||Sometimes known as a \'natural hazard\', or popularly as a \'natural disaster\', this term generally refers to geophysical events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, bushfires, drought, flooding, lightning and high winds that can potentially cause large-scale economic damage and physical injury or death. Such events have differing impacts depending upon both their magnitude and the character of the receiving environment (e.g. a heavily populated area versus a sparsely settled area). Sometimes the effects may be beneficial, as with the renewal of mineral nutrients to a floodplain soil during flooding (Pickering and Owen, 1994).
Environmental hazards are sometimes known as \'Acts of God\'. However, given the long-term involvement of humans as part of nature, a detailed analysis of so-called \'environmental hazards\' often reveals significant human input. The characteristics of an environmental hazard are: (1) that it was not directly caused by humans (see hazard, human-made); (2) that it directly affects humans (unlike an extreme natural event that does not directly affect humans); (3) that it is often accompanied by a violent release of energy (Chapman, 1996); and (4) that it was beyond prediction in the short to medium term. May et al. (1996) extend the notion of risk in natural hazard to \'public risks\', which also includes ozone depletion and sea-level rise (see global warming). The awareness of hazards was demonstrated by the United Nations declaring the 1990s to be the \'International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction\' (Mauro, 1995), a terminology which perpetuates the often false perception that humans have played no part in these disasters.
Flooding would be a natural event, but not a natural hazard, if human settlement was located away from areas with potential to flood. Similarly, while heavy rainfall may be considered a natural event (this is becoming more debatable with increased human impact on global systems), flooding is often exacerbated by human actions other than settlement patterns. The severe floods in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic in 1997 were frequently described as a \'natural disaster\' but they were worsened by draining marshlands, industrial pollution (which killed trees that once absorbed the water from the floodplain) and diplomatic issues between countries in the early 1980s that resulted in the dykes being lowered in some cases. The drying up of the Aral Sea in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan (former Soviet Central Asia) was caused by the withdrawal of water for irrigated cotton production. This has severely affected the once lucrative fishing industry and the climate of the region (Meyer and Turner, 1995).
The distinction between an environmental hazard and a human-made hazard has blurred. It was only maintained as long as humans were seen as being separate from nature, rather than one species that has been part of nature for thousands of years. What are experienced today are physical events, whose impacts are influenced by the actions of humans and other species, which in turn influence the character of future physical events.
Work in the United States on hazards and disasters emerged in the context of the nuclear threat and the Cold War; much of the early work was funded by the State Department. In geography, the leading school of natural or environmental hazards research developed out of White\'s work on human adjustment to floods (summarized in White, 1973). He found that despite heavy spending on technological measures (e.g. dams), losses due to floods in the USA were increasing. This experience is replicated in parts of Australia, where engineering solutions such as levee banks (May et al., 1996) also failed to consider the possibility of behavioural change by people.
The critique of environmental hazard research from critical theory, and explicitly Marxist geography, has been withering. Smith and O\'Keefe (1980, 1985) said that geographers in the tradition of positivism have displayed three major ways of dealing with nature which they illustrate through \'natural hazards\' research: (1) where nature is seen as separate from human activity; (2) where nature is seen as neutral but becomes hazardous when it intersects with human activity (exemplified by Burton et al., 1993); and (3) where humans are dissolved into nature. The first approach focuses attention on \'natural causes\' of disasters, rather than human vulnerability; the second is presented as a technocratic agenda to control nature, while the third is seen as Malthusian (see Malthusian model) because it blames the victims. Watts (1983), analysing famines in Africa, strongly critiqued the individuality, a historicity and lack of political economy in environmental hazards research. He noted that the 1976 drought in Britain was neither responsible for, nor accompanied by, thousands of deaths, yet famine in Africa is seen as a natural hazard. Marxist-inspired authors highlight the difference between the natural event (in this case drought, which may be partly caused by human activity) and the consequences (famine). These differences are attributed to the organization and structure of social systems.Â (PM)
References Burton, I., Kates, R. and White, G. 1993: The environment as hazard, 2nd edn. New York: Oxford University Press.Â Chapman, D. 1996: Natural hazards. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.Â Mauro, A. 1995: Stop disasters: the newsletter of the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. In T. Horlick-Jones, A. Amendola and R. Casale, eds, Natural risk and civil protection. London: E. and F.N. Spon, 511-15.Â May, P. et al. 1996: Environmental management and governance: intergovernmental approaches to hazards and sustainability. London and New York: Routledge.Â Meyer, W. and Turner, B. 1995: The earth transformed: trends, trajectories and patterns. In R. Johnston, P. Taylor and M. Watts, eds, Geographies of global change: remapping the world in the late twentieth century. Oxford: Blackwell.Â Pickering, K. and Owen, T. 1994: An introduction to global environmental issues. London: Routledge.Â Smith, N. and O\'Keefe, P. 1980: Geography, Marx and the concept of nature. Antipode 12 (2): 30-9.Â Smith, N. and O\'Keefe, P. 1985: Postscript 1985: the production of nature. Antipode 17 2/3: 88.Â Watts, M. 1983: Silent violence: food, famine and peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Â White, G. 1973: Natural hazards research. In R.J. Chorley, ed., Directions in geography. London: Methuen and Co., 193-216.
Suggested Reading Chapman (1996).Â Pickering and Owen (1994).