Climate Action

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Natural Hazards: Interpretations, Types and Risk Assessment

  • Ana Milanović PešićEmail author
Living reference work entry


The English word “hazard” comes from the Arabic “az-zahr” (or “al-zahr”), a compound word meaning “the dice” or “one of the dice” and, literally, a “gaming dice” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary 2002 in Paron 2013). The first definition in the English dictionary is “a dice game in which the chances are complicated by arbitrary rules”; the second meaning is “risk of loss or harm” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary 2002 in Paron 2013).

A hazard implies a potential harm or the probability of any event that could endanger human life, material goods, or the environment.

Mitchell and Cutter (1997) perceive hazard as a potential threat to humans, society in general, and the environment. According to them, risks are partly constructed by human perception and partly by their experiences. More precisely, people can make a hazard more severe or modify it, and hazards may vary depending on the culture, sex, race, socioeconomic status, political order, etc.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR 2009) defines a hazard as “a dangerous phenomenon, substance, human activity or condition that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, loss of livelihoods and services, social and economic disruption, or environmental damage.”

Natural hazards are associated with geophysical processes that are an integral part of the environment. In scientific and technical literature, there are many definitions of natural hazards. They highlight the nature, the origin, the functioning of the phenomena, and their influence on society in general.

Burton et al. (1993) defined natural hazards as “those elements of the physical environment, harmful to man and caused by forces extraneous to him.”

Alexander (2000) defined a natural hazard as “an extreme geophysical phenomenon that has the potential to cause disaster.” The term “extreme” indicates that the phenomenon is, in some sense, beyond the average scope, in a positive or a negative direction. A hazard is distinguished by its location and the time of appearance, magnitude, and frequency.

According to Cardona (2003), the concept of hazard indicates a latent danger or an external risk factor for the exposed entity. It can be expressed mathematically as the probability of occurrence of a natural process with certain intensity, at a certain place and during a certain period of time.

UNISDR (2004) defines a natural hazard as a “potentially harmful natural phenomenon that can lead to loss of life and human injuries, or material damage, social and economic system disorders, and environmental degradation.”

According to Twigg (2007), a natural hazard is “a geophysical, atmospheric or hydrological phenomenon (e.g. earthquake, landslide, tsunami, storm, flood or drought), which potentially could cause damage or loss.”

Bokwa (2013) defines a natural hazard as “an unexpected and/or uncontrollable natural event of unusual magnitude that might threaten people.”

In general, a natural hazard is a threat of a naturally occurring event that have a negative impact on humans or the environment. As it can be concluded from the abovementioned definitions, along with a natural component, natural hazards also have a social component and can be analyzed from various standpoints.


Natural hazards are an integral part of any natural disaster and they affect all people, nations, and environments, all the time. Therefore, they are the subject of permanent interest of the society, making it necessary to share the information and knowledge related to research, education, and management in mitigating natural disasters. Although natural hazards may occur in different contexts and systems (atmospheric, hydrological, volcanological, seismic hazards), all environmental impacts may be equally catastrophic. They can be described mainly as uncontrollable events happening continually over time. The frequency and magnitude of these events may vary with time, and particular types of events may be restricted in their worldwide occurrence.

In recent decades, the rapid urbanization in regions prone to natural hazards has placed more people at risk than ever before. Several tragic examples of various natural hazards that turned into disasters affecting millions of individuals around the world (Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Haiti earthquake in 2010, Japan earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear reactor event in 2011) demonstrate that natural events on the Earth often lead to catastrophes when humans are exposed to a high risk. Therefore, a close interaction between different scientific and operational disciplines, aimed at enhancing the mitigation of natural disasters, is very important. For this reason, the development of research methodologies related to natural hazards has become a popular research topic.

A natural hazard is distinguished from an extreme event and a natural disaster. An extreme event (e.g., a volcanic eruption or an avalanche in an uninhabited high mountain) that does not affect human beings and human interests is a natural phenomenon. If a natural phenomenon occurs in an inhabited area, it can be defined as a natural hazard. It usually does not cause any harm to the nature, as it is a natural process. However, a natural hazard that causes an unacceptably large number of fatalities and/or an overwhelming economic loss is a natural disaster. Natural hazards can often be predicted. Due to their relationship with weather patterns or the physical features of an area, they tend to occur repeatedly in the same geographic locations.

