Turkey-Syria earthquake: Why how we talk about disasters matters


Austin Snowbarger


Disaster risk equals hazard multiplied by vulnerability and exposure.

A devastating earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in February. Photo credit: Unsplash

In other words, disaster risk results from the interaction between a natural hazard, such as an earthquake, and the physical, economic, environmental or social characteristics that make people and communities exposed and vulnerable, like marginalization or poor building construction.

Math is not my strong suit, but I have found this simple formula – one that is commonly cited in disaster studies – a helpful framing in understanding how a disaster is constructed. It was ingrained into me and my classmates in graduate school. I have been returning to this formula often in the days since the devastating and deadly earthquake that struck Turkey and neighbouring Syria on 6 February.

Disasters are not natural

Without vulnerability, which develops from human decisions, a disaster will not occur. Therefore, while hazards are natural, disasters are not. There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, yet this thinking persists. It is not surprising, but it is concerning how the misperception frames some media reports and comments from leaders and those rushing to respond to the Turkey-Syria earthquake.

The earthquake as the outcome of a natural process manifests itself in obvious ways, like when the term ‘natural disaster’ is incorrectly used, but it also shows up in less overt examples. The media’s analysis of the earthquake often focuses more on explaining the science of earthquakes than the vulnerabilities that led to the disaster. Also, people in positions of power talk about the disaster in fatalistic terms, such as when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said it is impossible to prepare for disasters this big.

In the context of the Turkey-Syria earthquake, vulnerability looks like poorly constructed buildings that do not meet modern earthquake building standards. It is thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey and displaced people in northwest Syria that live in informal settlements. It is the destruction of infrastructure within Syria from years of war and aerial bombings. It is an ongoing complex humanitarian emergency from the conflict and a cholera outbreak.

How we talk about disasters, including what causes them, matters because it shapes what we as individuals, philanthropic organizations and societies do about them. When disasters are referred to as a natural phenomenon or an ‘act of God’, it gives the impression that the devastating results of the disaster are inevitable and outside our control.

But this is not true. By correctly acknowledging both the role of a natural hazard and how people in society are vulnerable, we can feel confident and better equipped to galvanize efforts to minimize a disaster’s impact. This is why CDP encourages philanthropy to invest in equitable recovery, preparedness, risk reduction and strengthening resilience.

What you can do

  • Call a disaster a disaster. Commit to not using the term ‘natural disaster’ in all communications. Instead, simply calling the earthquake a disaster is the best option. At an institutional level, consider updating your organization’s style guide to include this recommendation for all references to disaster. For more information, visit the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign.
  • Educate yourself and others. Read CDP’s Earthquake Issue Insight, which balances information about natural hazards with a discussion on vulnerability and how funders can help when an earthquake results in disaster. Consider investing resources and time in reading Ilan Kelman’s book ‘Disaster By Choice,’ which articulates how our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes. Use your platform and power to change the narrative on how we talk about disasters.
  • Address root causes. Decades of research have demonstrated that disasters affect the poorest and most marginalized people most severely while exacerbating vulnerabilities and social inequities. Therefore, funders should seek to understand and address the underlying risk factors within a particular context to mitigate disaster impact. According to the 2021 Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report, only 17 per cent was spent on preparedness, 6 per cent on recovery and 4 per cent on resilience, risk reduction and mitigation. More investment in these areas is needed while maintaining a vulnerability lens.

The needs of earthquake-affected communities in Turkey and Syria and how best to support immediate relief and long-term recovery will vary and continue to expand in the years ahead. As you consider how to support earthquake survivors and prevent future disasters, remember that how we think of and talk about disasters influences how to act.

Austin Snowbarger is learning and parterships manager at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

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