Disasters & Hazards: Some definitions
• A large scale disaster is an event that adversely affects a large number of people,
devastates a large geographical area, and taxes the resources of local communities and
central governments. Hurricane Katrina is an example
• Hazards are products, processes and other conditions that potentially threaten
individuals and/ or their reproduction(in all senses). The presence of a chemical industry
in a city or the use of pesticides are examples of hazards
Disasters: What do we Include?
• The most important point about a large scale disaster is that disasters are not clearly
confined to clearly defined events such as earthquakes and cyclones. Industrial
disasters such as the Bhopal gas event is an example
• Disasters resulting from events that are more diffuse in space and time are also
incorporated, such as droughts and epidemics.
Disasters and Disaster like Conditions
• Longer term processes could also be termed as disaster conditions in contrast to
• For instance, the deadly seepage of arsenic into groundwater poses disaster like
conditions for rural communities in developing countries like Bangladesh.
• However, some scholars include both disaster events and disaster like conditions into
their definition of disaster. The argument is that this classification should not be binary,
but, rather a continuum from rapid-onset, spatially and temporally well defined events
through to ongoing, poorly defined challenges without fixed start or end points in time
• Thus the term disaster includes event/processes that range from slow onset
phenomena, such as droughts and toxic exposures, to rapid-onset events, such as
earthquakes and nuclear accidents.
Disasters are Multidimensional
• Disasters are multidimensional because they are both physical and social
• Both natural and technological phenomena produce or trigger disasters and create a
wide variety of physical impacts.
• In this course, we will be examining disasters as they occur at the intersection of nature
and culture and illustrate, often dramatically, the mutuality of each in the constitution of
Disaster Agents: Technological and Natural Disasters
• In Kenneth Hewitt’s view, disaster agents include natural hazards ( atmospheric,
hydrological, geological and biological), technological hazards ( dangerous materials,
destructive processes, mechanical and productive), and social hazards ( war, terrorism,
civil conflict and the use of hazardous materials and technologies)
Disasters Unfold as Complex Events • Disasters disclose in their unfolding the linkages and the interpenetrations of natural
forces or agents, power structures and social arrangements, and cultural values and
• Disasters disclose fundamental features of a society and culture, laying bare crucial
relationships and core values in the intensity of impact and the stress of recovery and
Disasters as they Reveal Nature-Society Relations
• As disasters develop and occur, all dimensions of a social structural formation and the
totality of its relations with the environment become involved, affected and focused.
• All disasters are articulated through the operation of physical, biological and social
systems and their interactions among populations, institutions and practices. There are
few contexts in which the mutual constitutionality of the physical and the social are so
starkly displayed as in a disaster.
Western constructs of nature-society relationship
• Why do we look at this relationship for understanding disasters?
• For geographers ( and anthropologists) to understand the vulnerability of populations
and societies to disasters, the relationship between society and nature is of fundamental
• The model of society-nature relations in the West therefore merits special attention
• Human beings were seen (until the 18 and 19 century ascent of Utilitarianism) as
being the creation of God and being one wit