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Natural Hazards

To be or not to be a ‘natural’ disaster: that is the question

To be or not to be a ‘natural’ disaster: that is the question

The story of science is replete with theories that only become accepted by the scientific community after long and protracted uphill battles, said Howard Wolinsky in his commentary in Science and Society in 2008. Sometimes they are rejected, ridiculed, or they take time to be validated, digested, and likely accepted. However, in my opinion, the scientific discussion over new hypotheses is at the heart of every new discovery, and the intrinsic responsibility of scientists all over the world. 

Our society is witnessing an era of ever-faster growing development, being not immune to serious unintended but well-perceived consequences. Nature-related disasters and their effects are a rising concern among people, politicians, and scientists across different disciplines. The need to improve our understanding on the trigger mechanism of hazards, on forecasting next occurrences or limiting the negative outcomes has been set as a priority in several International Organization agendas and recognized as an utmost priority from the scientific community. However, from what are we trying to protect ourselves? Are these inevitable natural disasters or are they wrongly labelled as such, to avoid taking the responsibility of their occurrence? How this terminology is affecting our cognition is at the core of today’s interview. Let me introduce Kevin Blanchard, one of the founders of the #NoNaturalDisaster campaign

 

1. Thank you very much, Kevin, for being with us today. Natural or not natural disasters: how have these terminologies stimulated the scientific debate? Which are the two theories around those terms?

Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be able to share the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign with your audience.

From our (#NoNaturalDisasters advocates) perspective, there aren’t two theories. Quite simply, if we agree that a disaster is defined as a disruption of society or community caused by something calamitous (which I hope we do) then disasters cannot be natural. It’s our own policies, economic and planning decisions as well as cultural inputs that cause disasters. 

We always ask those who are sceptical of the campaign to think of it like this: 

if an earthquake occurs in an area that has no human habitation, there is no disaster, right? The hazard still has an impact on the physical around it but as it doesn’t impact on a society or community, and excepting the definition agreed above, there’s no disaster. 

So, the basis for our campaign is that the thing (the hazard) that makes an earthquake occurring near a densely populated area a disaster are the decisions we humans have taken, sometimes over centuries. It’s our own political systems, economic strategies, planning policies, the standard/ quality of our built environment, the safety and risk-reduction education of our population that turns a hazard into a disaster.

Our own vulnerability and lack of preparedness are what causes a disaster.

 

2. In this regard, what is the #NoNaturalDisaster campaign?

The #NoNaturalDisasters campaign is an attempt by a number of academics, practitioners, first-responders, and members of the public to get others to recognise that disasters are not natural. We’re of the belief that if you use the term ‘natural disaster’ you’re effectively shifting the responsibility for the damage, death and costs of a disaster onto a natural process, when in fact it’s our own political short-termism (political decisions are often made with a view to the current election cycle which is usually 4-5 years and as such, misses the long term implications of those decisions), lack of preparedness and risk-creating practices that cause the disaster (building on floodplains, anyone?).

We, as #NoNaturalDisasters advocates use our online profiles to politely spread the message to organisations and influential people within the DRR, climate change or humanitarian spheres and ask them to consider dropping ‘natural’ from their tweet, article or paper and instead consider the real causes of that disaster.

 

3. What can disasters originating from natural phenomena be called instead? I feel that most researchers would argue that they are nature-triggered even if the consequences are not.

We’d always suggest that the context of whatever article, tweet or other media you’re working on should provide sufficient explanation as to the hazard type and as such, the use of ‘disaster’ alone should be sufficient. 

For example, if you’re writing an article about an explosion in a chemical factory then the context of that article will point to the disaster being caused by a technological or industrial hazard. The same with an article about hurricanes, the emphasis of the article will make it clear to the readers that the hazard is a natural occurrence.

 

4. Purposely willing to be a bit provocative, do we encounter the same issue when we define ‘natural hazards’? Do we need to reconsider completely the ‘natural’ affix in disaster and risk research?

On this one, I speak as an individual as I’m not sure the collective of #NoNaturalDisasters advocates has a position on it yet, but I would say it’s ok to continue using ‘natural hazards’. A hazard can be natural. They’re part of the myriad of processes happening every day on earth… wind, rain, seismic events etc.

 

5. How can the debate over a new terminology in disaster research help scientists, politicians, practitioners, or the civil society in practical terms?

Firstly, the debate isn’t exactly new. It’s been happening since at least the 17th century when a letter between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet (a.k.a Voltaire) their discussion turned to the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal and where Rousseau makes the following observation:

… nature did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories […], and that if inhabitants of this great city were more equally spread out and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less and perhaps to no account…

Unfortunately, and in spite of decades of more recent research and discussion, the use of ‘natural’ to describe disasters is commonplace amongst academia, politicians, media etc.

However, if we can agree to drop the term, we see several ways it can be beneficial:

  • Focusing the discussion around inequalities and the importance of vulnerability in disaster situations. It’s not a coincidence that those who are most marginalised and vulnerable in day-to-day life are also usually the people or communities who suffer the greatest levels of death, injury, and economic hardship during a disaster.
  • Focusing our spending on the things that matter. If we can start to recognise that it’s our own decision-making systems that create this vulnerability and therefore mean that hazards impact the areas we live in are more likely to become disasters, then we can more appropriately assign spending and resources in developing mitigation and resilience measures. At present, we’re stuck funding our response to a disaster that’s already occurred. Wouldn’t it be better to prevent the disaster in the first place?
  • Assigning blame correctly. Using “natural” to describe disasters lets some very powerful people, governments, and organisations off the hook. If we start to recognise that these people are responsible for overlooking the obvious risks and ignoring an increase in vulnerability because there’s a financial benefit to them (building on flood plains is a prime example of this… profits the housebuilders, local and national governments but passes the risks of disaster & creates vulnerability for those living on that site) to do so, then we can start to challenge those decisions.

 

Giulia Roder
My name is Giulia Roder, and I am a Research Associate at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability at the United Nations University in Tokyo (Japan). My work is related to the 'Water for Sustainable Development' project which aims to stimulate sustainable development in the Asia Pacific. I hold a PhD from the University of Padova (Italy) and my work was related to flooding and human interactions through the analysis of flood dynamics in anthropogenic landscapes, risk perception and preparedness studies in different communities worldwide. My interest in these topics raised in the remote Central Mountain Range in Taiwan when I have been hosted by one of the oldest indigenous communities. I joined the EGU Early Career Scientists of Natural Hazard division (NhET) in 2017. Since then, I have been contributing to the blog and with several activities during the Assembly.


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