Types of Natural Hazards

Natural hazards can be classified into several broad categories according to their cause or origin (Table 1). Each natural hazard type has different characteristics, in terms of their influence on spatial and temporal scales, hazard frequency, and measures of intensity and impact. They can also be divided into rapid onset hazards, which develop with little warning and strike rapidly (such as earthquakes, flash floods, landslides, severe thunderstorms, wildfires, etc.), and slow onset hazards, which occur slowly (such as drought, epidemics, etc.).
Table 1

Types of natural hazards






Ground movement


Volcanic activity



Pyroclastic flow

Lava flow

Mass movement (dry)





Extratropical storm

Tropical storm

Convective storm

Extreme temperature

Cold wave

Heat wave

Severe winter conditions





Coastal flood

Riverine flood

Flash flood

Ice jam flood


Avalanche (snow, debris, mudflow, rockfall)

Wave action

Rogue wave





Glacial lake outburst


Forest fire

Land fire



Viral disease

Bacterial disease

Parasitic disease

Fungal disease

Prion disease

Insect infestation



Animal accident





Space weather

Energetic particles

Geomagnetic storm

Shock wave

Source: Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)

It is important to highlight that many natural hazards are mutually related, i.e., one natural hazard can trigger or increase the probability of one or more other natural hazards. For example, a submarine earthquake can cause a tsunami; an earthquake may trigger landslides; a tropical storm can lead to coastal flooding; a landslide can cause riverine flood. Keeping track of these systems of hazards and impacts is an important part of the study of natural hazards.

Geophysical Hazards

Geophysical hazards (or geological hazards) are hazards caused by internal Earth processes, in particular, plate tectonics. They originate from solid Earth and include earthquakes, volcanic activity, and mass movement (dry). In general, they are beyond human influence, although humans have a huge influence on their impact. Hydrological and meteorological factors may significantly contribute to some of these processes.

Meteorological Hazards

Meteorological hazards are hazards caused by short-lived, micro- to mesoscale extreme weather and atmospheric conditions (in the range from minutes to days). They are generally caused by weather factors, such as air temperature, precipitation, wind, and humidity, and include various types of storms, extreme temperatures, and fog.

Hydrological Hazards

Hydrological hazards are hazards caused by deviations in the normal water cycle. In general, they are associated with water occurrence, movement, and distribution. They include floods, landslides, and wave action. It is important to highlight the problem of tsunami classification. Although tsunamis are triggered by undersea earthquakes and other geological processes, they essentially become an oceanic process that is manifested as a coastal water-related hazard (UNISDR 2009).

Climatological Hazards

Climatological hazards are hazards caused by long-lived, meso- to macroscale atmospheric processes (in the range from intra-seasonal to multi-decadal climate variability). They include droughts, glacial lake outbursts, and wildfire.

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards are hazards caused by exposure to living organisms and their toxic substances (such as venom or mold) or vector-borne diseases that they may carry. They include epidemics, insect infestation, and animal accidents. Many typologies of natural hazards exclude biological hazards, classifying them into the realm of medicine and public health. Although biological hazards are undoubtedly important, they are not discussed in detail in this entry.

Extraterrestrial Hazards

Extraterrestrial hazards are hazards caused by asteroids, meteoroids, and comets as they pass near the Earth, enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and/or strike the Earth. They affect the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere by causing changes in interplanetary conditions. They include space weather and impact. While extraterrestrial hazards are undoubtedly important, they are not discussed in detail in this entry.

Hazards Statistics

The information and data on natural hazards used in this entry are derived from global disaster database, the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), maintained by Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), which places a particular focus on human fatalities, displaced and affected people, as well as data on insured and overall losses. The datasets provided by this database serve as a good starting point for an overview of the impact of disasters all over the world.

According to the EM-DAT (2019) and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC 2006, 2017) data on disasters caused by natural hazards all over the world in the 2001–2018 period, about 81.6% of events, 70.3% of the economic loss, and 37.1% of fatalities were caused by hydrological and meteorological hazards (Table 2). The frequency of the events reflects the prevailing role of climate in controlling the occurrence of natural hazards. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), one of the most important consequences of climate change will be the increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme events, such as floods, droughts, storms, and heat waves. For example, some studies of climate change impact on projected changes in flood hazard in Europe have shown that flood peaks with return periods above 100 years are projected to double in frequency within three decades (Alfieri et al. 2015). Mikhailov et al. (2008) indicate that catastrophic floods in the drainage basins of the Danube, Elbe, Kuban, Terek, and other rivers during recent decades confirm the hypothesis that global warming, the intensification of synoptic processes, and increased precipitation in certain regions of the planet could lead to an increased frequency of extreme hydrological phenomena. For example, statistical analyses show an increased frequency of floods in the Danube and its tributaries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Despite the water loss caused by water grabbing and evaporation, the discharges in the Danube increased, resulting in an increased frequency of extreme hydrological events in the Danube drainage basin (Gavrilović et al. 2012).
Table 2

