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close this bookDisasters and Development (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1994, 55 p.)
close this folderPART 1 - The relationship between disasters and development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentDefinition of terms
View the documentHow disaster effects can vary from one type of hazard to another
View the documentHow vulnerability varies between and within countries
View the documentCASE STUDIES
View the documentSUMMARY


This part of the module is designed to enhance your understanding of:

the conceptual relationship between disasters and development

terms frequently used to discuss these concepts

how vulnerability to hazards can vary based on

local and economic conditions how disaster effects can vary from one hazard type to another


This training module provides a new conceptualization of the relationship between disasters and development. This new conceptualization has been growing in the development community over the last few years and is a major philosophical underpinning of the United Nations Disaster Management Training Programme. Rarely a week goes by when a major disaster is not reported in the media - a disaster that results in death and destruction - a disaster that frequently wipes out years of development programming and sets the slow course of improvement in third world countries further behind, wasting precious resources.

For a long time the cause and effect relationship between disasters and social and economic development was ignored. Ministries of Planning and Finance and other development planners did not concern themselves with disasters. At best, development planners hoped that disasters would not occur and, if they did, were most effectively handled by relief from donor countries and relief organizations. Development programs were not assessed in the context of disasters, neither from the effect of the disaster on the development program nor from the point of whether the development programs increased either the likelihood of a disaster or increased the potential damaging effects of a disaster.

Disasters were seen in the context of emergency response - not as a part of long term development programming. When a disaster did occur, the response was directed to emergency needs and cleaning up. Communities under disaster distress were seen as unlikely places to institute development. The post-disaster environment was seen as too turbulent to promote institutional changes aimed at promoting long term development.

The growing body of knowledge on the relationships between disasters and development indicates four basic themes (see figure 1).


Aspects of a community’s development and vulnerability to disasters are charted on the above figure. The graphic shows the various “orientations” with which you may analyze the “field” of development and disaster vulnerability.

The field is divided into positive and negative aspects of the disaster/development relationship by the vertical axis. The right half reflects the positive or optimistic side of the relationship and the left side of the diagram deals with the negative aspects of the relationship. The short statement given in each quadrant sums up the basic concept derived from the overlap of the two realms.

The four themes presented in fig. 1 may be expanded as follows:

1. Disasters set back development programming destroying years of development initiatives.

- Infrastructure improvement e.g. transport and utility systems are destroyed by a flood.

2. Rebuilding after a disaster provides significant opportunities to initiate development programs.

- A self-help housing program to rebuild housing destroyed by an earthquake teaches new skills, strengthens community pride and leadership and retains development dollars that otherwise would be exported to large construction companies.

3. Development programs can increase an area’s susceptibility to disasters.

- A major increase in livestock development leads to overgrazing, which contributes to desertification and increases vulnerability to famine.

4. Development programs can be designed to decrease the susceptibility to disasters and their negative consequences.

- Housing projects constructed under building codes designed to withstand high winds result in less destruction during the next tropical storm.

Decision-makers who ignore these relationships between disasters and development do a disservice to the people who place their trust in them. Increasingly, around the world, forward thinking Ministries of Planning and Finance with the support of United Nations and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) officials are assessing development projects in the context of disaster mitigation and are designing disaster recovery programs with long term development needs in mind.

Development requires institutional and structural transformations of societies to speed up economic growth, reduce levels of inequality and eradicate absolute poverty. Over time, the effects of disasters can seriously degrade a country’s long-term potential for sustained development and cause governments to substantially modify their economic development priorities and programs.

Decision-makers who ignore these relationships between disasters and development do a disservice to the people who place their trust in them.

At the same time, disasters often provide opportunities for development. They can improve the atmosphere in favor of change and create a rationale to establish development programs such as job training, housing construction and land reform. However, poor management of the relief and rehabilitation responses may have severe negative implications for development for years to come, and may even increase vulnerability to future hazards.

The following discussion highlights the importance of considering the likely potential, risks and consequences of disasters as part of development program planning. It emphasizes the opportunities for preventing and mitigating damage and disruption that arise when disaster considerations are integrated into project planning for development. The module underlines the need to consider emergency responses in the context of development and the integration of development considerations into emergency response planning. The discussion will increase your understanding of development/disaster linkages, broaden your view of intervention possibilities, and provide examples of how development planners assess the costs and benefits of these types of programs, and identify negative and positive examples of putting these ideas into practice.

