Chapter 1: What is a disaster?
The focus of this book is on disasters. Whilst seemingly a straightforward concept, and an objective fact, what constitutes a disaster is based on subjective understandings and experiences of an event, which differ between people and across time and space. This chapter explores how disasters have been understood and defined. It highlights that, while represented as a scientific phenomenon, unlike the natural hazards that may provoke them, disasters are actually socially constructed. A hazard need not become, or be seen to be, a disaster. Vulnerability has emerged as a key concept to help explain how and why natural events have severe negative socio-economic outcomes or become ‘disasters’ for some groups of people and not others; that is, why some groups are more at risk than others. However, even identifying those ‘at risk’ is not straightforward, since risk is also a highly subjective notion and, while experts may define individuals or countries as ‘at risk’, this risk may not be perceived in the same way by them. In particular, the Third World has been constructed as at risk of, and vulnerable to, disasters due to its lack of development. In turn, when disasters occur they are seen as setting back the development achieved to date in these countries. This suggests disasters are something unusual and outside the normal processes of development. This chapter seeks to problematise this conceptualisation of disasters as extraordinary, and suggests that disasters need to be understood as part of the development process and thus mainstreamed within development.
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