Review papers then summarizes majaor concepts and Analysze implications


7. A hazard need not a disaster make: vulnerability and the causes of 'natural' disasters

T. CANNON, University of Greenwich


Not very many years ago, most people assumed that the disasters associatedwith earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other natural hazards were themselves 'natural' disaster^.^ It was accepted that their impact could. be reduced (through attempts at preparedness, mitigation and post-event humanitarian action), but the emphasis (including in much academic and policy work) was on the naturalness of disaster events. There has long been an awareness that some disasters, which may resemble those usually blamed on nature, are inherently caused by human action (as with famines triggered by war). But this perception was limited, and it seemed difficult for people to extend such explanations to other types of disaster (especially those linked with sudden- onset hazards like earthquakes) which might have less obvious, more complex, but just as significant links with human causes.' Much disaster policy still puts emphasis on the impact of nature, and this has led to the dominance of technical interventions focused on predicting the hazard or modifying its impact.

This paper intends to clarify those less obvious human connect~ons between natural hazards and disastrous outcomes. It argues that hazards are natural, but that in general disasters are not, and that they should not be seen as the inevitable outcome of a hazard's impact. The stress here is on the condition bf the people which make it possible for a hazard to become a disaster. This includes the extent and types of their vulnerability, in combination with the technical issue of how society deals (or does not deal) with the hazard in terms of mitigation and preparedness. To concentrate on preparedness and mitigation of hazards without considering the social and economic systems that both generate vulnerability and determine the type of technical interventions leads to inadequate and potentii dangerous situations. One pioneer of hazards research expres this well nearly twenty years ago:

[Mlodern societies cannot expect to cope effectively r hazards in the environment by relying solely upon technibas solutions. A crucial aspect . . . is the skilful, sensitive use of a wide range of adjustments, including engineering devices, land management and social regulation. To depend on only one sort of public action is to court social disaster,

iith ..-1

92 Natural disasters. Thomas Telford, London, 1993


environmental deterioration, and enlarged public obligations. (White, 1974: 13)

The technical interventions themselves which are supposed to reduce hazard intensity or prepare people for them are not socially-neutral, must not be taken in isolation from the factors that create vulnerability, and should only be implemented with full awareness of their impact on different sections of the people. The paper argues for the use of vulnerability analysis as a framework for understanding disasters and the development of better policy interventions.'


Nature presents Humankind with a set of opportunities and risks which vary greatly in their spatial distribution. Opportunities include the many different ways in which people utilise nature for production (raw materials, energy sources) and to service their livelihoods (absorbing or recycling waste products). The risks inherent in nature consist of a wide range of hazards that put constraints on production (e.g. frosts affecting agriculture) and on other aspects of livelihoods and safety (earthquakes, floods, droughts etc.).

Conventional analysis of the relationship between Humankind and the environment has tended to emphasise nature as a set of determinants, without adequately integrating nature with social and economic systems. I argue that in effect the environment is itself a social construction. Opportunities and risks are fashioned by the varying characteristics of different types of social system, and the differing demands each society puts on Nature, combined with the varying impacts that nature may have on varying types of social system.' This means that there are no really generalised opportunities and risks in Nature, but instead there are sets of unequal access to opportunities and unequal exposures to risks which are a consequence of the socio-economic system.

Much conventional analysis of disasters considers a direction of hausality that proceeds from hazard through spatial variability to the impact on society. The argument of this paper is that explanation of disaster causality is only possible by understanding the ways in which social systems themselves generate unequal exposure to risk by making some groups of people, some individuals, and particular societies more prone to hazards than others. In other words, disasters are not 'natural' (not even sudden ones) because hazards affect people differently within societies, and may have very different impacts on different societies (e.g. earthquakes of equal energy may cause devastation in one country, but not in another).

Inequalities in risk (and opportunity) are largely a function of the principle systems of power operating in all societies, which are normally analysed in terms of class, gender and ethnicity. These in turn may be seen as social structures rooted in (and mutually influencing) the patterns of national and international economic and political systems. In other words, in order to understand the relationship between humans and nature, it is more important to discern how human systems themselves place people


in relation to each other and to the environment than it is to interpret natural systems. Concern here is not with the opportunities provided by the environment, but its risks. This paper attempts to interpret how social and economic systems place people at different levels of risk from nature's hazards. The main concept by which this 'social causation' is explained is vulnerability, being a measure of the degree and type of exposure to risk generated by different societies in relation to hazards. This approach can be termed vulnerability analysis.


