ABSTRACT

Natural disasters seem to have increasingly caught the attention of the western media in the late twentieth century, carrying reports and images of drought, flood, famine, earthquake, volcanic eruption, typhoon, tsunami and the like into suburban homes on an almost daily basis. Pinatubo, Kobe, ‘Mitch’, Izmit, Orissa and countless other hazards have become household names overnight as the glare of western public attention momentarily illuminates a less well-known corner of the globe. 1 Whether natural disasters now happen more frequently is a matter of some considerable scientific controversy, not least about what actually constitutes ‘natural’ and what are human-induced ones. 2 Statistically, it is claimed that the number of hazards causing 25 or more deaths rose annually from 10 in the 1940s to about 50 by the 1990s (Chapman 1994: 5). United Nations experts calculate that the number of disasters rose on average 6 per cent each year between 1962–92 (Associated Press 1995: 1, 6) and that they affected an average of 200 million people each year during the 1990s, a fourfold increase from the late 1960s (Walker and Walter 2000: 188; Smith 1996: 39). 3 Various explanations have been put forward to account for this escalation, some even claiming that it is just the product of better media coverage and others that it merely reflects a more densely settled global population. But few would now dispute that hazards are having a growing impact on human society: ironically both as a consequence of greater affluence and of greater poverty, of larger cities and more costly infrastructure (Kobe and Izmit) and of greater environmental degradation caused by overpopulation and unsustainable rural practices (‘Mitch’ and Orissa).