Human security and natural disasters

Dorothea Hilhorst, Alpaslan Özerdem, Erin Michelle Crocetti

Research output: Chapter/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic

1 Citation (Scopus)


This chapter explores the nexus between human security and natural disasters. As of today, the framework of human security has not had much explicit translation in relation to natural disasters. However, as this chapter will elaborate, the framework is highly relevant, and may indeed become more central in the years to come. Human security is an integrative concept that combines ideas on human development, human needs and human rights (Gasper, 2010: 29). This fits well with the current thinking on natural hazards that views disasters as the combined outcome of hazards and vulnerability. Until the Second World War, disaster risk reduction, mainly through water management, was hazard-oriented and seen as a matter for engineering. In the twentieth century optimistic modernism led to the ‘hydraulic mission’ (Turton and Ohlsson, 1999). The state controlled water resources and ‘developed’ the basin with mega-structures for flood protection and water retention. Embankments and barriers were built in order to tame the rivers and safeguard life and livelihoods of the population behind the dikes. In the 1960s this hazard-oriented paradigm became complemented by social science perspectives. Gilbert White (1986 (1960)) proposed that people should be given a greater range of options, which would make them consider leaving or avoiding high-risk areas. This so-called behavioural paradigm coupled a hazardcentred interest in the geo-physical processes underlying disaster with the conviction that people had to be taught to anticipate it. The 1983 landmark publication of Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology edited by Kenneth Hewitt argued that structural factors such as increasing poverty and related social processes accounted for people and societies’ vulnerability to disaster. This signalled the beginning of a vulnerability paradigm that understands disasters as the interaction between hazard and vulnerability (O’Keefe et al., 1976). Disaster risk reduction would then entail the transformation of social and political structures that breed poverty and the social dynamics that serve to perpetuate it (Heijmans and Victoria, 2001), from the local to the international level (Wisner et al., 2004). The vulnerability paradigm brought along increasing attention to the role of disaster-affected people and their communities in disaster risk reduction (Anderson and Woodrow, 1989). Community-based disaster risk reduction became a widely advocated approach. Since the 1990s, the understanding of disasters again shifted to emphasize the mutuality of hazard and vulnerability to disaster due to complex interactions between nature and society. In this view, hazards are increasingly the result of human activity. This has the important implication that vulnerability might not just be understood as how people are susceptible to hazards, but can also be considered as a measure of the impact of society on the environment (Oliver-Smith and Hofmann, 1999; Hilhorst, 2004). Human security can easily be aligned to the current understanding of disasters. Disaster risk reduction seeks to integrate the immediate needs of disaster victims with risk reduction measures and structural development as a means to reduce disaster vulnerability. Like human security, it thus aims to integrate needs and development, and encompasses concerns for individual survivors of disasters with the need to develop more disaster-resilient communities, societies and global relations. The next section of this chapter reviews some of the normative frameworks pertaining to natural disasters and asks what they mean in terms of human security. The following part of the chapter reviews the debate whether natural disasters could be considered grounds to evoke the Responsibility to Protect. We then address the question how current discourses around human security find translation in rights-based approaches in disaster response. This specifically looks into the experiences of disaster response following the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. We conclude that there is room for expanding human security thinking into disaster response, and that until now human security thinking has not found systematic translation in disaster risk reduction efforts. While human security is very promising as a framework to guide disaster risk reduction, its translation and value in practice is yet to be established.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Human Security
PublisherTaylor and Francis Inc.
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781134619733
ISBN (Print)9780415581288
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 selection and editorial material, Mary Martin and Taylor Owen.


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