AskDefine | Define disasters

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  1. Plural of disaster

Extensive Definition

A disaster is the impact of a natural or human-made hazard that negatively affects society or environment. The root of the word disaster comes from astrology: this implies that when the stars are in a bad position a bad event will happen. The word derives from Middle French désastre, from Old Italian disastro, from the Greek pejorative prefix δυσ-, (dis-) "bad" + αστήρ (aster), "star".
In contemporary academia, disasters are seen as the consequence of inappropriately managed risk. These risks are the product of hazards and vulnerability. Hazards that strike in areas with low vulnerability are not considered a disaster, as is the case in uninhabited regions.
Developing countries suffer the greatest costs when a disaster hits – more than 95 percent of all deaths caused by disasters occur in developing countries, and losses due to natural disasters are 20 times greater (as a percentage of GDP) in developing countries than in industrialized countries.


Wisner et al reflect a common opinion when they argue that all disasters can be seen as being human-made, their reasoning being that human actions before the strike of the hazard can prevent it developing into a disaster. All disasters are hence the result of human failure to introduce appropriate disaster management measures. Hazards are routinely divided into natural or human-made, although complex disasters, where there is no single root cause, are more common in developing countries. A specific disaster may spawn a secondary disaster that increases the impact. A classic example is an earthquake that causes a tsunami, resulting in coastal flooding.

Natural disasters

A natural disaster is the consequence when a natural hazard (e.g., volcanic eruption or earthquake) affects humans. Human vulnerability, caused by the lack of appropriate emergency management, leads to financial, environmental, or human impact. The resulting loss depends on the capacity of the population to support or resist the disaster: their resilience. This understanding is concentrated in the formulation: "disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerability". A natural hazard will hence never result in a natural disaster in areas without vulnerability, e.g., strong earthquakes in uninhabited areas. The term natural has consequently been disputed because the events simply are not hazards or disasters without human involvement.

Human-made disasters

Disasters caused by human action, negligence, error, or involving the failure of a system are called human-made disasters. Human-made disasters are in turn categorized as technological or sociological. Technological disasters are the results of failure of technology, such as engineering failures, transport disasters, or environmental disasters. Sociological disaster have a strong human motive, such as criminal acts, stampedes, riots, and war.


The probability of avoiding a disaster is greatly improved when those potentially affected by them implement mitagative action and develop emergency preparedness plans. The science of disaster management deals with this issue. Although the term disaster is subjective, it is often used in the developed world to refer to situations where local emergency management resources are inadequate to counteract the negative effects of the event. Business continuity planning focus on the particular application of disaster management in the commercial domain.



  • Barton A.H. (1969). Communities in Disaster. A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations. SI: Ward Lock
  • Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, Eds.. Santa Fe NM: School of American Research Press, 2002
  • G. Bankoff, G. Frerks, D. Hilhorst (eds.) (2003). Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People. ISBN 1-85383-964-7.
  • D. Alexander (2002). Principles of Emergency planning and Management. Harpended: Terra publishing. ISBN 1-903544-10-6.

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disasters in Czech: Katastrofa
disasters in Danish: Katastrofe
disasters in German: Katastrophe
disasters in Spanish: Desastre
disasters in Esperanto: Katastrofo (akcidento)
disasters in French: Catastrophe
disasters in Korean: 재해
disasters in Croatian: Katastrofa
disasters in Indonesian: Bencana
disasters in Italian: Disastro
disasters in Latin: Calamitates humanae
disasters in Latvian: Katastrofa
disasters in Malay (macrolanguage): Bencana
disasters in Dutch: Ramp
disasters in Japanese: 災害
disasters in Norwegian: Katastrofe
disasters in Polish: Katastrofa
disasters in Portuguese: Desastre
disasters in Russian: Катастрофа
disasters in Sinhala: ව්‍යසන
disasters in Simple English: Disaster
disasters in Finnish: Onnettomuus
disasters in Swedish: Katastrof
disasters in Thai: ภัยธรรมชาติ
disasters in Turkish: Afet
disasters in Ukrainian: Катастрофа
disasters in Chinese: 灾害
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