By: Sunita Reddy, The author is an Associate Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, and an adjunct faculty at the Special Center for Disaster Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The definition of disaster has been continuously changing due to the vulnerabilities and risks attached to it. However, despite being defined as natural, disasters tend to have political, cultural, economic and social impacts as well.
Disaster Education Magazine Articles

Ideas about large scale disasters have gone through various phases, from being attributed to ‘supernatural’ to being seen as ‘acts of nature’ to finally being recognised as the action of man. Disasters are a complex phenomenon with the term ‘disaster’ often misused in common parlance in cases ranging from car accidents, space shuttle failure, train mishaps, war, conflict, terrorism, to failure in even matters of the heart. However, for functional purposes, disasters have been divided into ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’. The former incudes earthquakes, droughts, floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and forest fires while the latter includes chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear disasters. This ‘naturalness’ of so-called natural disasters is now being questioned. ‘Natural disaster’ is a convenient misnomer—focussing primarily on the physical or geographical context while ignoring socio-economic and political factors. Natural phenomena are events in nature that are recurrent, like storms, earthquakes, cyclones etc. However, they become disasters only when there is a human interface.  We need to understand how natural disasters turn malefic—it is only because communities living in risk prone areas become vulnerable. There is a critical link between disaster and development, which needs to be understood from a new perspective.

Defining Disasters

Attempts at defining disasters have either unnecessarily broadened its scope or narrowed it down to a bare minimum. The sociologist Quarantelli (2005) while attempting to define disaster in his voluminous book, argues that no single universally accepted definition can be evolved. The nature of a disaster is fundamentally a social construct, and some physical event or a combination of the two. Unless we obtain consensus about its defining features, we will continue to shout over one another, debating the characteristics, conditions and consequences of disasters. The other reason for the lack of a fixed definition is that most concepts associated with natural disasters emerge from varied practitioners over some 30 different academic disciplines, with diverse objectives and perceptions.

The United Nations promoted its working definition for disasters as a serious disruption of the functioning of society, causing widespread human, material or environmental losses, which exceed the ability of the affected people to cope using its own resources. However, in the Indian context, according to Disaster Management Act 2005, ‘disasters’ mean a catastrophe, mishap, calamity, or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or manmade causes, or by accident or negligence, which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, or degradation of, environment and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area (Ahmed and Sagar, 2017).

Much time and intellectual capital is being spent in defining the phenomenon, rather than in researching important and fundamental concerns. The question we should be asking is not what disasters are but what is our vulnerability (and resilience) to environmental threats and extreme events.

Blaikie et al. (1994) describe how we live in a world where risk is everywhere and every individual faces it daily. However, some groups and communities are more vulnerable, given their geographical position—living in low lying areas, marshy lands, coastal regions, river beds, mountains and valleys.

India, with its geographically diverse landscape is prone to many disasters. The National Disaster Management Authority website reports that around 58.6 per cent of India’s landmass is prone to earthquakes, 12 per cent is prone to floods, around 5,700 km coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis and 68 per cent cultivable land to droughts (NDMA, 2018). Apart from these, there is always the threat of human induced disasters—chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN).

Disasters as Social Phenomenon

Disasters are undoubtedly a social phenomenon and call for social science perspectives. Systematic and extensive sociological studies on disasters have been ongoing for the past five decades. This shift from ‘supernatural’ to ‘natural’ to ‘manmade’ or ‘anthropogenic’ brings to the fore the concepts of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘risk’. Often concepts like ‘hazard’, ‘disaster’, and ‘catastrophe’ are interchangeably used, offering little clarity. However, Blaikie et  al. (1994) provide some lucidity on these concepts. A disaster consists of three interrelated factors; hazard (H), vulnerability (V) and risk (R). These three factors are related by the equation R=H+V, which then comes to define disaster. Hazard is the physical agent in a disaster. A hazard can be forecast—there is a statistical likelihood of a given hazard to occur. But forecasts say little about the actual level of vulnerability a given society or population is subjected to. Risk is a compound function of this complex natural hazard and the number of people characterised by their varying degrees of vulnerability, spatial and temporal exposure to extreme events.

As  social phenomena, disasters lead to immense loss of life and infrastructure often adversely affecting development and slowing down economic growth, and thereby amplifying poverty and inequality. Disasters cause severe social disruption and adversely affect people’s lives and livelihoods, with profound immediate and long-term impact on society.