Overview of the major events in the world (2001–2018)

Natural hazard

No of events


Affected people (in millions)

Economic losses (in billions $US)

Flood (including waves and surges)










Earthquake (including tsunami)










Extreme temperature















Volcanic activities





Mass movement (dry)










Source of data: EM-DAT database

On the other hand, there are a numerous studies concerning solar impact on atmospheric processes. Krapivin et al. (2012) stressed that reliable prediction of tropical cyclone depends on development of suitable indicators that contain various interactive parameters of magnetosphere-ionosphere-thermosphere and the solar wind-magnetosphere coupling. Vyklyuk et al. (2017a) indicate that the beginning of cyclonic motions in Earth’s atmosphere may be caused by charged particles from the solar wind. Also, it is possible to establish a functional relationship between solar activity and the number of hurricanes by using of some models. Some results implies that the nature of hurricanes origin in different world places depends on absolutely different factors of solar activity (such as solar wind speed, density of solar wind particles, solar wind temperature, etc.) (Vyklyuk et al. 2017b).

The most frequent hazards in the analyzed period are floods with about 162 events per year. Different types of storms follow this hazard in frequency. Earthquakes (including tsunamis) ranked third are the most frequent geophysical hazard. The number of deaths for each type of natural hazard presented in Table 2 shows that earthquakes (including tsunamis) are the hazard with the greatest fatality rate. Storms (especially tropical cyclones) and extreme temperatures are also major causes of death tolls in the twenty-first century. The data on economic loss due to natural hazard events, summarized in Table 2, show that storms have been the costliest hazard ($US 1,056 billion). Earthquakes (including tsunamis), ranking second in occurrence, caused about $US 577 billion damage. They are followed by floods ($US 508 billion). In the twenty-first century, disasters due to natural hazards caused $US 2,288 billion damage in total.

The number of disaster due to natural hazards reported each year in the twenty-first century can be found in Fig. 1. It shows that approximately 369 events are registered per year. The greatest number of disasters due to natural hazards was registered in 2006 (429), followed by 2002 (426). As expected, the most frequent type of hazard is hydrological hazards.
Fig. 1

The annual number of disasters due natural hazards in 2001–2018

Distinction between Natural Hazards and Natural Disasters

In recent decades natural disasters attract broad interest and media coverage, from scientists (who develops different forecasting methods), through international organizations and professional institutions (that monitor natural disasters, collect data, develop strategies for disaster risk reduction), to authorities at the national and local level (who take appropriate preventive measures) and the public (that informs the population and reacts in accordance with prescribed protection measures) (Milanović Pešić 2015).

In scholarly literature and in general use, the term “natural disaster” describes the effects of a natural process on a society or a local community. According to the National Research Council (NRC 2006), this term is also frequently used in legislative contexts (e.g., various instruments and declarations on natural disasters). Although this is the most commonly used term, it is not the only one, because there is no consensus in the scientific community regarding its use, and there is a certain degree of terminological nonconformity. Although there is an ongoing debate in scientific circles regarding the approach and the scope of the definition of natural disasters, there are many definitions in the literature.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO 2008), “natural disasters occur due to natural hazards (as different and extreme natural events) in cases where human lives and destroyed material goods are endangered.”

UNISDR (2009), as well as some scientists (Wisner et al. 2004; Thywissen 2006; Khan 2012), defines the natural disaster as a “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses that exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.”

White (1974) explained the distinction between a natural hazard and a natural disaster. According to him, “hazard always arises from the interplay of social and biological and physical systems; disasters are generated as much or more by human actions as by physical events.”

Twigg (2007) considers that natural disasters are a result of natural hazards. A natural disaster is an extreme natural event that affects human communities by causing damage, destruction, and fatalities, and the affected communities are not able to function normally without external assistance.