Many people now accept that human activity itself has created the conditions for disaster events. This is partly because of growing awareness that through negligence or inappropriate response, the workings of social systems have made a disaster out of a situation which otherwise might not have been so serious. There has also been a growth in understanding that it is hazards that are natural, but that for a hazard to become a disaster it has to affect vulnerable people. The last decade has seen increasing use of various concepts of vulnerability by academics and development practitioners. These are also indicative of how disasters can be analysed as the product of economic and political factors. This shift in opinion is a vital step in the creation of a new international framework of thought and action for avoiding disasters.

Another reason for the shift is the growth in awareness of development problems and the difficulties of improving peoples living standards in Third World countries. Many now realise that the impact of disasters in the Third World often produce only a more acute, more extreme form of the general chronic daily suffering of many of the people. There is a realisation that explanation of the entire set of problems is required, rather than understanding of the 'naturalr disaster in isolation. Another reason for the new awareness is the more widespread recognition of human destruction of the environment, and that natural hazards themselves can be precipitated (or exacerbated) by the pursuit of economic and social goals which hitherto were seen as the normal objectives of economic growth.

But there are two other reasons why attitudes have changed, especially among people in Western countries. First has been the growing critique of international inequalities, including the awareness of the surplus of food in the West contrasted with the dearth in Africa. Although the general public may not be aware that a transfer of this surplus will not solve the problems, its existence (and the international system which gives rise to it) at least showed them that something was wrong with 'nature' as an explanation. Secondly, and linked with the first, the widespread civil unrest and wars in areas affected by famine (in Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan especially) showed, even if in a rather crude manner, that the famines were at least partly man- made. The result is that more people than perhaps ever before are conscious that economic and political factors are causes of disasters, and that (in those instances at least) famines are not simply a result of the lack of rain.


Yet there are gaps in this new awareness, or rather it is patchy and disconnected. Much of it is a product of reactions to single events (e.g. the Ethiopian famines) or particular processes (e.g. deforestation and desertification), and fails to connect a wider range of phenomena. While the new awareness is to be welcomed, it is still incomplete and not yet universally accepted. Even the focus of the 1990s United Nations 'International Decade for Naturak Disaster Reduction' (my emphasis) betrays the strength of the old outlook. Not only does the approach of the UN Decade fail to distinguish the naturalness of hazards from the human causation of disasters; it also (by focusing on the behaviour of nature) encourages technical solutions to the supposed excesses of that natural, yet untamed side of nature.

This paper instead develops a framework of factors and processes which explain how it is vulnerable people who are the victims of disasters. This is no mere tautology: it is not like saying that the victims of disasters were vulnerable to that hazard, as is demonstrated by their being its victims. The purpose is to demonstrate that there are particular characteristics of different groups of people (derived from economic, social and political processes) which mean that with the impact of a particular type of hazard of a given intensity, some avoid disaster and others do not.' The processes which make people ?more or less vulnerable are largely (but not exactly) the same as those which generate differences in wealth, control over ?resources, and power, both nationally and internationally. The *vulnerability concept is a means of 'translating1 known everyday I processes ofthe economic and political separation of people into ?a more specific identification of those who may be at risk in ,hazardous environments.' h

,The emphasis which many of those involved in 'disasters work' have placed on economic and political factors as the 'causesf of tiisasters seems to be percolating through to the public, to aid workers, and even to some governments.' Something which has been obvious to many victims of disaster - that their suffering is not simply the result of an act of God - is being understood. It is easy to identify war and civil disturbance as relevant economic and political factors. What is more difficult but essential is ,to identify the processes and conflicts which generate and maintain vulnerability to disaster in the more general sense. This is more difficult to substantiate, because it usually involves analysis of the means by which some people live (and survive hazards better) at the expense of others. While many will condemn wars, and be critical of desertification, famine and pestilence, or population growth, there is more reluctance (especially amongst those who have power) to accept that the conditions which create vulnerability in some people have as their counterpart a more comfortable life for others.

This conflict of economic interests is one of the most intractable barriers to the mitigation of disasters. It is evident in widely different circumstances. These include the enforced marginalizing of people onto less productive land, or the need for those who earn low wages, have few resources, or are discriminated against, to live in particular places where hazards strike more harshly.


