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close this bookAn Overview of Disaster Management (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1992, 136 p.)
close this folderChapter 3. Linking disasters and development 1
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentDisruption of development by disasters
View the documentHow development may cause disasters
View the documentDevelopment opportunities afforded by disasters


1 Sources for this chapter are Disasters and Development, a UNDP/UNDRO training module prepared by R.S. Stephenson and Disasters and Development: a study in institution-building prepared for UNDP by INTERTECT, January 1991.


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.

Figure 3.1 This figure charts aspects of a community’s development and vulnerability to disaster. It 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 statement in each quadrant sums up the basic concept derived from the overlap of the two realms.

The growing body of knowledge on the relationships between disasters and development indicates four basic themes. The themes presented in the proceeding figure 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.

Disruption of development by disasters

Disasters can seriously disrupt development initiatives in several ways, including:

· Loss of resources
· Interruption of programs
· Impact on investment climate
· Impact on the non-formal sector
· Political destabilization

Loss of resources

Development resources are lost when a disaster wipes out the products of investment - it shortens the life of development investments. The disasters affect development through:

· Impact on capital stock and inventory

· Loss of production and provision of services due to disruption and increased cost of goods and services

· The secondary effects of the disaster include inflation, balance of payment problems, increase in fiscal expenditure, decreases in monetary reserves

· Other indirect losses, for example: the impact on a country’s debt position could be that as the debt service burden increases, the country has less resources available to invest in productive enterprises

· The outcome of these losses of resources include: loss of economic growth, delays to development programs, cancellation of programmes, and disincentives to new investment

· There may also be a shift in skilled human resources toward high visibility recovery activity - a diversion from long-term to short-term needs.

Interruption of programs

Disasters interrupt ongoing programs and divert resources from originally planned uses.

Impact on investment climate

Disasters, especially when they have occurred repeatedly within a short period of time, have a negative impact on the incentive for further investment. Investors need a climate of stability and certainty to be encouraged to risk their money. The disaster further clouds the investment picture when it has caused loss of employment, thereby depressing market demand, and resulting in a stagnation which limits overall growth.

Impact on non-formal sector

Disasters have special negative impacts on the non-formal sector where approximate costs of disasters are often underestimated. Disasters depress the non-formal economy through the direct costs of lost equipment and housing (which often also serves as business sites). The indirect costs of disasters include lost employment, and lost income. Sometimes the importation of relief items creates disincentives to producers.

Political destabilization

The stress to a country caused by a disaster often results in the destabilization of the government. This may occur for several reasons. For example, the government may have mismanaged the disaster relief and recovery, leading to discontent on the part of affected communities. Or the survivors may have had unmet expectations which, for whatever reason, translate into some form of protest. The government could also become the scapegoat for problems beyond its control, again leading to its possible downfall. In fact, it is very common for a government to collapse or be overthrown within two or three years of a major disaster.

Q. Recall the most recent disaster with which you are familiar. Based on that experience, respond to the following.



Identify a facility critical to the local economy that was knocked out of service.


Name one development project that was interrupted.


Identify one case of an investment that was withdrawn or reduced because of the disaster.


Identify one case of non-formal sector employment that was lost because disaster relief displaced the need for it.


Describe an example of how the government may have been destabilized by the disaster.

How development may cause disasters

The side effects of well-meaning development efforts sometimes have disastrous consequences. Development projects implemented without taking into account existing environmental hazards may increase vulnerability to natural disasters. For example, projects designed to increase employment opportunities, and thus income, usually attract additional population growth. Low-income people may then have to seek housing in areas previously avoided, on hillsides or in floodplains. The costs of relief assistance after a landslide or flood can easily outweigh the benefits to the economy of more jobs. Similarly, development projects may lead to negative political consequences that increase the vulnerability to civil conflict.

Some types of development projects commence without fully assessing their impact on the environment. This can occur even in programmes resulting from a disaster, such as reconstruction projects that increase demand for wood to fortify houses. The resulting deforestation can then bring increased vulnerability to mudslides and possibly long-term environmental changes.

Development projects may even consciously force a choice between reducing disaster vulnerability and economic vulnerability. A project’s design may require a trade-off between the two and force a decision between the lesser of two evils.

Q. Can you describe how development can contribute to vulnerability based on the following examples of negative consequences?


Watershed erosion ____________________________________________
Deforestation _________________________________________________
Loss of biological diversity _____________________________________
Lack of soil and land management _______________________________
Air and water pollution _________________________________________
Inadequate urban sanitation and waste disposal ___________________

Marine and coastal zone development ____________________________

See next table for examples of answers to this question.

Table 3.1 Examples of development leading to disasters or increased vulnerability

From Disasters and Development: A Study in Institution Building, Intertect, January, 1991.


Development activity



Construction of chemical plant generating employment

Deaths due to inadvertent release of chemicals, increased health problems, hazardous or toxic waste accidents

Agriculture, forestry and fisheries

Introduction of new species to control pests

Uncontrolled expansion of new species into environment, bringing crop failure

Irrigation schemes

Flooding where canals counter natural water flow

Increase in pesticide or fertiliser use to augment crop yields

Contamination of potable water supplies

Natural resources

Construction of hydroelectric dam

Displacement, salinization

Drilling of water wells in marginal areas

Desertification due to population clustering around wells

Transportation, communications Education

Road building in rain forests

Landslides, deforestation

School construction on earthquake fault line

Deaths/injuries due to structural failure

Development issues, policy and planning

Centralisation of planning process

Famine due to lack of organisation of local governments

Concentration of tourist facilities on vulnerable coastlines, unstable hills

Exposure of large populations to risk of death/injury/loss in storm surge, high wind storms, tsunami, landslides

Development opportunities afforded by disasters

Despite an increasing disaster awareness in the international community, and the recognition of the importance of developing coherent plans for relief activities, it often takes the actual or imminent occurrence of a large-scale destructive event to stimulate individual governments to think about a developmental approach. Thus, a disaster can serve as a catalyst for introducing mitigation activities.

Few development workers realize the opportunities that disasters can provide in the development field. Disasters often create a political and economic atmosphere wherein extensive changes can be made more rapidly than under normal circumstances. For example, in the aftermath of a disaster, there may be major opportunities to execute land reform programmes, to improve the overall housing stock, to create new jobs and job skills, and to expand and modernize the economic base of the community - opportunities that would not otherwise be possible. The collective will to take action is an advantage that should not be wasted.

Disasters can also highlight high-risk areas where action must be taken before another disaster strikes. The realization of vulnerability can motivate policy-makers and the public to participate in mitigation activities. Disasters may also serve to highlight the fact that the country is seriously under-developed. They can thus bring in funding and the attention of donor communities to apply to long-term development needs. (Henderson, 1990)