“Natural Disaster”: Misguided terminology


Disasterchannel.co,- Unknowingly we are fed with various kinds of information about disasters with the choice of words that are sometimes not quite right. For example, news about flood events that cause disasters. Heavy rains that occurred for several days in a row were also said to be the cause. Did the rain cause the disaster? Of course not! All of these sentences do look normal, but not many are aware that this sentence is a wrong sentence. 

Until now, many of us tend to blame nature in the process of suffering experienced by humans. Just like the term natural disaster. Lots of literature, news reports or reports that use the word natural disaster. This term seems to imply that disasters occur due to natural phenomena. The term natural disaster is also usually used by some people to refer to disasters that occur with natural events as the trigger. 

However, if we look at the definition of a disaster according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or society at any scale due to a hazardous event that interacts with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, causing harm and impacting human, material, economic, and environmental.”

If we understand more deeply the meaning of disaster according to the UNDRR, then the term natural disaster is not appropriate. This is because disasters occur due to interactions between threats and human exposure conditions, vulnerabilities and capacities. An event cannot be considered a disaster if there is no interaction between these components so that it does not cause serious disruption or loss.

For example, there is a volcanic eruption on a small uninhabited island that is far from any other island. This phenomenon cannot be said to be a disaster or a natural disaster. This is because there is no interaction between threats and conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, which have an impact on humans.

The notion that disasters are not natural occurrences is not new. The argument about disasters not being natural emerged in the eighteenth century. In fact, academics have also questioned for more than 40 years how “nature” can be called “natural disasters”. 

Campaigns regarding the inappropriateness of the term “natural disaster” began to grow. The campaign that carries the hashtag #NoNaturalDisasters builds on decades of work and research conducted by disaster risk reduction practitioners and academics. The aim of this campaign is to change the terminology to show that while some hazards are natural and unavoidable, the disasters they cause are almost always the result of human actions and decisions.

In the local context, Indonesia has a high disaster risk. There are many recorded catastrophic histories from time to time after civilization recognized written culture. Even the experience of dealing with disasters that are constantly recurring produces a knowledge that is local in nature. Local knowledge comes in various forms, ranging from stories, fairy tales, traditions, to customary rules that prescribe forms of disaster mitigation.

After we (disasterchannel.co) collect and document local knowledge and collective memory of disasters from day to day. We found that the term “natural disaster” is a misnomer. For example: local knowledge that is represented in the place name (toponym) of an area, implies an ancestral message as a danger marker.

Balaroa Village in Palu City, Central Sulawesi is one of the areas that experienced a severe impact from the disaster triggered by the earthquake which caused liquefaction on September 28 2018. The name of Balaroa Village, formerly this area was called “Tagari Lonjo” which means “immersed in mud” . Local knowledge in naming the Tagari Lonjo area is starting to fade, even being ignored, and not used as a consideration in development. Until the Balaroa National Housing Complex (Perumnas) was established around 1980. As a result, around 1,400 houses were razed to the ground and many people died. Local knowledge describes the disaster threat very clearly. However, humans who do not pay attention to this knowledge that makes danger turn into disaster.

The incident above is one proof that the expression natural disasters is a mistake. In Chmutina et al’s 2019 study, it was stated that the phrase “natural disaster” cut off the reality of the most vulnerable groups by continuously blaming “nature” and placing responsibility for development failures on “strange” natural phenomena or “God’s actions”.

It is important for us to understand disasters as a whole so as not to get caught up in misguided terms. In a series of disaster management (pre-disaster, during disaster, post-disaster), we can reduce disaster risk by reducing vulnerability and exposure to threats. This decision is very important to reduce losses. It’s enough that we blame nature for the suffering we experience. (LS)


Chmutina, K., & Von Meding, J. (2019). A dilemma of language:“Natural disasters” in academic literature. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science10, 283-292.