In the first type of case, the move is often so that superior land can be used for commercial agriculture or ranching, and the losers are made more vulnerable to drought and other hazards. In the second, examples include the need for those dispossessed of land or other income opportunities in Bangladesh to live in extremely flood-prone areas of the delta, the unemployed and those on low wages having to live in insubstantial housing located on unstable slopes in many cities (e.g. Rio de Janeiro), and the poor living in buildings which landlords and governments fail to proof against earthquakes.

To see disasters as being natural is about as useful as a doctor signing a death certificate with the explanation of 'natural causesf. It gives no indication as to whether the person's life might have been extended by a different social system which allocated resources differently (leading for instance to provision of a better diet, which would increase physical and mental ability, longevity and resistance to disease), or provided a health care system which makes early diagnosis and treatment possible (including appropriate technological interventions) of many \natural1 causes of death, and regulated risks in a different way (for instance by the removal or reduction of health hazards from the workplace, and discouraging self-damaging behaviour such as drug taking, including tobacco and excessive alcohol), and enabling access to scientific knowledge of factors such as diet and toxins.

Of course the analogy with disasters is not perfect, but the parallels are there in terms of resource allocations, risk management and the type of science and education. In disasters associated with natural hazards, it is much more useful to understand how the political and economic processes in a society act in various ways to generate varying levels of exposure to risk among different people. The economic system and class structure allocates income and access to resources, and this has an impact in terms of peoples1 ability to cope with hazards (in nutritional level and health resilience, and subsequent access to resources, all affecting their potential for recovery). These also affect the degree of preparedness and mitigation through the level of scientific concern, resource allocation, and type and extent of technical preparation allocated within society. The manner in which social systems assign resources for the reduction of the impact of hazards is particularly important. It often fails to take account of peoples8 needs, just as in medical care preventive work is often neglected and resources spent on expensive curative facilities. The level of scientific knowledge of both hazards themselves and their impact, and the allocation of the resulting technologies as means for intervening to reduce their intensity or impact, are normally determined by the power of private companies and government agencies. These are driven by their own criteria for success, which need not correspond with the needs of people.

1 Obviously in the death certificate illustration, the people would not die were it not for the factors which are inadequately labelled 'natural causes1. But such information on the death certificate is hardly informative about the underlying reasons for the many medical conditions which can hasten death. Equally in an earthquake, were it not for the ground shaking there would not be the potential for deaths, injuries and disruption. But


&-his is far from being the same thing as saying that the earthquake caused an associated disaster.

The analogy can be extended. For various reasons 'natural causesf can be recorded on death certificates because the medical ?rofession, other interest groups, or even the state, wishes to suppress knowledge of the underlying cause of death. The reasons =ay be personal (to protect the feelings of family), social, or =.olitical (to guard the reputation of the state). Similarly, it 3ds served some political interests to maintain the notion that 2isasters are natural rather than \causedf by political and economic processes.

Someone who dies in their nineties might be said without much controversy to have died from natural causes, since there is Little likelihood that any modification of lifestyle or medical intervention could have delayed it further. In disasters there are also cases which reach the limits of the analysis presented frere, and which are similarly - at least partially - natural. For instance, there may be completely unforseen or unknown hazards, or a hazard with a return period so long that people are unable zo anticipate it at all. With the impact of such hazards, it is difficult to blame human action (or inaction) for any disastrous outcome (although there is an argument that human inaction should be blamed where there is a body of scientific knowledge that could have been used to warn of such occurrences). But in general iisasters are not natural: they happen to people who are put at risk as a result of their vulnerability.'


The vulnerability we are concerned with here is that associated with natural hazards. Vulnerability is a characteristic of individuals and groups of people who inhabit a given natural, social and economic space, within which they are differentiated according to their varying position in society into more or less wlnerable individuals and groups. It is a complex characteristic produced by a combination of factors derived especially (but not entirely) from class, gender, or ethnicity.lo Differences in --hese socio-economic factors result in hazards having a different degree of impact. Secondary factors may be important, such as Tge: older people may be generally less robust in recovery from :llness or injury (and less able of escape from some hazards), 'bough the elderly from poorer classes or ethnic groups may be 3ore vulnerable than others.

Vulnerability itself may be divided into three aspects: the first is the degree of resilience of the particular livelihood system of an individual or group, and their capacity for resisting the impact of a hazard. This reflects economic resilience, including +-he capacity for recoverability (another measure of economic strength and responsiveness to hazards). This can be called 'livelihood resiliencef, and has some affinity with Senfs concept of entitlement (Sen, 1981). The second is the \healthf component {medical), which includes both the robustness of individuals (itself largely a function of livelihood strength), and the operation of various social measures (especially preventive sedicine). The third component is the degree of preparedness of an individual or group. This is determined by the protection


available for a given hazard, something which depends on people acting on their own behalf, and on social factors.

