At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, And Disasters

Natural Hazards
Natural Hazards
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Natural Hazards


In disasters, a geophysical or biological event is implicated in some way as a trigger event or a link in a chain of causes. Yet, even where such natural hazards appear to be directly linked to loss of life and damage to property, there are social factors involved that cause peoples’ vulnerability and can be traced back sometimes to quite ‘remote’ root and general causes.

This vulnerability is generated by social, economic and political processes that influence how hazards affect people in varying ways and with differing intensities. This book is focused mainly on redressing the balance in assessing the ‘causes’ of such disasters away from the dominant view that natural processes are the most significant. But we are also concerned about what happens even when it is admitted that social and economic factors are the most crucial.

There is often a reluctance to deal with such factors because it is politically expedient (i.e. less difficult for those in power) to address the technical factors that deal with natural hazards. Changing social and economic factors usually means altering the way that power operates in a society. Radical policies are often required, many facing powerful political opposition. For example, such policies might include land reform, enforcement of building codes and landuse restrictions, greater investment in public health, provision of a clean water supply and improved transportation to isolated and poor regions of a country.

The relative contribution of geophysical and biological processes on the one hand, and social, economic and political processes on the other, varies from disaster to disaster. Furthermore, human activities can modify physical and biological events, sometimes many miles away (e.g. deforestation contributing to flooding downstream) or many years later (e.g. the introduction of a new seed or animal, or the substitution of one form of architecture for another, less safe, one).

The time dimension is extremely important in another way. Social, economic and political processes are themselves often modified by a disaster in ways that make some people more vulnerable to an extreme event in the future. Placing the genesis of disaster in a longer time frame therefore brings up issues of inter generational equity, an ethical question raised in the debates around the meaning of ‘sustainable’ development (Adams 2001). The ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ are, therefore, so inextricably bound together in almost all disaster situations, especially when viewed in an enlarged time and space framework, that disasters cannot be understood to be ‘natural’ in any straightforward way.

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