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Etymologically the word disaster is derived from two Greek words - ‘dis’ meaning “bad” and ‘astor’ meaning “star” - thus suggesting that disasters are destined to happen. This sense of fatalism in fact remained the dominant philosophy of disasters for centuries and still influences the perception of many people around the world. The philosophy of fatalism found expression in theories of ‘anger of God’ or of ‘wrath of nature’.

In contemporary academia disaster is defined as the consequence of inappropriately managed risks. These risks are a product of inappropriately managed hazards and vulnerability. In this context disasters are often described by the equation D = {(H x V) x R} ÷ C when

H = Hazards meaning the potentiality of a physical event that may cause loss of life or property
V = Vulnerabilities defined as factors or processes - physical, social, economic, and environmental - which increase susceptibility of an area or a community to impact of hazards
R = Risks or exposure of vulnerable population and assets to hazards and probability of harmful consequences or losses
C = Capacities which signify the strengths and resources available within a community, society or organization that can reduce the level of risk, or the effects of a disaster.

In this framework disasters are seen as ‘the consequences of unattended risks that is neither prevented nor mitigated and for which the countries and communities are not prepared’. UNISDR has defined disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread losses and impacts - human, material, economic or environmental, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources”.

For more than a century disaster as a subject has been researched. There is a growing argument by the researchers that most disasters are man-made, their argument is that the human action before hazards strike can prevent them developing into disasters. Hence all disasters are seen as lack of appropriate disaster management measures.

Disasters produce a range of impacts; these include direct, secondary and indirect effects. Direct effects include deaths injuries and physical damage. However, secondary disaster impacts such as releasing fire or hazardous material that is triggered by disasters. Finally, impacts include ripple effect resulting from the flow of goods, services, unemployment etc.

In the recent decades there has been a paradigm shift in disaster management – from managing an event of disaster to managing the risks of disasters. The disaster management cycle includes both the pre disaster phases of prevention, mitigation and preparedness which enhance the capacities of nations and communities and post disaster phases of response, relief, recovery and reconstruction.

Each phase Therefore, disasters are defining events in a hazard cycle and there are five temporal stages involved:
  • Prevention: The outright avoidance of adverse impacts of hazards and related disasters.
  • Mitigation: The lessening or limitation of the adverse impacts of hazards and related disasters.
  • Preparedness: The knowledge and capacities developed by governments, professional response and recovery organizations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to, and recover from, the impacts of likely, imminent or current hazard events or conditions.
  • Response: The provision of emergency services and public assistance during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduces health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic subsistence needs of the people affected.
  • Relief: Immediate shelter, food, water, sanitation and other humanitarian assistance to men, women and children affected by disasters.
  • Reconstruction: The restoration, and improvement where appropriate, of facilities, livelihoods and living conditions of disaster-affected communities, including efforts to reduce disaster risk factors.

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