Preparedness is the area which is most recognisable in disastsr planning, because it relates to the various technical interventions that are commonly seen as necessary for disaster avoidance (especially warning systems, land zoning, preparedness planning). But it is also clear that peoplesf ability to protect themselves depends on their livelihood strength, and on their relationship to the state or other social and political structures. For instance if living in an earthquake zone, self- protection affects the nature and strength of the building, and is closely related to income and savings capacity; in a flood- prone area livelihood governs the price that can be paid for building plots in different places in relation to expected flood water levels. This \self-protectionf element of vulnerability, is in some respects linked to the economic advantages and disadvantages of high or low levels of livelihood (though it is not determined only by income or wealth). The level of protection granted by the activities of the state or other social institutions (such as unions, co-operatives and non-governmental organisations (MGOs) can be termed \social protectionf. These may intervene in determining the level of protection of particular People or groups from a hazzrd. This The two 'protection' elements depend on a range of factors which are clearly also linked to the major inequality factors in a society (class, gender and ethnicity), but also relate to the level of scientific and technical knowledge (and the manner in which it is used).

These three components are summarized in Table 1. A hazard may be seen to have a greater or lesser impact on a person or group according to their bundle of these characteristics, by virtue of which they possess a higher or lower level of vulnerability. Whether a disaster happens or not is conventionally related to an emphasis on the hazard itself, and on the need for physical protection measures. With this alternative vulnerability approach, the intensity of the hazard (and of protection against it) is not nearly so relevant to explaining disaster as are the social and economic factors that affect overall vulnerability, including technical issues of protection.

A highly vulnerable group may be badly affected by a relatively weak earthquake, and a low vulnerability group little affected j by a strong one. It is the degree of vulnerability of people in the area of the hazard-strike which counts, and the different components of their vulnerability in relation to different types of hazard. The number of people at a level of vulnerability to a hazard of a given intensity will be a measure of the disastrous or non-disastrous impact of that hazard. It is therefore also possible for two earthquakes of the same intensity and characteristics to strike areas with similar population densities, and for one to be a disaster (in terms of mortality, injury, and disruption to livelihoods and future well-being) and the other to be a (relatively minor) disruption with few deaths and injuries and with easy recoverability. The hazard is natural; a disastrous outcome is not, and is in many senses largely caused by the vulnerability conditions generated by human systems.


Table 1 The Components of Vulnerability


Livelihood income opportunities class position; vulnerability livelihood type gender ;

entry qualifications ethnicity; assets and savings age ; health status action of state:

Self- building quality Socio-economic: protection hazard protection as above, plus

location of home/work technical ability or availability; Hazard-specific: return period; intensity; magnitude;

Social as above plus: as above, plus: protection building regulations level of scientific

knowledge; technical interventi'ons level (and

characteristics) of technical practice: type of science and engineering used by state and dominant groups ;

In areas where people face multiple hazards, the impact of one may be less serious than another. The 'protection1 element of vulnerability is therefore usually specific to each type of hazard, in its interaction with the particular characteristics of people. For instance, some people may be more vulnerable to an earthquake than to a flood striking the same location. This variability in regard to the type of hazard might result from the places where a person lives or works being better protected against flooding than earthquakes.


What is it' about the condition of the people (rather than the natural hazard) which make it possible for a hazard to become a disaster? Disasters happen when a natural hazard strikes vulnerable people, as illustrated in Figure 1. Thus they involve both the extent and types of vulnerability generated by peoples' situations within political and economic systems, and the manner in which society deals with the hazard in terms of mitigation and preparedness. If people can be made less vulnerable or non- vulnerable, then a hazard may still occur, but need not produce a disaster.

From this analysis, it is apparent that reducing disasters is possible not only by modifying the hazard, but also by reducing vulnerability. However, most of the efforts of those concerned

with.c$s+=ters is focused either on reducing the impact of the hazard 1 Self (sometimes in expensive and inappropriate ways), or on reducing one rather narrow aspect of vulnerability - social protection through certain forms of technological preparednes~.'~ The major determinants which make people vulnerable (i.e. the social, economic and political factors which determine the level of resilience of peoples' livelihoods, and their ability to withstand and prepare for hazards) are rarely tackled.

