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Natural disaster concept from an International Law point of view
Natural disaster concept from an International Law point of view

Patricia Ibarrola Redondo

It is known that natural disasters have inflicted heavy cost in human and material resources throughout history. Taiwan’s location makes it a very vulnerable area frequently suffering from natural disasters, and as climate change increases, also the likelihood of them will become more intense and unpredictable. When this happens, international cooperation is essential to meet the humanitarian needs of the affected communities. Therefore, in the past few years, International Law has devoted more attention to prevention, response and recovery from this kind of issues.

Nowadays a disaster is open to a range of different interpretations, that is why we have to analyse, from a legal point of view, whenare wereally facing a disaster and when will the international organizations and other non-Governmental organizations provide assistance to those who have been affected by natural disasters.

International Law Commission

“Disaster means a calamitous event or series of events resulting in widespread loss of life, great human suffering and distress, or large-scale material or environmental damage, thereby seriously disrupting the functioning of society.”

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

“A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.”

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

“A disaster is a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources.”

EM-DAT (The International disaster database)

“Situation or event, which overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to national or international level for external assistance. An unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction and human suffering. Though often caused by nature, disasters can have human origins.”

In conclusion, from an International point of view, there is not an exact legal definition generally accepted, but from all of the definitions we can identify a natural disaster susceptible of receiving outside assistance, as an event that includes the followingthree elements:

Suddenness and unexpectedness. A disaster is an emergency that suddenly disrupts the daily life of the population. This suddenness challenges the disaster prevention and treatment, that is why it is very important to regulate Disaster Prevention and Protection.

Significant destruction which affects society. It can result in substantial loss of life and social upheaval, which leads a lot people becoming homeless and helpless. And also aggravated by the disruption of vital production: water, power supplies and communications. All in, the extent of the disaster must seriously disrupt the functioning of society, either caused by human action (technological and disaster caused by armed conflict or violence) or by natural causes (such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis).

Exceed the community abilities.Communities must be unable to cope by themselves to receive international organization’s assistance. Nevertheless, States can independently assist disaster-affected states for humanity and political reasons.


UnitedNations General AssemblyResolution A/CN.4/L.831: Proteccion of persons in theevent of disasters.

TheUnitedNations Office of DisasterRiskReductionTerminologhy

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’s definition of a disaster

EM-DAT The International Disaster Database Glossary