Definition of terms

This discussion concerns the relationship of several concepts e.g. disasters, development, structural adjustment, mitigation and reconstruction. Several of these concepts may already be familiar to the reader and will already have been addressed in other modules in this series. However, readers may wish to review definitions of the less commonly used terms, particularly those associated with disaster management.

Disaster: The occurrence of a sudden or major misfortune which disrupts the basic fabric and normal functioning of a society, or community. An event or series of events which gives rise to casualties and/or damage or loss of property, infrastructure, essential services or means of livelihood on a scale which is beyond the normal capacity of the affected community’s ability to cope with out aid.

Preparedness: Administrative, individual and community action to minimize loss of life and damage, and facilitate effective rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

Forecasting and disseminating warnings of imminent potentially damaging phenomena.

Developing and testing plans for responding to both warning and impact of such phenomena.

Assuring the rapid availability of appropriate material resources, transport and other equipment, and funds when and where needed.

Mitigation: Measures which lessen the impact of a disaster phenomenon by improving a community’s ability to absorb the impact with minimum damage or disruptive effect. The measures include both preparedness (see above) and protection of physical infrastructure and economic assets. Mitigation is generally considered to comprise two separate types of activities:

Structural mitigation: dams, windbreaks, terracing, hazard resistant buildings

Non-structural mitigation: Education programs and policies, e.g. land-use, zoning, crop diversification, building codes, forecasting and warning

Structural Adjustment: Usually a discretionary or automatic response to an unsustainable balance of payments deficit usually involving a reallocation of resources between sectors and categories of expenditure (including savings). Although a pre-condition for most development financing, structural adjustment may result in economic contraction in the short term by suppressing demand and imports. It usually adversely affects employment and output. Adjustment may lower investment levels and saving ratios.

Q. Development is defined differently by different people. It is often defined as an improved or higher quality of life. Sometimes it is defined as increased disposable income. How do you define development?


How disaster effects can vary from one type of hazard to another

Hazards vary considerably in the scale of their impact, the geographical scope and the duration of effects. Consider briefly the range of hazards prevalent in your area: these may include riverine or coastal flooding, landslides, tropical storms, earthquakes, drought, urban fires, civil conflict, or technological and industrial hazards. Each of these has a very different potential for disruption, depending on the intensity of the disaster impact, and its geographic relation to populations, economic assets, and the type of economic activity in progress (figure 2).



(in millions of 1987 US dollars)a




Mexico City


David & Frederick

El NiB>
















Capital stock



































Public sector finances





Increased expenditures





Decrease in revenues










Reduction of exports





Increase in imports





Disaster-related income





Adapted from J. Roberto Jovel, “Los Efectos Economicos y Sociales de los Desastres Naturales en America Latina y el Caribe,” ECLAC 1989

a All figures adjusted for inflation through 1987 to enhance comparability.

b Secondary effects estimated for 1986 to 1987, and projected thereafter through 1990.

c Includes damages caused by ensuing floods and mudflows which represent a very high percentage of the total.

d Damages refer to the Dominican Republic only, even though other countries were affected as well.

e Damages refer to Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, although other countries were affected as well.

f Figures in parentheses refer to income gained.

Several conclusions can be drawn by analyzing information about the type and extent of social and economic losses caused by some of the recent major disasters. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has focussed on evaluations of the effects of several disasters in their region. Several important lessons can be drawn that relate not only to Latin America and the Caribbean, but to other regions as well.

By analyzing the phenomena that caused the natural disaster, ECLAC has concluded that:

Natural disasters of meteorological origins, such as floods, tropical storms, and droughts, generally affect a larger geographical area than geological disasters. This conclusion is substantiated by comparing the effects of the El Niurrent in 1982-1983 with recent earthquakes. The El Niurrent affected the entire Pacific Coast of South America (from Colombia to Chile) in those years. In comparison, recent earthquakes have affected urban centers and other smaller geographical areas.

Due to population density, the number of victims resulting from geological natural disasters, such as earthquakes, is greater than those resulting from meteorological phenomena. For example, the Guatemala earthquake of 1976 caused 22,000 deaths, while Hurricane Joan of 1988 caused only a few deaths in Nicaragua.

Losses of capital stock which result from earthquakes, affecting both the social and physical infrastructure, tend to be much greater than those resulting from floods. The estimated losses of capital stock from the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, for example, was placed at $3.8 billion (the highest figure considered reliable). By comparison, El Niaused losses of capital stock one third this amount in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru in 1982-1983.

