in our quiz.

By referring to disasters as ‘natural’, we are ignoring the human factors that influence them. These include where people live, what types of home they have, political instability, and a lack of protective measures in place.

Here are five reasons why disasters are not ‘natural’:

1. Human factors contribute to the impact of disasters, and should not be ignored

Debris from destroyed homes on the ground next to a tree, with a backdrop of blue sky and the ocean
Damage from a cyclone in Vanatau in 2020

 

The human-driven climate crisis, poor land management, urbanisation and deforestation all increase the impact of extreme weather events.

Political troubles and conflict can disrupt access to resources such as food, water and shelter. These are all vital after a disaster. Plus, the impact of disasters on people and the environment are so much worse if there a lack of preparation for such events, or if local infrastructure cannot cope.

2. By describing disasters as ‘natural’, it ignores what makes some people more vulnerable to them

Lady and child standing in front of flooded land
Maryam and her daughter Zainab next to floodwaters in Pakistan

 

Economic, social and cultural factors can have a massive influence on how vulnerable people are to a disaster.

Where people live, how their houses are made, how much money they have, and how much they can earn can all affect the impact of a disaster. Marginalized and disadvantaged communities are often severely affected due to political instability where they live. There are also issues because people lack access to resources, healthcare, education and decision-making processes.

3. How disasters affect people is not beyond human control

A market stall and people next to a badly damaged building
Aftermath of the earthquake in February 2023 in Syria

 

When we describe these events as ‘natural’ it implies that there is no need for proactive measures to protect vulnerable communities.

If people believe that the impact on communities from disasters cannot be changed, it leads to a sense of helplessness and resignation among the people affected and the rest of the world. This can make the impact of disasters even worse.

If an extreme weather or seismic event took place that had no impact on the environment or people it would not be considered a disaster. But the same event in a city with poorly constructed buildings and many people below the poverty line could have a devastating impact. It is only by realising that the action of people can influence the impact of a disaster that the needed change can take place.

4. Describing disasters as ‘natural’ leads to a focus on immediate impacts, and overlooking the long-term problems they cause

Man in grey and little girl standing next to tables in front of tents
When ShelterBox tents were distributed after the Pakistan floods, many had to be erected on raised roadsides to keep them away from the water

 

If we overlook the true reasons why people are affected so badly by disasters, the long-term changes needed to protect them and prepare for future disasters are ignored.

This leads to a lack of investment in the local infrastructure and resources needed that help people recover from a disaster. There is also no preparation for future events. This leaves communities very vulnerable.

5. Human actions can make the impact of disasters far worse, and this needs to be recognised

Lady in head scarf sitting in front of different pieces of fabric
Severe drought has caused thousands of families to flee their homes in Somaliland

 

There are global and national discussions urgently needed to address why people are vulnerable to disasters.  But if disasters are thought of as ‘natural’ and outside human control, these discussions are unlikely to take place.

It also means that the proactive measures that could protect people from and reduce the effect of future disasters are not discussed, shared or implemented.

Human factors have a big impact on the effects of disasters. There needs to be accountability for this.

 

Disasters are not natural. So let’s stop saying they are!

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Disasters are not natural.

Let’s stop saying they are.

It’s important to understand why disasters aren’t ‘natural’ and how misleading and damaging the term natural disasters can be for affected communities.

Recovering from the devastation of the Pakistan floods

Ghulam's story

Ghulam and her family lost everything in the devastating Pakistan floods in 2022. Learn about their story and recovery after the disaster.

Disasters are not natural Quiz

Test your knowledge of why disasters are not natural in this quiz. Learn more about what causes disasters, and the impact they are having on people around the world.

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