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Kallie Szczepanski

How to Define a "Natural Disaster"?

By August 21, 2012

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This famine lasted until 1967, killing millions.

Here is an interesting question: How do you define a "natural" disaster? A volcanic eruption or an earthquake seems like a quintessentially natural event - but there is some evidence that fracking for fossil fuels can cause (usually, small) earthquakes. With human-driven climate change well underway, is a flood, a cyclone, a drought, or a heat-wave a "natural disaster"? What if it happened in the 1800s, or the 1500s?

I don't really have an answer to these questions. The solution I settled on, for my list of Asia's Worst Natural Disasters, was simply to exclude those famines where government malice or incompetence seems to have been the proximate cause of people starving to death.

Thus, the deaths of a million people in the Indian Famine of 1899-1900 were not due to a "natural" disaster under this formula, since the British Colonial Government withheld food aid for fear of inspiring dependence among its Indian subjects. Likewise the tens of millions who died following Mao Zedong's incredibly disastrous economic plan, the so-called "Great Leap Forward," were killed mostly by their government's policies, in my estimation.

What do you think? Where would you draw the line between natural disasters and those that we, as a species, bring upon ourselves?

Photo of 1965 famine victim in India from Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

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