Mitigation of hazards is normally associated with attempts to reduce the intensity of a hazard, or to make some other modification which is supposed to lessen its impact. It is often hazard-centred rather than a people-centred approach. As a result It may deal with the hazard threat without taking account of peoples' needs, as with the major plans for taming floods in Bangladesh. By contrast, preparedness should aim at reducing the impact of a hazard by improving the protection of people in ways that centre on people and reducing their vulnerability. This may be done by people themselves, for instance in the type of building and its resilience in earthquakes (self-protection). It may be organised at a higher level (social protection) by the state (e.g. through building regulations) or through local groups or NGO activities. However, the State is often unreliable .' It may recognise the need to offer social protection to reduce vulnerability, but it is normally a party to the economic and social processes that lead people to be unable to protect themselves in the first place.

The vulnerability of a group can be improved by changes in the different components of their vulnerability bundle, and improvements in preparedness and mitigation measures are only one aspect. It is dangerous to rely on the development of scientific knowledge and technical means of hazard reduction, because they may have little or no effect, depending how other components of the vulnerability profile are altered. For instance, expensive satellite warning systems for hurricanes (tropical cyclones) may have no impact on people who cannot afford radios, or live in places where the state is unwilling or unable to provide warnings. At present the Government of Bangladesh and major industrialised countries are planning major engineering works to counter river floods (like those that covered much of the country in 1987 and 1988). There is grave uncertainty about the efficacy of these enormously expensive measures, or indeed whether they are even the best way of dealing with the vulnerability of the people affected (Boyce, 1990; Rogers et al, 1989).

In general, many people in most Third World countries are vulnerable in both the lack (or inappropriateness) of preparedness measures (the level of protection), and in the livelihood level and resilience. It is often the case that they are unable to provide themselves with self-protection, and the state is unable or unwilling to offer much relevant social protection. In developed industrialised countries, the preparedness levels may be high, and in general livelihoods are more secure and insurance makes them more resilient. This has given rise to a perception of disasters as having little impact in terms of deaths in industrialised countries but much material damage (in physical and value terms), while in the Third World


the situation is seen as the opposite. This is based on a crude and ill-informed understanding of the value of a great deal of property in Third World countries for the actual users. While the homes, goods, tools and animals which might be lost by Third World disaster victims may have low values when converted into Western currency and culture, they are often of great value and their loss may be devastating for the people concerned.

But vulnerability analysis is not only valid in Third World situations. There are sizeable groups of people in the industrialised countries who are economically vulnerable to barious hazards. For instance in the United States not everybody enjoys social protection (preparedness and mitigation measures) against hurricanes or earthquakes, and although the state may alleviate their livelihood damage through Federal aid, not all are eligible and many poorer people cannot improve their recoverability through insurance.


Better awareness about what causes natural hazards is insufficient for reducing their impact unless it is also translated into an understanding of the way economic systems affect people differentially. This is a major difficulty: if one of the obstacles to disaster reduction is self-interest of some groups in maintaining their position within economic systems, then how useful is it to develop this knowledge? The vulnerability approach to disasters is immediately concerned with political and economic power. It is focused on peoplesf access to resources, their livelihoods, and on external pressures which may act detrimentally on these. It is concerned with the type of (and absence of) social protection affecting different groups of people, and is therefore concerned with the role of the state, the type of technical interventions used in hazard preparedness, and whether or not self-organisation of vulnerable people to improve their own protection is permitted by powerful groups. Does the vulnerability approach involve irreconcilable conflicts, since we have to live with governments and systems (national and international) that maintain the economic inequity which causes vulnerability?

That vulnerability analysis is inherently about power and politics is no argument for abandoning it as a superior way of understanding disasters. A combined effort by academics, civil servants, political activists, NGOs, aid workers and others to promote some new thinking about disasters is part of the way in which dominant interest groups can be changed (see Maskrey, 1989 for related ideas). There is usually scope for something to be done within existing situations to reduce vulnerability and promote disaster mitigation. It is rare for governments to explicitly support the processes by which some people become more vulnerable than others; there are 'spaces' in most societies where the political shift which accompanies this type of disaster analysis can be inserted. In particular I would argue for the need to support and promote organisations of civil society which can provide the monitoring of hazards, and the measurement and analysis of vulnerability, outside of the control of the state. The struggle to make vulnerability analysis available (which includes the formation of such institutions) - both to potential