Are ‘Natural Disasters’ really ‘natural’ events?

Can we simply refer to natural disasters as ‘natural’? There are other factors that create a ‘natural disaster’. Social, political and economic issues are important to look into when looking at these events. It is often not the extreme or hazardous weather that creates the so-called disaster but the response given or not given by government officials. In this post I want to initiate a debate surrounding the term ‘natural disaster’ and whether the use of the term is correct after looking at what is truly causing these ‘natural’ tragedies. ‘Natural disasters’ do not simply involve one element, for example hazardous weather. They involve a host of many other factors that enable them to become the “complex, multifaceted” events Tim Kovach describes them as in his article.

By using historical analysis we can look at past events that have been named ‘natural disasters’ and examine these in close detail to decipher the social and political causes that initiate the ‘disaster’. Mike Davis has some interesting ideas based upon the Indian famine of 1876-77. He discusses the content within many Victorian mission reports concerning the famine. Through his discussion he points out that within nearly all commission reports it is decided that these millions of people were killed due to extreme weather. However, Davis goes on to suggest that this is not the case. If we look in detail at any supposed ‘natural disaster’ there is also political or social undertones to be looked into. Through using differing sources we can determine the different causes that create the term ‘natural disaster’ and whether through this examination the term is fit for to use in when describing these events.

Davis is keen to highlight the idea that the Indian Famine was perhaps caused by something other than the extreme’s of weather India encountered before 1876. He discusses the idea of “bad weather verses bad system”[1]. In order to discover whether the famine that occurred in India was in fact due to weather or system, Davis suggests that we use a “natural experiment”[2]. Through this ‘experiment’ we can decide whether we feel ‘natural’ is the most effective word to use when describing these events. Davis decides to look at the ‘El Nino’ event and its impact on North China.[3] According to Davis, the El Nino event in Northern China during 1743-44 was equally as destructive as the drought in India, however had far less death rates due to starvation and famine. Was this due to better policy? If the Indian famine was made worse due to a bad system then it seems futile to name it a ‘natural disaster’. An event created by human error is by no means natural.

This analysis of previous historical events can enable us to have better knowledge and understanding of these so called ‘natural’ events that have occurred through history. Davis’s enquiry deepens as he uses the work of Professor Pierre-Étienne Will to help determine why the drought of the 18th Century Chinese had a differing affect to that of the nineteenth century disaster. Will highlights the effect relief used by the Confucian administration of Fang Guancheng, the agricultural expert. According to Will, when local rations ran short, Guancheng “shifted millet and rice from the great store at… the Great Canal, then used the Canal to move vast quantities of rice from the south.” Through this system around two million peasants were maintained for eight months until the monsoon returned. We can see from this that due to a better system there was far less devastation caused in the China at this time than that of India. Is the Indian famine still a ‘natural disaster’ despite there being proof that a lack of human error could have prevented the devastation that followed?

We must understand whether the Indian famine of 1876-77 had more severe consequences due to a ‘bad system’ or more ruthless weather conditions. If Davis is stating that is was bad management that created the famine of 1876 then this could not be classed as a natural event, more human error. If we can question whether this incident was a ‘natural disaster’, we can pose the same question to events that have happened more recently.

Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S along the gulf coast of Florida to Texas in 2005. The disaster has become an area of controversy for many who deem human error to be the main cause of destruction. Neil Smith highlights the mistakes made by the government in both preparation and response to hurricane Katrina. There were “thousands of lives unnecessarily lost” according to Smith due to a lack of coherent responses from the government.[4] The varying vulnerabilities of the people living in New Orleans caused many to be left with little preparatory advice from government officials. We can see here, that through Davis’ historical analysis of the Indian famine, we can find similarities between past events and recent ones. Both events were made worse through human error and therefore cannot be classed as ‘natural’.

gt_sandy_aftermath_630x420_130118
Devastation after Hurricane Katrina.

Tim Kovach writes a fascinating article discussing this very topic. He states that the term ‘natural disaster’ is rather benign and bluntly makes the statement, “There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster”[5]. Kovach goes on to discuss the nature of the ‘disaster’ and how due to their complexity there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ one. Davis helps prove that a disaster can be prevented, even if the initial problem is created by a ‘natural’ event. Kovach describes disasters as “complex, multifaceted, frequent and overwhelming”[6] and therefore could not be described as simply ‘natural’. His article offers a very persuasive argument, condemning the use of this widely known term due to its inaccuracy and inability to include all of what these tragic events truly entail.

Hattie Wheeler

[1] Mike, Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, (London, 2001), p280.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p286.

[4] ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster’, http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith/, [Last Accessed 18th March 2015]

[5]‘There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster’ http://timkovach.com/wp/2013/11/13/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-natural-disaster/, [Last Accessed 18th March 2015]

[6] Ibid.

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