Natural Hazards

, Volume 55, Issue 3, pp 637–655 | Cite as

Extreme events and disasters: a window of opportunity for change? Analysis of organizational, institutional and political changes, formal and informal responses after mega-disasters

  • J. BirkmannEmail author
  • P. Buckle
  • J. Jaeger
  • M. Pelling
  • N. Setiadi
  • M. Garschagen
  • N. Fernando
  • J. Kropp
Original Paper


Disaster associated with natural hazards can lead to important changes—positive or negative—in socio-ecological systems. When disasters occur, much attention is given to the direct disaster impacts as well as relief and recovery operations. Although this focus is important, it is noteworthy that there has been little research on the characteristics and progress of change induced by disasters. Change, as distinct from impacts, encompasses formal and informal responses to disaster events and their direct and indirect impacts. While smaller disasters do not often lead to significant changes in societies and organizational structures, major disasters have the potential to change dominant ways of thinking and acting. Against this background, the article presents an analytical framework for distinguishing change from disaster impacts. Drawing from research in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, formal and informal changes after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 are examined and discussed against the background of the conceptual framework. The changes examined range from the commencement of the peace process in Aceh, Indonesia, to organizational and legal reforms in Sri Lanka. The article concludes that change-making processes after disasters need to be understood more in depth in order to derive important strategic policy and methodological lessons learned for the future, particularly in view of the increasing complexity and uncertainty in decision making due to climate change.


Disasters, change Formal and informal responses Social learning Adaptation 



We are grateful for the various contributions and the stimulating discussion at the UNU-EHS Expert Working Group on Measuring Vulnerability in Bonn in October 2007, which was the initial starting point for the discussion on how disasters might open opportunities for change. We acknowledge that our conceptualization is still in development and that more empirical studies will have to follow in the future.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Birkmann
    • 1
    Email author
  • P. Buckle
    • 2
  • J. Jaeger
    • 3
  • M. Pelling
    • 4
  • N. Setiadi
    • 1
  • M. Garschagen
    • 1
  • N. Fernando
    • 1
  • J. Kropp
    • 5
  1. 1.United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human SecurityBonnGermany
  2. 2.School of Business, Environment and Society, Coventry Centre for Disaster ManagementCoventry UniversityCoventryUK
  3. 3.Sustainable Europe Research InstituteViennaAustria
  4. 4.Department of GeographyKing’s College LondonLondonUK
  5. 5.Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact ResearchPotsdamGermany

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