Unlike losses of capital stock, production and other indirect losses are generally much greater in the case of floods and droughts. For example, El Niaused indirect losses of $2.7 billion, whereas the Mexican earthquake caused indirect losses of only one fifth of that amount.

When a geological phenomenon causes floods or mud slides, production losses and other indirect losses are much greater than in cases of other geological disasters. The 1987 earthquake in Ecuador is a clear example of this conclusion where indirect losses were 82 percent of total losses.

The following effects are common to all types of natural disasters:

Where there is a considerable number of victims, the already limited qualified human resources in affected countries may be diminished. Such was the case in Guatemala after the 1986 earthquake which directly affected 19 per cent of the total population.

Often there is a significant decrease in the availability of housing and in the infrastructure related to health and education. This may exacerbate shortages which existed prior to the disaster. The San Salvador earthquake of 1986 left some 50,000 people without housing, or with seriously damaged housing, and 75 percent of the health related infrastructure was totally destroyed.

There is often a temporary decrease, lasting up to several months, in income among low wage earners with a concomitant increase in the already high rates of under-employment and unemployment.

Usually, there are temporary breakdowns of services providing water, sanitation, electricity, communication and transportation.

Finally, temporary shortages of food and raw materials for agricultural and industrial production are common effects of natural disasters.

ECLAC has estimated that in the 15 years between 1962 and 1976, Central American countries were affected by different types of natural disasters which caused 39,600 deaths as well as losses in capital stock, production and material goods amounting to some $8.5 billion (in 1987 dollars). The losses incurred were as follows:

Type of disaster


Millions of dollars
(in 1987 dollars)

Floods and wind storms



Drought, hail and cold storms



Eruptions and earthquakes






If the above figures are combined with those of the case studies already mentioned as well as those of other disasters for which there is only partial information available, it can be concluded that Latin America and the Caribbean have sustained annual losses of over 6,000 lives and over $1.5 billion (in 1987 dollars) due to natural disasters.

Two case studies that illustrate these differential effects of disasters are the examples of Hurricane David and Frederick in the Dominican Republic and the Phenomenon of El Nif 1982-83 in South America.

Q. What types of disasters are most likely to affect your country?


How vulnerability varies between and within countries

Development is, in part, a process of investment and capitalization of economies over multi-year periods. There are, of course, widely differing types of economies, each subject to different processes and patterns of investment, institutional change and structural re-organization. Each type will exhibit a different sensitivity both in the short and long term to the impacts from various kinds of major disasters and hazard agents.

For analytical purposes, consider four commonly defined categories of economy as examples. It should be emphasized that these economies represent generalized stages of development and overlap is inevitable. The main purpose here is to focus on broad differential effects. The four types of economies are as follows:

Newly Industrializing Economies, highly urbanized, with high density urban populations.

Rural/Agricultural Economies, characteristic of many less developed countries - structurally adjusting, resilient, decentralized.

Small Island Economies - single crop or single commodity economies.

Highly Stressed Economies - these are highly vulnerable and can slip into catastrophic economic decline quickly. The situation is often caused or exacerbated by civil war or related forms of internal conflict or disruption.

Using these four categories, we can begin to develop an overview of how the various types of economies differ in their overall vulnerability to each type of shock.

Newly industrializing economies

The economies of newly industrializing areas are fairly indifferent to agricultural damage. They can usually withstand losses in this sector. There are, for example, often sufficient financial reserves to purchase food on global commercial markets. There may also be more short-term alternative sources of employment for agricultural workers. On the other hand, these economies may be vulnerable to damage to infrastructure, e.g. power systems, transport, communications, and public utilities, by earthquake and tropical storms.

Rural/agricultural economies

These economies, which often characterize less developed countries, are relatively immune to disasters of short and sudden impact. However, they are susceptible to disasters which have extensive rural impact, particularly drought, severe pest damage and civil conflict.

Small island economies

Island economies are often highly dependent on a few crop types or commodities. They are often particularly susceptible to tropical storms (with crop destruction and damage to ports), drought, and volcanic eruptions. Two hurricanes in Dominica in the late 1970s caused direct, indirect, and secondary losses of around US$1700 million. In Jamaica in 1988, the Gross Domestic Product fell an estimated two percent after Hurricane Gilbert as compared with a projected growth for that year of five percent.

Highly stressed economies

Generally, economies under exceptional stress, and civil conflict are also particularly vulnerable to drought and widespread floods. But almost any disaster-related shock will have a destabilizing impact on these economies.

