Hazards Essay

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Hazards are processes with a specific dimension to potentially have a negative impact on individuals, communities, or society. The nature of the hazard refers to the origin, being natural, manmade or social.

An urban and industrial society is based on technology. Technology should be understood as a system of interrelated components of design, building, management, and disposal components. A failure may happen at any stage, so the use of technology implies dealing with a hazard. Living in an industrial society means living at risk. A human failure is a malfunction of a component, not an isolated condition. More attention is paid to new and high technologies in developed countries, while low-technology accidents in developing countries are rarely reported. The transfer of technology to these countries to avoid labor or environmental controls relocates and increases risk for the destination’s lax control.

Parameters of Hazards

The effects of technological accidents are complex: environmental or health-related in its nature; durable and extended to unborn generations, cumulative or temporary; and global, regional, or local in extent. In an event, the following are involved: a material: chemical, inflammable, or radioactive; a process: structural failure, fire, explosion, or a release; a sector: chemical, transportation, energy production, mining or agriculture, or simply a lifestyle.

Natural hazards and disasters are classified into a range of major categories: atmospheric (hurricanes, wind storms, tornadoes, heatwaves, droughts); hydrological (floods, snow avalanches); geological and geomorphological (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, erosion); and biological (human epidemics, pests, wildfires).

The dimensions of a hazard are the magnitude of energy released, the complexity or potential level of hazard combination, the spatial dimensions as a real extent and diffusion, and the temporal dimensions as rate of onset, duration, frequency, and recurrence. Dimension is also a key element for public awareness, since media and governments usually draw their attention to rapid-onset, dramatic, and extreme events. Less attention is paid to slow-acting or biological processes like epidemics, famine, drought, or soil erosion, which have time-extended effects, concealed victims and environmental degradation over large areas.

Risk is a measure of the probable impact and the subsequent economic and noneconomic losses. An impact is an eventual interaction between a hazard and a vulnerable set of persons, goods, functions or resources. If an extreme event hits an unpopulated area, the effect on the society is null, while a slight change on a populated area – like snow in winter – may have a negative or positive impact.

The disaster is a disruption of the economic, social, institutional, and environmental functioning produced by an extensive loss as a result of a hazardous event. The criteria differentiating it from lower-energy accidents is the magnitude of the loss; the number of casualties, deaths and injured, and economic loss. This implies an administrative responsibility or financial liability, and the determination of whether the loss will be covered by individuals, insurance companies, administrations, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Common criteria applied to droughts are looser, requiring a large number of people affected, even some reports exclude drought victims from ordinary natural disaster counts.

The differentiation between disaster and catastrophe is a matter of dimension. A country or a community recovers from a disaster with resources of their own, with some aid; but the magnitude of a catastrophe reaches a point that their own resources are not enough to cope with response and recovery. Losses are enormous and critical, for there is a general destruction of buildings and infrastructures, emergency facilities are not operational, administration is dismantled, and everyday life is interrupted. This was the case with hurricane Mitch in 1998 in Honduras.

Perception is an intervening factor in the definition of disaster. There is a band of tolerance within hazard dimensions, where some damages are not judged considerable. The relationship between earth processes and risk tolerance changes with time. Diminished resources-like drinking water availability – is always intolerant, causing increasing stress; however, an increasing tolerance diminishes stress.

Effects of Disasters

The effects of a disaster are as complex as the causes. Primary effects on people are loss of life, injuries or impairment, together with damage or destruction of resources, property, heritage, and disruption of production, commerce, transport, lifelines, and services. Secondary hazards, such as urban fires or aftershocks following the destruction caused by an earthquake, are effects facilitated by vulnerability and insufficient preparedness. Social functions are interrupted, and the results are starvation, illness, unemployment, social violence, displacement and migration, unemployment, and inflation. Losses increase vulnerabilities to famine, diseases, debt, or homelessness. Side effects include displacement and a decline in fertility, although there is a contradictory effect – of returning to former homes – when memory vanishes.

The effects of a disaster in developing and developed countries are significantly different. While more commodities are at risk in developed countries, more people are at risk in developing countries. The Kobe earthquake in 1995 caused an estimated damage of $150 billion, the most costly disaster in the 20th century. In the developing world, the two most deadly events were the Bangladesh cyclone in 1970 with 300,000 fatalities, and the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 with 250,000 victims. Again, in Third World countries, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 caused an estimated number of 275,000 deaths.