Khan and Crozier (2009) define natural disasters as a result of hazards, vulnerability, and the insufficient capacity or the lack of measures to reduce the potential risk.

Some scientists perceive natural disasters from a social perspective. Oliver-Smith (1996) defines a natural disaster as “a social phenomenon (construction) whose essence can be found in the organization of society, rather than in the natural phenomenon of destructive influence,” while Alexander (2005) believes that a natural disaster “can be considered as a window to processes that take place within society.”

In addition to the aforementioned theoretical definitions, the 1970s witnessed the emergence of definitions of natural disasters based on quantitative characteristics. They were intended to set limit values for the number of victims or the size of the economic loss (Etkin 2016). In this respect, the UNISDR or CRED included a natural disaster in their databases if it met the predefined criteria (at least one): 10 or more victims, at least 100 people affected by the disaster, declaring a state of emergency by the government, and government request for international assistance (UNISDR 2004; Etkin 2016).

Based on the aforementioned definitions and interpretations of the term “natural disaster,” it may be concluded that it is a consequence or effect that an extreme natural process has on the human community, in a specific time interval and in a particular geographical area. However, it must be highlighted that the term “disaster” is often used in a less strict sense to designate events that cause great damage, destruction, and human victims.

The general conclusion is that a natural hazard becomes a natural disaster when an extreme event considerably affects humans and their property, so as to overcome the capability of people to cope and respond. It is noteworthy that there would be no natural disasters if it were not for humans. Without humans and their activities, these would remain merely natural phenomena. Therefore, natural disasters are not only related to nature but also to society, and they should be studied from both perspectives. This will make it possible to understand properly natural hazards and potential disasters, as well as the activities necessary for their mitigation. Based on data from the EM-DAT database, Tables 3 and 4 present the world’s ten greatest disasters due to natural hazards in the twenty-first century.
Table 3

The world’s ten greatest disasters due to natural hazards according to fatalities (2001–2018)











(including tsunami)

Indonesia and surrounding region



Cyclonic storm Nargis












Extreme temperature (heat wave)




Extreme temperature (heat wave)

Russian Federation














Table 4

The world’s ten greatest disasters due to natural hazards according to the economic loss (2001–2018)




Economic loss (in billion)


Earthquake (including tsunami)




Hurricane Katrina




Hurricane Harvey








Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico



Hurricane Irma

USA and the Caribbean



Hurricane Sandy

North America and the Caribbean







Hurricane Ike

North America and the Caribbean






As the data show, natural disasters affect all countries of the world, regardless of the level of their economic and social development. However, their consequences are not the same, and the mentioned characteristics directly (mostly reversely) affect the degree of their severity.

The economic loss due to natural disasters can be high, and it may persist for a long time, making the recovery much slower, especially in poorly developed areas. Furthermore, the greatest fatalities due to natural disasters have been recorded in economically underdeveloped or developing countries. Apart from the economic and political situation, they are additionally burdened with a huge population, poor infrastructure, and the degraded environment. In addition, there is an inadequate attitude toward natural disasters, characterized by low levels of preparedness, and lack of prevention.

According to the EM-DAT database, the greatest number of natural disasters in the twenty-first century is recorded in China and the USA, which could be explained by their size and population density. At the same time, Asia is marked as the continent that is the most vulnerable to natural disasters (CRED 2019). Year after year, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines appear prominently in the list of countries experiencing the highest number of disaster events. In 2001–2018 period, the greatest number of fatalities due to natural disasters was recorded in Haiti (230,047), Indonesia (186,309), and Myanmar (139,625), followed by China (111,915) and Pakistan (84,219) (CRED 2019).

A data analysis of the fatalities from natural disasters in the past two decades indicates that there are three times more victims (332) in economically less developed countries than in the developed ones (105 victims) (CRED 2015). Based on data, in high human development countries, 21.4% of all natural disasters occurred, and 22.4% of fatalities were recorded. The highest number of natural disaster is recorded in medium human development countries, 56.1% and caused 34.5% of fatalities, while in low human development countries, 22.5% of natural disaster and 43.1% of fatalities are recorded (CRED 2015). This indicates that the level of economic development, more than the exposure to natural hazards, is a determinant of mortality. Good examples for comparison are the earthquakes accompanied with tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, in 2004, and in Japan, in 2011 (Tables 3 and 4).

