1.1.18 Disaster management

Almost everyday newspapers, radio and television channels carry reports on disaster striking several parts of the world. But what is a disaster? The term disaster owes its origin to the French word “Desastre” which is a combination of two words ‘des’ meaning bad and ‘aster’ meaning star. Thus the term refers to ‘Bad or Evil star’. The United Nations defined Disasters as ‘A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic and environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community/society to cope using its own resources’ (UNDP).

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies define a disaster as: A disaster is 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. Though often caused by nature, disasters can have human origins. A disaster occurs when a hazard affects vulnerable people.


The combination of hazards and vulnerability divided by the capacity to reduce the potential negative consequences of risk, determines the magnitude of disaster.

Explanation: In a mathematical fraction, the denominator tells us how many parts the whole is divided into, and the numerator tells us how many of those parts we are dealing with. The more parts a whole is divided into, the smaller each part becomes. In the above formula, “capacity” is the denominator and the bigger the capacity to deal with the consequences of a disaster, the smaller the impact. 1/30 is smaller than 1/3!

Types of Hazards

Natural hazards are naturally occurring physical phenomena caused either by rapid or slow onset events which can be geophysical (earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic activity), hydrological (avalanches and floods), climatological (extreme temperatures, drought and wildfires), meteorological (cyclones and storms/wave surges) or biological (disease epidemics and insect/animal plagues).

Technological or fabricated hazards (complex emergencies/conflicts, famine, displaced populations, industrial accidents and transport accidents) are events that are caused by humans and occur in or close to human settlements. This can include environmental degradation, pollution and accidents.

There are a range of challenges, such as climate change, unplanned-urbanization, under-development/poverty as well as the threat of pandemics, which will shape humanitarian assistance in the future. These aggravating factors will result in increased frequency, complexity and severity of disasters.

In the following table, a further distinction is made. The first two types deal with “pure natural disasters” where no human control over the occurrence is possible. Environmental and biological disasters are often consequences of human behaviours, but are sometimes functions of the behaviours of other species, over which man has little control. The last two categories are “pure fabricated disasters”.

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability may be defined as “The extent to which a community, structure, services or geographic area is likely to be damaged or disrupted by the impact of particular hazard, on account of their nature, construction and proximity to hazardous terrains or a disaster prone area.”

What is capacity?

Capacity can be defined as “resources, means and strengths which exist in households and communities and which enable them to cope with, withstand, prepare for, prevent, mitigate or quickly recover from a disaster”. People’s capacity can also be taken into account. Capacities could be classified into physical and socio-economic capacities.

The face of disasters

Nuclear disaster in Japan

Oil Spills

Bombing Disasters

Non-Production Related Disasters (Paarl Media)

Disaster Management

Disaster Management can be defined as the organisation and management of resources and responsibilities for dealing with all humanitarian aspects of emergencies, in particular preparedness, response and recovery in order to lessen the impact of disasters.

In very simplistic terms is can be defined as the activities to create the optimum capacity to deal with disasters of any type.

Scope of Disaster Management

From: Disaster Management Cycle – A Theoretical Approach,

University of Science and Technology, Bannu, Pakistan

Before a disaster (pre-disaster).

Pre-disaster activities those which are taken to reduce human and property losses caused by a potential hazard. For example, carrying out awareness campaigns, strengthening the existing weak structures, preparation of the disaster management plans at household and community level, etc. Such risk reduction measures taken under this stage are termed as mitigation and preparedness activities.

During a disaster (disaster occurrence).

These include initiatives taken to ensure that the needs and provisions of victims are met and suffering is minimised. Activities taken under this stage are called emergency response activities.

After a disaster (post-disaster).

There are initiatives taken in response to a disaster with a purpose to achieve early recovery and rehabilitation of affected communities, immediately after a disaster strikes. These are called as response and recovery activities.

The disaster risk management cycle diagram (DRMC) highlights the range of initiatives which normally occur during both the emergency response and recovery stages of a disaster. Some of these cut across both stages (such things as coordination and the provision of ongoing assistance); whilst other activities are unique to each stage (e.g. early warning and evacuation during emergency response; and reconstruction and economic and social recovery as part of recovery.)


There has been a dramatic increase in disasters and the damages caused by them in the recent past. Over the past decade, the number of natural and manmade disasters has climbed inexorably. Accordingly to the statistics, the number of disasters per year increased with 60% in the period 1999- 2001 in comparison with the previous period, 1994 -1998. The highest increase was in the countries of low human development, which registered an increase of 142%. In these countries, the responsible institutions should play an important role but, in general, the disaster management policy responses are influenced by methods and tools for cost-effective and sustainable interventions.

There are no long-term, inclusive and coherent institutional arrangements to address disaster issues with a long-term vision. Disasters are viewed in isolation from the processes of mainstream development and poverty alleviation planning. For example, disaster management, development planning and environmental management institutions operate in isolation and integrated planning between these sectors is almost lacking.

Absence of a strong central authority for integrated disaster management and lack of coordination within and between disaster related organisations is responsible for effective and efficient disaster management. State-level disaster preparedness and mitigation measures are heavily tilted towards structural aspects (providing infrastructure to respond to disasters) and undermine non-structural elements such as the knowledge and capacities of local people, and the related livelihood protection issues.

Safety is one of the management tasks performed to prevent disasters and build capacity to deal with disasters. Inspections, training toolbox talks, observations and all the aspects discussed in the previous sections, contribute towards the mitigation of hazards, the removal of vulnerability and the building of strong capacity.