Terry Cannon of the University of Sussex presented a Zoom lecture at the Natural Hazards Center on March 21, 2023, titled, Is Disaster Risk Creation More Significant than Disaster Risk Reduction?

Cannon opened his lecture by underscoring that in social science disaster research, it is now almost universally accepted that disasters are socially constructed. That is, they arise at the interface of natural, built, and social environments. This implies that disasters related to natural hazards cannot be explained away as simply acts of God or attributed to other purely natural factors. But how valid are these assumptions?

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) actions assume that an intervention—even a small one—can overcome the more significant processes related to the ways that social construction operates under systems of power.

“We often assume that DRR reduces vulnerability and/or mitigates hazards while failing to discuss the causal processes, which our work can rarely influence,” said Cannon. “Donors, nongovernmental organizations, and other actors engage in activities that supposedly reduce disaster risk, but because organizations focus on DRR, the processes of disaster creation tend to be forgotten.”

Cannon argued that governments and the private sector are often more likely to create disasters than reduce them, and that more honesty is needed in how academia relates to the problems of disaster risk creation.

“If achieving safety involves major changes to the systems that create risk, then it is our duty to say that what DRR projects can achieve is of little significance, and they may actually make matters worse," he said.

As an example, Cannon focused on an example from Bangladesh, where cyclone warnings and evacuations would appear to be evidence of DRR success.

“The impressive reductions in mortality are hiding the appalling consequences of poverty and hardship for those who survive," he said. "Their entire life has been disrupted, they may have been displaced, and they live in systems of power that do little to protect their assets and livelihoods.”

In his written work and his lecture, Cannon has also examined the concept of a Damage to Cure Ratio, which assesses the difference between the funding to reduce disaster impacts (cure) and the resources that expose more people to natural hazards (damage).

“In some areas, a thousand times more resources are spent to make disasters and climate change worse than to make them better," he said. "It is vital that disaster research takes stock of what it can and cannot achieve and develops ways to advocate for a more realistic approach that stops pretending that we are making a significant difference.”

Cannon is a leading expert on the study of disasters and is co-author of "At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters," one of the most cited texts in the field. The Natural Hazards Center was pleased to host his presentation focusing on a provocative topic of importance to the hazards and disaster community.

To listen to his full presentation, see the video embedded above or visit the Natural Hazards YouTube channel.