Hazard vs Disaster: The principle behind disaster management

Disaster Management 101 requires us to understand the difference between a hazard and a disaster. The difference is minute, but speaks volumes about human involvement in natural phenomena.

Hazard vs Disaster

A hazard is any phenomena that has the potential to cause destruction to life and property. A hazard become a disaster when the potential to cause destruction is fulfilled. When there is harm to life and property of humans, the hazard is termed a disaster.

All disasters are hazards, but all hazards are not disasters.

Hazards do not necessarily cause any destruction. If an earthquake was to hit a barren mountain with no human community, it would simply be a natural phenomenon; or a natural hazard. Hazards can be geological (the most common), biological (epidemics) or chemical (nuclear power plant leaks, chemical industry leaks, etc).


Today, most hazards are turning into disasters simply because of the sheer extent of human communities in the world. We exist in almost every terrain, every environment on Earth. Consequently, even small scale hazards turn into major disasters affecting a significant number of humans and their property.

Now THAT will definitely be a disaster.

Risk equation

Risk, is the likelihood/possibility that an area (or section of population) will be negatively affected by a hazard. It is the risk that ultimately controls the possibility of converting a hazard into a disaster. The word is often used to quantify the probability of a hazard turning into a disaster.

Scientists have come up with a risk equation to quantify this-

Risk= Threat x Vulnerability x Cost

  • Threat- this is the frequency with which a hazard can hit the area. For example, the threat of an earthquake in the Himalayas is extremely high.
  • Vulnerability- this is the weakness of an area towards that particular hazard. For example, the Himalayas is extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, but not a tsunami.
  • Cost- this is the human factor of the hazard. More the number of humans and property, greater is the cost involved and therefore, greater is the risk.

When the risk is high enough, there is a greater chance for a hazard to turn into a disaster.

What is the point of disaster management?

The basic principle of disaster management is to reduce the risk of a hazard turning into a disaster. We do this by trying to minimize any of the three variables in the risk equation.

Threat is mostly beyond our control (although that is changing…). Therefore, our focus in most disaster management projects is to reduce the vulnerability and the costs involved in an area of interest. Generally, it is the vulnerability that is almost completely under human control.

For example, even if the threat of an earthquake is high, we can significantly reduce the vulnerability by incorporating earthquake resistant buildings. Similarly, if the threat of a landslide is high, we can reduce the risk by reducing undercutting of the toe the slope in question.

Cost is under our control as well, but we don’t want to minimize it in most cases. This is a consequence of our development. This is changing, with better technology at our service to minimize costs.

At the end of the day, what we need to realize is that hazards are part of Earth. It will not go away or stop occurring. It is up to us to prevent it from becoming a disaster.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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