Defining a Disaster


The word disaster can be defined as:

a sudden overwhelming and unforeseen event that causes much suffering or loss to many people.

At the household level, a disaster could result in a major illness, death, a substantial economic or social misfortune.

At the community level, a disaster could be a flood, a fire, a collapse of buildings in an earthquake, the destruction of livelihoods, an epidemic or displacement through conflict.

Defining Disaster by Impact

Community Disaster Assistance[2]

Disasters are complex events that do not have simple solutions. No two disasters are the same, yet they all have similarities in human and property loss. However, the losses will be considered and viewed differently:[1]

  • The individual will consider the impact on his or her family and livelihood.
  • Engineers will study the impact to the infrastructure.
  • Economists will measure material loss to buildings and production.
  • Politicians will assess political damage from a failed response.
  • Scientistswill study the cause of the disaster and the social consequences.

Difficulty Ranking Disasters

It is difficult to rank disasters as “worst”. Throughout history, disasters have wiped out or decimated entire islands, civilizations, cities and towns and claimed unrecorded countless lives. They have destroyed precious cultures, architecture and historical objects.

Some disasters are deemed “worst” by the amount of lives taken, or including the injured; while other disasters are measured in terms of the amount of dollars required to repair the damages. Moreover, disasters can also be categorized by the damage done to the environment. Thus, ranking disasters is subjective and depends on the criteria used.

Disasters Affecting More People

More people are being affected by natural disasters and losses are becoming progressively greater. The significant feature driving this is the extent of human encroachment into hazard prone areas. With increasing population density and changing land use patterns, more people are exposed to natural hazards and consequently our accumulated human and economic losses are increasing.[3]

Between 1950 and 2003, the world’s population grew from an estimated 2.5 billion to 6.3 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More people are affected by natural disasters today because there are more people in the world to be affected. But beyond basic statistics, natural disasters may be getting more expensive because more people are building more expensive infrastructure in areas that are prone to natural disasters, like coastal areas, fire-prone forests, steep mountain slopes, and riverbanks.[4]