In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, a reflection on how the terminology we use shapes our understanding of these events.
Not just “natural” consequences

The list of natural disasters includes drought and water shortages, wildfires, floods and tsunamis, landslides, thunderstorms, hail and lighting, hurricanes and tropical storms, tornadoes and damaging winds, earthquakes, and extreme heat / cold. In Wikipedia’s definition, a natural disaster is “a major adverse event resulting from natural processes of the Earth,” but then an adverse event is only a disaster “if it occurs in an area with vulnerable population.”

So if Typhoon Haiyan would have hit an island unpopulated by humans instead of smacking into the central Philippines, which is home to millions, we wouldn’t be talking about the “widespread devastation of a natural disaster.” In other words, it’s not “nature” that is undergoing the “disaster,” but humans.

Not just “natural” causes

I spent a month in Quito, Ecuador, co-directing an international summer camp for children. Our location near a mountain valley was beautiful, but also left us vulnerable to the accumulation of smoke from the wildfires that burned daily in the region.

Together with droughts and extreme weather (cold or heat waves), wildfires near populated areas are the type of long-lasting events that are not typically as deadly as an earthquake or tornado, but that allow us to better understand the relationship between human and “natural” causation.

Places like the Philippines are ultimately bearing the brunt of the climate change that wealthy-state development has wrought upon the world.

During 2012, there were about 1,990 wildfires in Quito and surrounding areas, three times more than the 2009 record. From our camp, we had to call in daily to report small fires in our proximity, often with hours of delay in getting a response. According to El Comercio, fire fighters received an average of 33 calls per day during August, and 82% of the area was “vulnerable to fires.” Officials admitted that the causes were varied and interconnected: a very dry summer (in a context of global climate changes), invasive plant species, intense winds, and reckless people.

I was shocked by how many times we had to tell people to put out untended asado fires. Not once did I see evidence of a public awareness campaign on how to prevent wildfire.

In this example, can we blame only nature for all 1,990 fires?

“Natural”? Or “socio-economic-cultural-political”?

In 2006, shortly after a mudslide in the southern Philippines killed more than 1,000 people, Eric Schwartz stated that human behavior was primarily responsible:

Worldwide migration to coastal areas has made populations far more vulnerable to hurricanes, and nearly 50 million people worldwide face risk of flooding due to storm surges. Environmental degradation has only accentuated this problem. In some areas of Sri Lanka, for example, mangrove trees provided critical coastal defenses during the tsunami and saved many lives. But where the mangroves had been depleted, the tsunami left a path of death and destruction in its wake.

If we are going to point fingers, we could also say places like the Philippines are ultimately bearing the brunt of the climate change that wealthy-state development has wrought upon the world. The US, Germany, and the UK are comparatively unlikely to experience such catastrophes (or to have similar levels of devastation as a result), but nobody frames what happens in the Philippines as being an issue of social justice.

And then, climatic events are often followed by human-made / technological disasters: explosions, blackouts, uncontrolled release of hazardous materials (including radiological, chemical, and biological threats), and other massive infrastructure failures, infrastructure that remains largely invisible until the precise moment at which it breaks down.

Thus, natural occurrences become exponentially more harmful according to the vulnerabilities that exist long before the event. The reality of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines cannot be understood without taking into account previous disasters (civil war, earthquakes, and socioeconomic inequality, with 45% of the population making less than $2 per day). Academics call this “social vulnerability”: a measure of socioeconomic conditions that will cause a natural disaster and/or will condition a society’s ability to prepare for and recover from a disruptive event. Wealthy and poor might experience together the terror of a superstorm, but the privileged will have a significantly larger availability of resources to face the aftermath. If you look at the ten deadliest “natural” disasters since 1900 by death toll, the majority occurred in developing nations or under-developed / unprepared regions.

How language shapes our worldview

The United Nations has removed “natural” from the equation, leaving the “disasters” to stand on their own at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (2005). The objective of the conference was to foster actions to reduce the number of human casualties and the toll of disasters through preparation, such as having early warning systems, agreeing cost-effective preventative countermeasures and safe building standards, and encouraging governments and international nonprofits to work on public education, safe access areas for emergencies, and insurance for homes and businesses.

“Disaster” has an Italian origin — it comes from disastro, a late 16th-century term for “ill-starred event.” It can be used for both an event with unfortunate consequences (ergo, no one is to be blamed) and a person or thing that is a complete failure (meaning someone or something should at least serve as scapegoat).

Why should we care about the words we use?

Language is like a pair of glasses we use to read reality, and we can never read without them. We are able, however, to improve and adjust the lenses. When we talk about “natural” disasters, we effectively refute accountability for the role each of us has played in shaping them.

What to do besides changing terminology

As many nonprofit fundraisers keep on repeating, in the case of “natural” disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, what’s needed is money; bringing material donations to the area is not cost effective at all and could be a very bad international aid idea. So despite the good intentions behind donating food, water, and medicine, on the occasion of crisis and catastrophe, take out the credit card if you can.

As tempting as wearing the hero t-shirt is, dropping our office job and volunteering with international aid organizations, we can do a lot if we think globally and act locally: We can raise awareness of the need for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) actions at home. We can contribute to disaster reduction policymaking and early warning systems in our own communities. It’s never too late to intelligently integrate infrastructure with environmental protection measures. Regardless of where each of us lives, there are probably vulnerabilities to fire, flooding, intense storms, droughts, or other human-nature dangers, and the key is — no doubt about it — to map and then reduce these vulnerabilities.