Disaster Management Definitions | Western Cape Government

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Disaster Management Definitions

(Department of Local Government, Western Cape Government)


A hazard can be defined as a potentially damaging physical event, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation. Typical examples of hazards can be absence of rain (leading to drought) or the abundance thereof (leading to floods). Chemical manufacturing plants near settlements and incorrect agricultural techniques, can also been seen as hazards which could lead to possible disasters. Hazards can be the creation of man or the environment.


Risk is usually associated with the human inability to cope with a particular situation. In terms of disaster management it can be defined as the probability of harmful consequences, or expected losses death, injury, damage to property and the environment, jobs, disruption of economic activity or social systems. Hazards will affect communities differently in terms of ability and resources with which to cope. Poorer communities will be more at risk than others.


Vulnerability can be seen as, the ability a person or community has, to predict, cope with, or avoid and recover from, the consequences of a hazard or disaster. Marginalised, poorer and over-populated communities are more vulnerable and less able to cope with disasters.

Natural Phenomena

Natural phenomena are extreme weather, water or geological (earth) processes that do not pose a threat to people or properties. When they occur in a deserted place, they are merely natural phenomena and nothing else. However once they affect human beings, due to location or poor planning by the human beings, they are a potential hazard and could become a disaster.


A disaster is the serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing or threatening to cause, widespread human, material or environmental losses which render the affected community unable to cope using its own resources. Disasters are only disasters because they impact and affect the way in which we live. They can be caused by the impact of a natural occurrence on human beings or by human beings themselves. From the above definitions, it becomes apparent that it is incorrect to refer to "natural disasters", since natural phenomena in themselves are not disasters unless they impact negatively on populated areas.


An emergency can be seen as a local event within a community that affects a limited number of people or property. An emergency could require extreme measures to correct and cope with, but can usually be managed by the community itself, using its own resources.

Disaster Risk Reduction

Disaster risk reduction can be seen as the systematic development and application of policies, strategies and practices to minimize vulnerabilities and disaster risks throughout a society to prevent and limit negative impacts of hazards, within the broad context of sustainable development. In South Africa, disaster risk reduction is an integral and important part of disaster management.

Disaster Mitigation

Disaster mitigation refers to structural and non-structural measures that are undertaken to limit the adverse impact of natural hazards, environmental degradation and technological hazards on vulnerable areas, communities and households. These efforts can target the hazard or threat itself (for example, the positioning of firebreaks on the urban/wildland interface). This is often referred to as 'structural mitigation', since it requires infrastructure or engineering measures to keep the hazard away from those at risk.

Disaster mitigation efforts can also target people who are at risk, by reducing their vulnerability to a specific threat (for instance, promoting community responsibility for controlling fire risk in an informal settlement). This is often called 'non-structural mitigation', as it promotes risk-avoidance behaviours and attitudes.


Preparedness contributes to disaster risk reduction through measures taken in advance to ensure effective response to the impact of hazards, including timely and effective early warnings and the temporary evacuation of people and property from threatened locations.

Preparedness enables organs of state and other institutions involved in disaster risk management, the private sector, communities and individuals to mobilise, organise, and provide relief measures to deal with an impending or current disaster, or the effects of a disaster.

Preparedness differs from prevention and mitigation, as it focuses on activities and measures taken in advance of a specific threat or disaster.

Disaster Response

Disaster response refers to the provision of assistance or intervention during or immediately after a disaster to meet the life preservation and basic subsistence needs of those people affected. It can be of an immediate, short-term or protracted duration.

Disaster Recovery

Disaster recovery (including rehabilitation and reconstruction) focuses on the decisions and actions taken after a disaster to restore lives and livelihoods, services, infrastructure and the natural environment. In addition, by developing and applying risk reduction measures at the same time, the likelihood of a repeated disaster event is reduced. Disaster recovery includes:

  • rehabilitation of the affected areas, communities and households
  • reconstruction of damaged and destroyed infrastructure
  • recovery of losses sustained during the disaster event, combined with the development of increased resistance to future similar occurrences.

Disaster recovery initiatives present excellent opportunities to incorporate

Distinguishing between Hazards and Disasters

A natural phenomenon like a veldfire, or a person using a primus stove are not hazards until they pose a threat to human life, property, infrastructure or the environment. If the veldfire gets out of hand and rages into a populated area, or the primus falls over and causes a fire in the home, then each becomes a hazard. The veldfire or primus fire could then spread uncontrollably and burn down many houses and buildings and the environment could be seriously damaged. Many lives could be lost and people could end up in hospital having sustained serious burns. The economy and livelihoods of people could be adversely affected and if resources are not within the means of the people to manage the situation, then a disaster has occurred. Hazards, do not necessarily become disasters. It is dependant on the extent to which damage is done and how all the people concerned can cope with the situation.

The content on this page was last updated on 23 July 2015