Half a century ago, a field study focussed on individual and group behaviour. Smith and Hoffman (1999) called upon researchers from the developing world to rethink disasters from a political-economic perspective, based on a high correlation between disaster proneness, chronic malnutrition, low income, and family potential, which led to the understanding that the root cause of disasters lay more in society than in nature. Blaikie et al. (1994) developed an interdisciplinary, applied approach to disaster research, a conceptual tool and methods for social scientists and disaster practitioners. According to them, disasters are a product of social, political and economic environment (different from natural environment) because of the way it structures the lives of different groups of people. It is dangerous to treat disasters as something peculiar, as events which deserve their own special focus.

Anthropologists Hoffman and Smith (2002) write that disasters are defined when culturally reacted to and are often created through human agency. Disasters cause a huge amount of social and economic disruption. The effects are far-reaching and the rehabilitation process often aggravates the situation further. Cross cultural and longitudinal research in social sciences can bring out patterns of response and rehabilitation post disasters.

Post-Asian tsunami 2004, the rehabilitation process raised many pertinent issues. In her book, Klein (2007) writes that the development agenda hitherto resisted is pushed in when the community is in a state of shock, be it war, conflict or disaster. Post-tsunami, in Srilanka the tourism agenda took control of the coastal areas. The empirical studies done across countries by social scientists (Reddy, 2013) showcase the unintended consequences of aid for communities. Aid comes in like another tsunami accompanied by top down interventions, leading to cultural and social disruptions undermining the inherent resilience of the community. Flash floods like the one in Uttarakhand and urban floods that were witnessed in Mumbai, Kashmir, Chennai and recently in Kerala, draws our attention to indiscriminate development in urban areas. The impunity with which the concrete structures are made, flouting all building by-laws, adds to the vulnerability. Despite facing disasters each year, there is barely any lesson learned. We return to our everyday business until the next disaster. Media and public attention on disasters are short lived and focus only on the ‘event’ and the ‘rescue and relief’. Long term rehabilitation takes years, yet is soon forgotten, as disaster survivors struggle to revive their lives and livelihoods.

Despite the 2013 flash floods and massive destruction in Uttarakhand, within a year the tourism industry opened up precarious routes for pilgrims, constructing roads on perilous slopes and unsafe buildings along river banks. The indiscriminate development of these fragile geographical areas and ecosystems puts people at risk with impending disasters looming large.


According to Blaikie et al. (1994), catastrophes can be mitigated if we reduce vulnerability by promoting sustainable development and by instituting measures to increase the community’s resilience to causalities. With the kind of economic losses and development setbacks the country faces year after year, the focus of disaster management needs to urgently shift to a developmental perspective. Despite several institutional structures for disaster management at national, state and district levels and despite having passed the Disaster Management Act 2005, the affairs at ground are still relief centric. A paradigm shift from being not just response centric, but also preventive and rehabilitative is compulsatory.

Efforts by administration, local and international organisations to reduce vulnerabilities and involve academia to develop perspectives from social sciences are still at a very nascent stage. Spatial research with a strong anthropological backdrop, a theoretical base and a methodological rigour to comprehend the sensitivities of local cultures and people’s experience can contribute to better management of disasters. It can also help in ecologically sensitive rehabilitation processes that are socially and culturally acceptable.


Ahmed A. T. and  D Sagar, 2017. Disasters in India: An Overview. International Journal on Emerging Technologies 8(1): 392-397

Blaikie P, B Wisner, T Cannon and I Davis, 1994. At Risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters. Pshycology Press: London.

Cutter S, 2005. Are we asking the right question? in: Quarantelli, E. L. (ed.) What is a disaster?: A dozen perspectives on the question. Routledge.

Hoffman, S. M., and O. Smith, 2002. Catastrophe and Culture: The anthropology of disaster. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series. 303 – 485.

Klein N, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, New York: Metropolitan Books.

National Disaster Management Authority Government of India. Vulnerability Profile. Available at: https://bit.ly/2NLkCNj

Reddy S., 2018. The Asian Tsunami and Post-Disaster Aid: Critical Perspective, Singapore: Springer.

Smith O.A., and S.M. Hoffman, 1999. The Angry Earth. Florida, Great Britain: Routledge.

Turner 1979, Cited in Alexander, D. (1997). The study–of natural disasters, 1977–97: Some reflections on a changing field of knowledge. Disasters, 21(4), 284-304.

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