The consequences of natural disasters in developed countries are mainly reflected in a significant economic loss, which has to do with the status of the built infrastructure and the quality of the constructed facilities. At the same time, it is obvious that the economic capacity of these countries allows them to overcome the consequences faster, i.e., to recover and to return to normal functioning, as in the period prior to the natural disaster.

Natural Hazard and Risk Assessment

The terms “hazard” and “risk” are often used interchangeably, though there is a distinction between them. While “hazard” indicates a potential danger from a natural phenomenon that can endanger people and material goods, “risk” indicates the probability of occurrence of a natural hazard and its expected consequences (NRC 2006; Etkin 2016). According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP 2004), a risk is “the probability of harmful consequences – casualties, damaged property, lost livelihoods, disrupted economic activity, and damage to the environment – resulting from interactions between natural or human-induced hazards and vulnerable conditions.” UNISDR (2009) defines it as “the combination of the probability of an event and its negative consequences.” Risks include many events with a wide variety of causes, such as natural hazards, industrial accidents, or biological agents (e.g., invasive alien species). In the context of natural hazards, there are many different definitions of the risk. The term “risk” is sometimes used to designate the probability or chance that an event will happen within a specific period of time. Risk may also refer to the outcomes of an event. Alternatively, risk may refer to the expected number of fatalities, injuries, property damage, and the disruption of economic activities due to a particular natural disaster. In general, a risk is a result expected to arise from the collision of the natural and social components.

In recent years, with the growth of the human population, the whole world, and especially hazard-prone areas, seems to witness increasingly complex risks (including the risk from natural hazards). They reveal the increasing vulnerability of our society, economy, and the environment. Therefore, many relevant studies on natural hazards and disasters include risk assessments in order to determine the nature and magnitude of natural hazards. They are based on the analysis of potential hazards, vulnerability indicators, and recovery possibilities.

Risk assessment, as a tentative quantification of risk, is a serious challenge. Its aspects vary in individual local communities, and, at some points, it depends on the subjective decision of experts and researchers (e.g., short-term records of extreme events, the impact of the sex or age structure of the population, the levels of population education, and other characteristics that affect a community’s vulnerability). The risk assessment of natural hazards is often based on short-term historical records that may not reflect the full range or magnitude of events possible. Short historical records are frequently assumed to be a true reflection of the long-term behavior of a natural hazard. According to Nott (2006), historical records, extended for several centuries or even a millennium (e.g., in China), may be appropriate. However, in many countries historical records usually cover no more than 100 years.

Although there are many risk assessment methods that have been used in studies, there is no generally accepted and consistent method that could be labeled as the best and yielding best results. Many different equations are used to calculate the overall risk, and they range from basic calculations to complicated algorithms. The equation that serves as the basis for better understanding of the natural hazard and risk and is widely used in risk assessment around the world defines risk as a combination of hazard and vulnerability. This equation is used by Fournier d’Albe (1986) and Wisner et al. (2004) in their Pressure and Release Model. As mentioned above, hazard involved in risk assessment takes into consideration past hazardous processes (historical records, magnitude, frequency, effects, etc.). Vulnerability is a significant component in risk assessment. It relates to the way in which a natural hazard or disaster will affect human life and property. More precisely, vulnerability is associated with the conditions in a particular community that determines the probability and amount of the damage from a natural disaster, the capacity to absorb the impact of the disaster, and the capacity for subsequent recovery. According to UNISDR (2002), vulnerability is defined as “a set of conditions or processes arising from physical, economic, social and environmental factors, and affecting the increase/decrease in the sensitivity of the community.” Therefore, the analysis often deals with physical and socioeconomic vulnerability.

Many studies of natural hazards identify vulnerability as an essential element of risk that allows to reduce the existing risk to a greater or lesser extent. More precisely, the reduction of vulnerability directly affects the reduction of risk, while increased vulnerability results in increased risk. In general, less developed countries are more vulnerable to natural hazards than economically developed ones due to the lack of understanding, education, infrastructure, etc.

Vulnerability to a natural hazard depends on the proximity of a possible hazardous event, scientific understanding of the hazard, public information and awareness of the hazard, official recognition of risks and preparedness measures, construction styles and building codes, and wise environmental management (UNISDR 2009). As an important component of risk, vulnerability is often a research subject in the study of natural hazards. Therefore, many studies also include vulnerability assessments, especially the assessments of socioeconomic vulnerability (Panić 2016).