The impact of natural disasters is increasing, for there is a higher population growth rate in developing countries, particularly in urban areas. Population and affluence demand more land and drive up its value, putting more pressure on vulnerable and marginal areas. The process of economic and industrial relocation, in addition to financial mobility – inherent to the globalization process – has lead to an interconnectedness and interdependence of national and regional markets in distant geographical areas. A production or transportation crisis caused by a disaster has effects in distant areas, illustrated by market distortion. Technological development actually creates a vulnerability, as social functions are increasingly reliant on its quality, accuracy, and uninterrupted operation.

Vulnerability to Hazards

Vulnerability is the human capacity of coping with-the impact of a disaster, and materializes as a disadvantageous response, defective resilience, and powerlessness. It is complex for its physical, social, economic, institutional, and environmental nature, and is variable depending on the dimensions, energy, and complexity of the hazard. Physical vulnerability is based on the quality, resistance, and design of construction. Social and economic vulnerability depends on social class, age, sex, ethnicity or minority. Casualties in earthquakes principally happen at community buildings and homes to women, children, and the elderly-although it is also dependent of other factors like the time of the day.

Poor people are more vulnerable, for they lack resources to contend with every phase of the risk process. Largely, they dwell in hazard-prone areas. They do not get ample information for they do not easily reach media, are not integrated in the risk preparedness system, and their low education levels conditions their perception of the environmental threats and the access to training. Evacuation is a challenge due to the reduced mobility of the young, the elderly, the impaired, and those with lack of personal transportation. Rural settlements and urban squatters are not priority areas for rescue and assistance, as well as for rehabilitation and reconstruction in the phase of recovery, even though shantytowns become overpopulated and built with unsuitable materials. The lack of risk and emergency management strategies in less developed countries is structural and reflects political and financial priorities when resources are limited.

External aid helps to stabilize the post-event situation and acts as a relief by providing temporary shelter, health, sanitary, and sanitation services. Sources of assistance are small-scale community aid in smaller events, and external and internal governments, international agencies and nongovernment organizations (NGOs). This support, however, discourages spatial relocation and local government responsibility for development, creating dependency. External aid is highly reliant on the interest of media in rapid-onset events to channel public and government attention, which declines in the postevent phases of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Critical recovery processes become very dependent on voluntary and external resources to organize aid donations after the event.

Resiliance to Hazards

Resilience is a measure of the ability to return close to the previous state after an impact. The more resilient a population, the more efficient their previous adaptation to environmental change. Availability of assets, land, income, capital, skills, technology, insurance coverage, and access to information discriminate this capacity. But resilience is not only a post-disaster component; these factors also intervene in preparedness. Developed areas respond to disaster at various administrative levels, because they own resources; resilience is not only at the individual or household level. In less-developed regions, the capacity for coping with the impact of a disaster is almost exclusively at the household level.

The most frequent natural hazards-earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, tropical storms, or desertification processes-have a clear zonal location component, shaping hazard regions. They are an additional factor restraining development in developing countries because the human and economic costs of response and recovery delay the effects of investments. Urban areas, with their high technology density and exposure, shape further regions of risk.

Bibliography: 

  1. David Alexander, Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2000);
  2. Edward Bryant, Natural Hazards (Cambridge University Press, 2004);
  3. Susan L. Cutter, Living With Risk: The Geography of Technological Hazards (Edward Arnold, 1993);
  4. Kenneth Hewitt, Regions of Risk. A Geographical Introduction to Disasters (Addison Wesley, 1997);
  5. Mark Pelling, The Vulnerability of Cities: Natural Disaster and Social Resilience (Earthscan, 2003);
  6. Keith Smith, Environmental Hazards: Assessing Risk and Reducing Disaster (Routledge, 2004);
  7. Ben Wisner et al. At Risk: Natural Hazards, Peoples Vulnerability, and Disasters (Routledge, 2004);
  8. Donald J. Zeigler, James H. Johnson, and Stanley D. Brunn, Technological Hazards (Association of American Geographers, 1983).

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