Disasters are not natural
Whenever typhoons or earthquakes wreak havoc in our country, people quickly call these events “natural disasters.” While this is true, such terminology hides dangerous assumptions that could impede resilience to future disasters. After all, if disasters are “natural,” they are nobody’s fault, and we can do little about them.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines a disaster as “A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability, and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.” This nuanced formulation identifies several factors that in combination lead to disasters.
First are the “hazardous events.” These events include naturally occurring phenomena such as typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. True, disasters may happen because of natural hazards, but this is not always the case. Incidentally, human activities can also become hazards (e.g. nuclear power plants).
The second factor is exposure which refers to the number of people who will experience the hazardous event. Even if an earthquake strikes along a major fault line, but if there are very few people residing there, then there will be no disaster. (As an aside, there are also environmental or ecological disasters which refers to disruptions of the natural environment due to natural or human causes.)
The third factor for a disaster to occur is vulnerability. Even if people are exposed to a hazard, a disaster may not necessarily happen if they are not susceptible to damage. For example, if houses in a community are built to withstand strong winds, there will be minimal damage even if a typhoon passes through.
Finally, there is the capacity of the people to cope with a hazardous event. This is why a similar intensity typhoon causes much less damage in wealthy Japan than in the Philippines. Similarly, even within a town, local communities have varying abilities to cope with the impacts of a hazard.
We can do little about the first of the above factors, but we can do a lot on the last three. For instance, proper land use planning and strict zoning regulations can minimize the number of people exposed to flooding, storm surges, and earthquakes. We can also reduce the vulnerability and enhance the coping capacity of our people through disaster preparedness training and, in the long term, by providing the right environment for sustainable development.
Given the geographical location of our country, natural hazards are a given. But whether disasters will occur depends mainly on what we do.
Dr. Rodel D. Lasco is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) of the Philippines. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/)
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