Accordingly, risk assessment involves a hazard assessment and a vulnerability assessment of a community. It includes the identification of natural hazards that have a potential to cause harm, an analysis and evaluation of the risk associated with individual natural hazards, and the determination of measures to control risk when natural hazards cannot be eliminated. Risk assessment helps scientists evaluate and compare potential natural hazards, define the priority measures of hazard mitigation, and decide on where to focus resources and further study. Usually, risk from natural hazards cannot be eliminated. However, in some cases, analysis, evaluation, and action may help better understand the risk and minimize the impact of natural hazards to humans and thereby minimize the risk. This is the key to developing effective vulnerability reduction measures.

International Institutions, Strategies, and Campaigns

In recent decades, there have been an increasing number of natural disasters with devastating effects, more fatalities, and a greater economic loss. Consequently, there is a growing awareness in the public opinion and among international institutions on the importance of disaster-related research and appropriate risk reduction measures.

One of the concepts developed in this context is disaster risk reduction (DRR), which is a practice of reducing disaster risk through systematic efforts to analyze and reduce the causal factors of disasters. The examples of the practice include reducing exposure to natural hazards, lessening socioeconomic vulnerability, wise environment management, improving preparedness and early warning, etc. In recent years, policies for disaster risk reduction and management have shifted from defense against hazards (mostly by structural measures) to a more integrated risk management that includes a full disaster cycle (prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery). The implementation of integrated risk management is currently taking place both at international and national levels and is promoted by several initiatives.

In this context, the United Nations (UN) declared the 1990–1999 period as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction with the idea of promoting natural disaster risk reduction. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) was established. UNISDR includes several working groups, regional committees, and organizations that focus on natural disasters in particular regions of the world and publish a variety of materials related to this issue, with special attention to measures for reducing natural disaster risk.

At the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in 1994 in Yokohama (Japan), UN members adopted the Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World, which defined basic activities in the struggle to reduce the harmful effects of natural disasters. In 2000, the UN presented the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which sought to identify the causes of vulnerability of humans and property and to design optimal guidelines for the construction of disaster-resistant societies in order to reduce human, social, economic, and ecological losses during any natural disaster.

At the Second UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in 2005 in Kobe, Hyogo (Japan), the Operational Framework 2005–2015 was adopted. It is entitled Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. It defines several priority activities, such as defining a disaster risk reduction policy at the national and local community levels, with a strong institutional basis for its implementation; identifying, evaluating, and monitoring disaster risks and improving early warning systems; using knowledge, innovation, and education to develop and build a culture of security and resilience at all levels; and reducing existing disaster risks and strengthening readiness for effective response to disasters (UNISDR 2007).

At the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture (Japan), the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (Sendai Framework) was adopted. This Framework defines several global targets related to reducing the global disaster mortality, the number of affected people, and disaster-related economic loss, increasing the number of countries implementing national and local disaster risk reduction strategies, and increasing the availability of and access to multi-hazard warning systems and disaster risk information to the people (UNISDR 2015).

In 1989, the UN General Assembly established the International Day for Disaster Reduction, aiming to promote the culture of risk awareness and disaster reduction. It had been celebrated on the second Wednesday of October (Resolution 44/236 1989), but after two decades, the UN General Assembly formally designated 13 October as the annual date (Resolution 64/200 2009). It has become a global event dedicated to the various aspects of disaster risk reduction with the focus on people. In recent years, it has focused on children and youth (2011), women and girls (2012), persons living with disabilities (2013), older persons (2014), knowledge for life (2015), live to tell (2016), and Sendai Seven Campaign (2017).

Since 2016, 5 November is celebrated as the World Tsunami Awareness Day, designated by the UN General Assembly resolution (Resolution 70/203 2016).


As discussed above, natural disasters are brought about by processes that have been operating since Earth formed. These processes are beneficial to humans and responsible for features that make Earth a habitable planet (e.g., volcanism for producing water, earthquakes for the formation of mountain ranges, etc.). That is why they are called “natural phenomena”. If such a process has a potential to cause harm, or the conditions for this are met, it is called a “natural hazard”. A hazard, on its own right, does not necessarily mean that a damage has been done but rather that there is a chance that it might be done. Furthermore, a natural hazard can also be an event involving a danger without loss or damage for humans, economy, or the environment, e.g., an avalanche triggered in uninhabited high mountains, a tsunami that hits an uninhabited island, etc. If a process that involves hazard occurs and destroys human lives or damages property, it is a natural disaster. In general, natural hazards might lead to disasters.

