Words Matter: Stop Using the Phrase ‘Natural Disasters’

Many factors go into the ultimate scale of destruction caused by natural hazards. Photo: Sanej Prasad Suwal
Many factors go into the ultimate scale of destruction caused by natural hazards. Photo: Sanej Prasad Suwal

By Brigitte M. Balthasar

A holistic disaster risk management approach starts with a change in the way we refer to disasters.

The phrase 'natural disaster' is used in the news, in social media, and in everyday conversations to describe extreme events like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or volcanoes. 

But the term is problematic – if not harmful. 

 Disasters are not natural occurrences. If the same cyclone or earthquake hits two different regions of the world, the effects would look very different. A cyclone is a “hazard” – defined as a potential source of harm – but it depends on many factors before that cyclone becomes a “disaster.” A hazard cannot become a disaster until it harms a community.

When the damage and loss caused by a disaster is declared “natural” or "act of God," communities and governments are absolved of their responsibility. The word natural takes away the social, political, environmental, and economic context of disasters and fails to recognize the social injustices that exist.
The term “natural disaster” indicates that such calamities are inevitable even though we know the influence of humankind in the system. 

A more nuanced view of extreme events is needed. In fact, it is the choices we make that cause a disaster. The earthquake might be random, but the vulnerability to damage – the risk that people expose themselves to – determines whether it develops into a disaster. 

 Hazards and extreme events are inevitable, but the impact on society is not. The way we talk about disasters affects the way we perceive the risks they pose. Hence, the right term is critical because it determines how we think about disasters and how they are linked to issues such as climate change. 

  • We need to steer the discussion toward inequalities and the importance of vulnerability in disaster situations: those who are most marginalized and vulnerable are also usually the people or societies who suffer most fatalities, injury, and economic loss in a disaster. Hence, one of the most important aspects of disaster risk reduction is the reduction of vulnerability.
  • Let’s focus our activities on what matters: recognizing that it is the decision-making systems that create this vulnerability, and therefore make extreme events more likely to become disasters, leads to more appropriate allocation of spending and resources for disaster risk management, mitigation and resilience building. 
  • Responsibility should be properly allocated: using the term natural to describe disasters exonerates some powerful people, governments, and organizations. Recognizing that (some obvious) risks are overlooked and increased vulnerability (of others) is accepted because of financial benefits (e.g. approved constructions in floodplains, disregard of building codes) leads to the possibility of questioning (policy) decisions. The discussion, however, should focus on strengthening capacities to withstand and cope with extreme events. 
Disasters are not natural occurrences.

Even if the respective research and knowledge were available, oftentimes there seems to be a lack of political will to think about disasters until forced to. And that is because negative events do not rank high with voters. Promising a better wastewater treatment plant will not get you votes. For decades, we have known how to better protect ourselves against natural hazards, but there's a widespread belief that we can save money if we do not prepare.  When natural extreme events occur we have to respond, and the costs are much higher than if we had taken timely precaution measures.

For example, during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, people had known for a long time that the city was at high risk because of its location below sea level. Thus, it can be said that what happened in New Orleans was an act against better knowledge. The dilapidated condition of the levees and barrages were not a secret. It was known that the entire infrastructure was at risk of flooding. But no funds were raised for renovation. The victims were those who did not have their own cars to evacuate. Thus, an extreme event escalated into a social disaster.

The knowledge to develop infrastructure planning, permanently viable settlements, and an effective warning network is available. However, the task is not just to develop e.g. an early warning system, because such systems already exist. What is needed is a functioning information network through which the risk information and warning is communicated to the administrations and from there to the local communities.

This is an area that is underdeveloped, as is the question of what local people do with a warning in the first place. What does it take to respond, including evacuation and self-protection measures. This shows the importance of a holistic disaster risk management approach for sustainable development. Aspects of prevention, preparedness, risk reduction and mitigation, as well as reconstruction and recovery must be addressed holistically in order to avoid and reduce future disaster.

First and foremost, potential risks must be analyzed and assessed. With this approach, measures for risk reduction and mitigation as well as action strengthening resilience can be planned and implemented to ensure continuous and systematic risk management for sustainability.

 This holistic disaster risk management approach starts with a change in the way we refer to disasters. That should be combined with responsible interaction with nature that avoids turning extreme events into disasters.