Disasters also can destabilize other processes which complement or underpin development activity, most notably structural adjustment activity. The requirements for immediate recovery and reconstruction after an extensive sudden disaster can reverse and disrupt this adjustment process, while further compounding its negative impacts. For example, depending on the particular conditions of the disaster, public expenditure requirements may increase substantially, while at the same time employment and output fall and investment and savings decline. The outcome will be a further decline in the prospects for future development.

Q. Which sectors of your country’s economy are most likely to be affected by disasters?



Hurricanes David and Frederick

In 1979, Hurricane David hit the Dominican Republic. Several days later, Hurricane Frederick also hit the island. The combination of high speed winds and the subsequent floods caused widespread destruction of housing, agricultural infrastructure, production, electric utilities, supplies of potable water, and of the physical infrastructure in general as well as of the environment.

An estimated 2100 people died in the storms. This number could have been far higher had it not been for an early warning system and an evacuation plan. More than 600,000 people (10% of the country’s population) were left homeless. It was not possible to obtain reliable figures on injured persons or on those left unemployed. The direct losses of these disasters were estimated at $842 million.

Indirect economic losses were estimated at a $464 million deficit in the balance of payments. This was due to an increase in imports of post-disaster necessities and decreased exportation of bananas and other crops. The fiscal deficit increased by $303 million because of increased expenses related to aid, rehabilitation and reconstruction and to a decreased income from exports (see figure 2).

The gross domestic product grew at a more rapid rate during the years that followed the disaster. This was due, at least in part, to a prior economic recession caused by increased oil prices. Limited information is available about the effects of inflation and about fluctuations in monetary reserves after these disasters.*

* Adapted from J. Roberto Jovel, “Los Efectos Economicos y Sociales de los Desastres Naturales en America Latina y el Caribe,” ECLAC, 1989.

The phenomenon of El Nif 1982 and 1983

Changes in the atmospheric currents over the South Pacific in 1982 and 1983 affected Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru in different ways and intensities. There were floods along much of coastal Ecuador and Northern Peru, as well as in the Amazonian region of Bolivia. A serious drought affected the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. The temperature and the salinity of the ocean water were adversely affected.

The death toll and number of injured people was not high; 298,000 people were left homeless because of the floods. A total of 3.7 million people were directly affected by a partial or total loss of their means of production, the disappearance of health and educational services, the scarcity of food and the deterioration of nutritional levels, an increase in the morbidity and the scarcity of agricultural and food products.

The highland drought pushed the most impoverished groups to near starvation and resulted in new migrations towards other regions and countries. The situation that existed in this region before the disaster has only recently been reestablished.

Small scale fishermen as well as the commercial fishing enterprises were considerably affected by a reduction in fish caused by changes in the composition of the ocean water. Certain species of fish emigrated or died. The fishing industry has only recently recovered from this disaster.

The direct losses in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru were estimated at $1.3 billion. They included losses of capital stock and inventory losses in agriculture, transportation, oil production, fishing and in the social infrastructure. The indirect losses amounted to $2.6 billion, due to the decreased production in agriculture, industry and fishing as well as to increased costs and decreased income in transportation.

The total losses thus amounted to $3.9 billion. Therefore, the cost of this disaster was the second highest in the recent history of the region (Figure 2). These losses represent about 10% of the combined GNP of these countries, some 50% of the public sector income at that time. Bolivia, with the most fragile economy, was by far the most adversely affected.

The secondary effects on economic development were substantial. The negative effect on the balance of payments reached an estimated $621 million in the biennium of 1982-1983 due to a decrease in fishing, agricultural and livestock exports and to the importation of food as well as farm products and livestock. The ratio between the public sector and the GNP increased notably. This was due to decreased revenues from value-added taxes and export taxes, as well as to unforeseen expenses related to relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The growth rate of the gross national product and per capita product decreased in these three countries by up to 10%. The consumer price index increased by as much as 50% in some cases, due mainly to increases in food prices caused by reduced production and speculation.*

* Adapted from J. Roberto Jovel, “Los Efectos Economicos y Sociales de los Desastres Naturales en America Latina y el Caribe,” ECLAC, 1989.


The relationship between disasters and development can be summed up with the following four concepts:

- development can increase vulnerability
- development can reduce vulnerability
- disasters can set back development
- disasters can provide development opportunities

Disaster effects vary with the hazard type causing the disaster.

Vulnerability varies between different societies and economies. Four basic types of economies analyzed are:

- newly industrializing economies
- rural/agricultural economies
- small island economies
- highly stressed economies