There has been a lot of talk recently about the two natural disasters and their toll on the populations of Myanmar and China. The devastation brought by the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China are immense, yet the tragedy is not spread equally even among the people in the affected areas.
The reports of schools in China being demolished by the quake while buildings around them suffered minimal damage, and the fact that the Myanmar government continues to make it difficult to get aid to those who need it highlight the fact that much of the "disaster" of a natural disaster is the result of the circumstances in which people find themselves.
How much of the disaster that follows a natural disaster really is natural? In an interesting public-access report prepared by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) in 2003, there is this paragraph:
"People’s vulnerability to disasters depends on the social, cultural, economic and political environment. The economic factor is most apparent as many poor people are forced to live on marginal lands, such as floodplains, coastal towns and unstable hillsides. A study by CRED, 2001 concluded that in the past decade, on an average, every disaster in low human development countries claimed about 1,062 lives, and each disaster in the middle human development countries claimed 145 lives. These figures stand in stark contrast to the average of 22.5 people killed per disaster in high human development countries (WR, 2001)."
Thoughts of natural disasters, at least in my mind, frequently conjure up images of hazards (wind, water, an earthquake, etc) happening to people who then must simply find ways to react and cope and survive. And, too often this is true. But, as I think about all this, there is also hope, and some sense of empowerment that natural disasters may not be inherently disastrous. For many throughout the world, their ability to change their own circumstances to become less vulnerable is minimal, but that is partly the role of public health and human rights.
See this link for a global disasters database, including maps, disasters trends, and interesting articles maintained by the World Health Organization: http://www.emdat.be/