Although humans can do little or nothing to change the occurrence or intensity of most natural phenomena, they have an important role in ensuring that natural events are not turned into a disaster by their own actions. It is important to highlight that human activities can increase the frequency and severity of natural hazards (e.g., building settlements on landslides or at the foot of volcanoes, etc.). This indicates that it is crucial to develop effective vulnerability reduction measures. If human activities can cause or worsen the destructive effects of natural phenomena, they can also eliminate or reduce them.

There have been an increasing number of disasters due to natural hazards caused by combined changes in the physical, technological, and human social systems, and their impact has been stronger. A hazard’s potential to cause a disaster mainly depends on the community’s vulnerability. Some regions are more vulnerable to specific hazards than others.

As illustrated by EM-DAT database, between 2001 and 2018, natural disasters killed about 1.2 million people, affected 2.9 billion people, and the economic loss has reached $US 2,288 billion on the global level. In general, the most frequent natural disasters in this period were floods (44% of the total number of natural disasters). More people died in earthquakes (earthquakes and tsunamis combined) than in all other disasters together. Their victims are estimated to be about 719,893. Floods threatened more than 1.3 billion people, followed by droughts that affected about 850 million people. It can be highlighted that 41% of droughts affected Africa. This indicates that economically underdeveloped countries are still the most vulnerable to drought, although early warning systems have been established.

Specific action should be taken to address hazard management and reduce natural disaster risk, e.g., the assessment of the presence and effects of natural events on the goods and services provided by natural resources, an estimation of the potential impact of natural events on human and economic activities, and the inclusion of measures to reduce socioeconomic vulnerability. However, in practice, the activities that respond to natural disasters have greater significance because disasters and their consequences attract huge public and media attention. On the other hand, the activities aimed at natural disaster prediction, although recognized as more effective in reducing vulnerability, and the consequences of natural disasters do not have such a position, because of limited financial investments.

One of the main questions is how to avoid a natural disaster? As natural disasters are caused by geological, climatological, and hydrological processes, it is impossible to prevent them. Therefore, the focus should be placed on reducing their damaging effects through monitoring and early warning systems, the implementation of building codes, flood defense measures, disaster management plans, and the education of citizens on disaster preparedness. In the segment of education of citizens, some of the interesting examples are guide to natural disaster, published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross, NOAA, etc., in which it presents preparedness strategies that are common to all disaster (FEMA et al. 2004). Also, special attention should be focused on children and youth resilience. It is important to highlight the education about natural disaster, as well as the role of children, teachers, and family in the system of protection against natural disaster (Kartal et al. 2018). Therefore, there are several guides of action for children and youth resilience (Save the Children International 2007; UNISDR and PLAN 2012) and publication supported by UNICEF for teacher education (Kartal et al. 2018).

Monitoring and warning systems are of crucial importance, as it was demonstrated by the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, which killed hundreds of thousands of unprepared people in the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. Building codes play an important role in protecting property and diminishing the possibility of life loss. Most buildings in Japan have steel frames and strong concrete walls that can resist damage caused by earthquakes, storms, or tsunamis. The construction of flood defenses is very important in preventing damage caused by the inundation of populated areas. For example, many rivers and ocean fronts are lined with extensive dike systems (in the USA, Japan, the Netherlands, etc.). As far as avalanches in Europe are concerned, integrated risk management had been developed and it has already reached an advanced level. It incorporates technical measures, which have been implemented over the past five decades (European Environment Agency 2010). Campaigns to raise public awareness are organized by many institutions. Since 2000, UNISDR has been involved in disaster risk reduction through its World Disaster Reduction Campaign. From targeting various thematic areas, campaigning for safer schools and hospitals, better security for people with disabilities, to making cities resilient, UNISDR seeks to help societies become resilient to disasters.

In recent decades, it has become possible to understand natural hazards better due to modeled datasets, supplemented by in situ and remotely sensed data. Moreover, these data are particularly important and useful for scientists and decision-makers concerned with the detection of natural hazards, vulnerability and risk assessment, and the design and implementation of mitigation and adaptation strategies.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Physical Geography Department Geographical Institute “Jovan Cvijić” Serbian Academy of Sciences and ArtsBelgradeSerbia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ulisses Azeiteiro
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AveiroAveiroPortugal