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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Thompson

Reflections on the (un)naturalness of disasters

Just over a week ago I had the pleasure of attending the morning sessions of the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign inaugaral conference in London. Many of you will be familiar with this successful campaign that aims to raise awareness of and combat the misnomer of a 'natural disaster'.

Decades of disaster research have led us to understand the causality of crises has three components: the hazard, the exposure, and the vulnerability. By arguing that disasters are natural we are simply ignoring the fact that vulnerability is influenced by structures of power. One of my favourite quotes on this subject, as found on the front-page of this website, is from Andy Horowtiz's book 'Katrina: A History, 1915-2015' which documents the century long journey that contributed to the scale of crisis experienced in New Orleans during that dreadful event of August 2005.

"People do not tend to find themselves living in risky places because of cosmic bad luck. Structures of power push them there.” Andy Horowitz (Katrina: A History, 1915–2015)

The reason this is one of my favourite quotes is due to the simplicity within which Horowitz summarises what is, in reality, a complex dynamic of societial, governmental, post-colonial, biopolitical (perhaps even necropolitical) influences, ultimately leading to the construction of an individuals vulnerability.

I blogged succintly about this issue two years ago during the pandemic, particular as it related to COVID-19 and the story of human interaction with the natural environment. Note - natural environment, not natural disaster.

Flooding is another well rehearsed example of state regulation creating vulnerability - if we didn't build on floodplains, those houses would not get flooded. If you are interested in flooding research in particular then I recommend you join me at the Institue of Civil Protection and Emergency Management's upcoming event 'Community Resilience & Flooding - Lessons from Science for Practice' which I am very much looking forward to.

On the broader topic of #NoNaturalDisasters, if you are looking for a book that illustrates this issue eloquently then I would reccomend to you 'Disaster by Choice' by Ilan Kelman, a prominent academic in the field.

During the morning #NoNaturalDisasters conference sessions we explored a suite of compelling arguments as to why this terminology is not only wrong, but harmful to addressing the fundamental issues at the heart of the debate. We heard from a mixture of academics and practitioners, as well as humanitarian organisation ShelterBox who talked to us about their transformational journey in moving away from the phrase 'natural disaster' in communication with their stakeholders, donors and partners. They have written more about this on their website.

I found it particular fascinating when exploring the semantics of a 'natural' disaster in the context of religions and cultures. Ethnographic research shows that certain populations link the occurence of disasters with theological or mythological knowledge and beliefs. Therefore, when working with such individuals it would not be as simple as explaining 'this hazard is natural, but your vulnerability is not' as the event itself could be seen as pre-determined or the rightful decision of a God.

I hold up the lens to myself and say this is something I believe we do not yet fully appreciate or holistically respond to within healthcare disaster response.

During the course of conversation the valid question was raised of 'if not natural disasters, then what?'. This is in particular quite critical when spreading awareness of the issues with stakeholders who may not be disaster researchers or practitioners, for example the media, as it will enivetably be a question asked in return. So, what do you think?

When we stop using natural disasters in discourse, what do we use instead?

  • Disasters

  • Anthropegenic disasters

  • Human-made disasters

A big thanks to the #NoNaturalDisasters team for arranging such an insightful exploration through the topic and I thoroughly hope we see another conference in the future.

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