5 reasons why disasters are not ‘natural’
The term ‘natural disaster’ is commonly used – however disasters are not ‘natural’.
While earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and extreme weather events such as drought and flooding happen due to natural processes in the earth; it is how they affect people or the environment that makes them a disaster.
By referring to disasters as ‘natural’, we are ignoring the human factors that influence them – 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
Damage from a cyclone in Vanatau in 2020
The human-driven climate crisis, poor land management, urbanization and deforestation all increase the impact of extreme weather events. You can learn more about the humanitarian impact of the climate crisis here
In addition to this, political troubles and conflict can disrupt access to resources such as food, water and shelter. These are vital resources after a disaster, and significantly impact a persons ability to self-recover. Plus, the impact of disasters on people and the environment are so much worse if there is 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.
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, and can cause people to have limited access to resources, healthcare, education and decision-making processes. This also includes discrepancies in media coverage, and how much international aid a crisis receives. For example, the crisis in Burkina Faso has been named the worlds most neglected crisis.
3. How disasters affect people is not beyond human control
Aftermath of the earthquake in February 2023 in Türkiye
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.
Consider this; 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 realizing 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
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, or prepare 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
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, and there needs to be accountability for this.
Disasters are not natural. So let’s stop saying they are!
Originally posted on the ShelterBox UK Blog.