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Organisational views of 'disaster'

Organisations recognise the importance of clearly defining concepts such as ‘disaster’ to provide a clear foundation for their work.

In 1992, the United Nations (UN) Department for Humanitarian Affairs produced the Internationally Agreed Glossary of Basic Terms Related to Disaster Management. This comprehensive document defines disaster as:

A serious disruption of the functioning of society, causing widespread human, material or environmental losses which exceed the ability of affected society to cope using only its own resources. Disasters are often classified according to their cause (natural or manmade).

(United Nations 1992: 27)

Similarly, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (formerly the UNISDR) defines a disaster as:

A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.

The effect of the disaster can be immediate and localised, but is often widespread and could last for a long period of time. The effect may test or exceed the capacity of a community or society to cope using its own resources, and therefore may require assistance from external sources, which could include neighbouring jurisdictions, or those at the national or international levels.

(UNDRR 2017)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines disaster as:

Severe alterations in the normal functioning of a community or a society due to hazardous physical events interacting with vulnerable social conditions, leading to widespread adverse human, material, economic, or environmental effects that require immediate emergency response to satisfy critical human needs and that may require external support for recovery.

(IPCC 2012)

Finally, The International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies, a non-governmental organisation, defines disaster as:

[…] a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources.

(IFRC 2011)

All these examples specify that there is an inherent serious impact or loss. However, some definitions do not limit the term ‘disaster’ to a geographical or temporal scale.

In many definitions, disaster is viewed as an event that exceeds the ability of those involved to cope. Normal functions, transport, communications, access to education, healthcare, livelihoods and so on are significantly affected, with both short and long-term consequences.

Your task

Does your national government or responsible agency define ‘disaster’, if so what definition do they use?

In your view is it a good definition upon which to base disaster-related policies?


References

Reddy, S. (2011) ‘Understanding Disasters from Anthropological Perspectives’. Transforming Emergency Management 83

United Nations (1992) Internationally Agreed Glossary of Basic Terms Related to Disaster Management [online] available from https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/004DFD3E15B69A67C1256C4C006225C2-dha-glossary-1992.pdf [11 December 2019]

UNDRR (2017) Terminology [online] available from https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology#letter-d [11 December 2019]

Field, C.B., Barros, V., Stocker, T.F., and Dahe, Q. (2012) Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. [online] available from https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/SREX_Full_Report-1.pdf [11 December 2019]

IFRC (2011) What is a disaster? [online] available from https://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/disaster-management/about-disasters/what-is-a-disaster/ [14 May 2019]

IPCC (2012) Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. [online] Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. available from https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/SREX_Full_Report-1.pdf [20 December 2019]

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This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Risk Reduction: An Introduction

Coventry University