How will these resources help you? 

Events such as volcanic eruptions and tropical storms can be seen as natural hazards, implying that people and their property are at risk due to unstoppable forces of nature. However, geographers now understand that the scale of a hazard is magnified when it affects a vulnerable population. Decisions made at local, national and international levels affect the vulnerability of people. Physical and human geography can intersect to cause a disaster, but if we can understand the reasons for vulnerability to hazards, we can also seek strategies to minimise their impact. 

Is the world making deadly choices?

Disaster by Choice: How our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes

by Ilan Kelman, published by Oxford University Press, (2022), 9780198841357

The message throughout this book is that we cannot prevent natural events such as tropical storms and earthquakes. However, the decisions we make on local, national and global levels will affect the impact these events have. Kelman explores how bad decision-making has led to people living in places with a high hazard risk and how global decisions can reinforce poverty, leading directly to huge loss of life and injury during hazard events. He illustrates these points with examples, including Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, putting a new twist on events geography teachers have explored before. However, the book is also full of hope, with examples of good decision-making limiting hazard risk in communities in Toronto and villages in Bangladesh. This book is a fascinating read for teachers but would also be very beneficial for A-level geographers, helping them to make links between the human and physical elements of their course.

How did political decisions affect the impact of and recovery from Cyclone Nargis?

Everything is broken: Life Inside Burma

by Emma Larkin, published by Granta Books, (2011), 9781847081896

Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar (sometimes referred to as Burma) in 2008, leading to over 130,000 fatalities. The storm surge swept over the Irrawaddy Delta, travelling 40km inland and causing destruction on a massive scale. At this time, Myanmar was ruled by a military regime that was reluctant to accept international aid following the disaster. Larkin entered the country with a tourist visa and reported on what she saw; she had been secretly visiting and reporting from Myanmar for years and so was able to set the disaster in context. This book complements Disaster by Choice perfectly as it explores the impact of politics and poverty on the people of Myanmar during and after the storm. 

How did decision-makers shape the fate of children lost to the 2011 Japanese tsunami?

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan

by Richard Lloyd Parry, published by Penguin Books, (2018), 9781784704889

GCSE Geography specifications encourage students to explore how levels of development affect the impact of hazard events, but poor decisions can be made in any country, regardless of wealth. Lloyd Parry investigates the impact of the 2011 Japanese tsunami on people in Tohoku, often returning to the stories of one particular village where children were lost due to a delay in evacuating them from their school. The stories are personal and deeply touching, with many examples of how decisions made in the spur of the moment led to different consequences for families. Lloyd Parry shows how a deep belief in following the rules and the state’s advice shaped some decisions which led to death, prompting questions about how governments at different levels manage hazard events. 

Do local people make better decisions than multinational organisations?

‘Local is better’: battered Haiti looks to empower peasants to fight climate crisis

by Joe Parkin Daniels, published by The Guardian, (2022)

This article explores the work of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) in Haiti, which supports local people in tackling deforestation, reducing their vulnerability to poverty, food insecurity and hazard events. MPP claims that farmers have become dependent on multinational organisations, which sometimes mismanage resources and worsen the farmers’ situation. MPP promotes a local approach which leads to more jobs and utilises local people’s skills and knowledge. As well as planting trees, the organisation also provides training in agroecology, installs solar panels and water infrastructure and has a radio station broadcasting advice. The article shows how empowering local people to use their knowledge to inform decision-making can significantly impact their resilience; an example is the construction of eco-villages by MPP following the 2010 earthquake. An article full of hope and suitable for both teachers and students.

Audiovisual clips

Andrew Marr’s Mega Cities - Natural disasters in the city

published by BBC, (2011)

Insights into the impact natural hazards can have and have had on Tokyo, one of the world's megacities, and how inhabitants and institutions prepare to face them and prevent damage.
Bang Goes the Theory - Natural flood prevention

published by BBC, (2014)

This clip explores the decisions made at local level in Pickering, North Yorkshire, to prevent flooding.

Podcast episode

RETEACH GEOGRAPHY - Ilan Kelman on Disaster Management


Professor and author Ilan Kelman joins host Kit Marie Rackley to explain why the events described as 'natural disasters' are often the outcome of inherently unequal and unjust systems which don't allow the individuals who are part of them to access the same survival tools and employ the same recovery strategies. He discusses the importance of considering a variety of factors such as the political, economic and social contingencies when drafting policies around natural hazards, and concludes with an appeal to all human beings to be kinder to one another.

Further materials

Earth-Shattering Events: Earthquakes, Nations and Civilization by Andrew Robinson, published by Thames and Hudson, (2016), 9780500518595 Find this book
Can Haiti throw off its historical chains?, published by The Geographical Association, Geography Education Online website, (2020) Access this resource
The geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes in 2030 by Andrew Shepherd, Tom Mitchell, Lindsey Jones and Lucy Scott, published by ODI, (2013) Access this resource
Island on Fire by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe, published by Profile Books, (2017), 9781781252666 Find this book
Catherine Owen is Head of Geography at The King Alfred School an Academy, a CGeog and a Geographical Association Consultant. She writes and presents for OUP, Hodder Geography, Tutor2U and more.

Text © Catherine Owen, 2022-2023