‘When is a natural disaster not a natural disaster?’ 


Although many natural disasters make headline news because they result in death and destruction, other natural phenomena occur in places that are sparsely populated where there is no loss of human life. Interestingly, when natural phenomena occur in sparsely populated areas and human death or injury does not result, the term ‘disaster’ is not used at all. All of which suggests that what qualifies as a ‘natural disaster’ is dependent on whether it has caused damage to human existence through death, injury or destruction of property and livelihood..

For example, a tropical storm or tsunami that destroys an area of coral reef but does no harm to human life or industry is unlikely to be considered a natural disaster or deemed an evil event dealt out by a capricious god – even if the destruction of the reef might result in the extinction of many rare species, coral and animal life.

Now, let us imagine it is a thousand years later. People come and settle in the place where the coral reef once was because it is picturesque and has great potential as a place for tourism. The fact that it is an area at risk of flooding from a tsunami is not considered. After all, as far as the people are aware, it is not prone to these disasters. So, when a tsunami happens twenty years later, this time killing people who now live in the area, the cry is one of an unfair world or uncaring God when really the decision to populate a risky area rested with human decision making. Had the area been considered dangerous and left unpopulated there would be no loss of human life if a tsunami struck again. Moreover, no need to accuse God of his wantonness in creating a dangerous world for people to inhabit.

The truth is that throughout the centuries, humans have populated areas which are considered unsafe in terms of natural disasters. Indeed, due to seismic activity or recurring problems, these places are seen as accidents waiting to happen and yet development continues – suggesting that it is human need for an area that may outstrip any concerns people have about a disaster occurring later on. Often, these densely populated places have suffered natural disasters in their past but have since undergone redevelopment with no thought of the consequence should an earthquake occur again. Settlements like those along the San Andreas fault-line and the development of Lisbon and Tokyo, two cities that have experienced earthquakes in the past.

Although many people choose to ignore the possible outcomes of living in an unsafe area for reason of lifestyle choice – by this I mean they have chosen to live there because of its beautiful scenery or economic prospects – the poor and economically disadvantaged may not have such a choice as to where they can live. Consequently, living along a fault line or in an area that is liable to flooding, or in the shadow of a volcano, is often their only option.

In summary,  ‘wrong place, wrong time’ deals with the reasonableness of human responses to natural disasters as they occur. Particularly in regard to people’s failure to recognise that it is often a series of human decisions that have led communities to live, work and sleep in a place that is prone to destructive events. Given the choice, it is reasonable to presume that most people would choose to live in areas that are safe from natural disasters. However, as already noted, people continue to live in places that are prone to earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis (etc)  because they reason the risk of death is minimal and that the benefit outweighs the risk.