Disasters: Overview

What is a disaster?

A disaster is a progressive or sudden, widespread or localised, natural or human-caused incident that: (a) causes or threatens to cause death, injury or disease, damage to property, infrastructure or the environment, or disruption of the life of a community, and (b) is of a scale that exceeds the ability of those affected by the disaster to cope with the effects using only their own resources. Disasters are classified into two groups by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction: natural and technological.

Identifying hazards, and understanding their potential impact on people and assets is a fundamental element of guiding resilient development. An extreme event (or hazard) alone does not necessarily cause a disaster. Disaster risk is related to the ongoing, chronic, or persistent environmental, economic, and/or social risk factors (a predisposition for loss and damage) combined with the exposure to hazards. High exposure and vulnerability levels will transform even some small-scale (slow-onset) events into disasters for some affected communities. Recurrent small or medium-scale events affecting the same communities may lead to the erosion of its development base and livelihood options, thus increasing vulnerability to future events. Natural and human-induced factors can also act together to create a disaster. A landslide can be caused by a combination of heavy rains and deforestation.

Natural disasters

South Africa has faced a number of devastating natural disasters over the last few decades and their impacts have been varying. A natural disaster refers to events such as floods, storm surges, droughts, wildfires, lighting strikes, landslides, heat waves, hail storms, wind storms, and tornadoes.

technological disasters

Technological disasters refer to hazards that stem from technological or industrial conditions. Examples include industrial pollution, nuclear activities and radioactivity, toxic wastes, dam failures; transport, industrial or technological accidents (explosions, fires, spills).