Natural Disasters

NATURAL DISASTERS, also referred to as natural hazards are extreme, sudden events caused by environmental factors such as storms, floods, droughts, fires, and heatwaves. Natural disasters are now occurring with increasing severity, scope and impact. When we explore natural disasters in the context of planetary health, we are utilizing a systems-thinking approach to grasp the complexities and anthropogenic drivers relating a given disaster to causes and effects.

Globally, twice as many people were affected by natural disasters in the 1990s vs. in the 1980s, and global annual economic losses from extreme events increased 10-fold over the past four decades. Heat waves, droughts, fires, floods, tropical storms, and other natural disasters pose long-term health consequences. For example, particulate matter from fires reduces air quality and causes morbidity and mortality from cardiorespiratory disease; flooding can cause biological contamination of water supplies, displacement, and trauma; more intense coastal storms, combined with sea level rise and loss of coastal barrier systems (mangrove forests, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, and wetlands), generate a “triple threat” for inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas. Survivors of natural disasters face serious, yet poorly understood, physical and mental health impacts. It must be a priority to investigate trends in exposure to natural hazards, which populations are most vulnerable, and effective practices for reducing vulnerability.

Learning Objectives
L1: To identify and explain the anthropogenic drivers of increasingly severe natural disasters.
L2: To relate the potential direct and indirect impacts of different disasters, assessing the different settings and scales in which they occur.
L3: To examine local, regional and global actions that perpetuate or exacerbate disasters and understand the facilitating policy framework.
L4: To recognize cross-disciplinary areas for research and innovation in disaster resilience, spanning across the traditionally environmental or medically-focused efforts.
Teaching Resources
Medical Challenges After Typhoon Haiyan
(L2, L4)
An NPR News report on 2011 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the relief efforts that were challenged by a subsequent tropical storm. Post-disaster health impacts including WASH impacts, dehydration, and delayed infections are explored.
→ Read the Report 
→ Teaching Tools 

Severe Drought in East Africa
(L1, L2, L3, L4)
Africa is currently facing severe droughts and floods, food shortages, and increases in malaria due to climate change. This series of short case studies focus on Ethiopia and Rwanda and the work done by the Ethiopian and Rwandan Red Cross Societies to mitigate the impacts of floods and droughts on access to clean water and malaria cases in the two countries.
→ Read the Case Study 
→ Teaching Tools

Impact of Hurricane Katrina
(L2, L3) This documentary film produced by PBS explores the impacts of 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf coast of the United States with a focus on the political handling of the disaster.
→ Watch the Video 
→ Teaching Tools 

Cheap, Effective Shelter for Disaster Relief
(L2, L3, L4) In this TEDx talk, Michael McDaniel describes the process behind his inventive solution to the housing gap problem following natural disasters, the Exo Housing Unit. The idea quickly gained notice, and McDaniel is working alongside FEMA, the United Nations, and other groups to bring the solution to real-world situations.
→ Watch the Video
→ Teaching Tools

Extreme Weather and the Climate Crisis E-Book
In this e-book, the Climate Reality Project explains how extreme weather events are influenced by climate change and offers ways that you can get involved in the fight for solutions.
→ E-Book 

Ecosystem Approaches to Health Teaching Manual
A teaching manual with sample modules and associated activities for teaching about health and environmental change produced by COPEH-Canada.
→ Español 
→ Français 
→ English 
→ Read more

Climate Variability, Vulnerability, and Natural Disasters: A Study of Zika Virus in Manabi, Ecuador Following the 2016 Earthquake
This research article describes an emerging epidemic of Zika virus (ZIKV) in Ecuador following the 2016 earthquake, which coincided with an exceptionally strong El Niño event. Authors hypothesize that the trigger of a natural disaster during anomalous climate conditions and underlying social vulnerabilities were force multipliers contributing to a dramatic increase in ZIKV cases post-earthquake.
→ Read the Article

Climate Information for Public Health Action 
With a focus on infectious disease, hydro-meteorological disasters and nutrition, the book explores why, when and how data on the historical, current and future (from days to decades) climate can be incorporated into health decision-making.
→ E-Book

Natural Disasters and Human Health in the Anthropocene
This is a sample syllabus for teaching about natural disasters in the context of planetary health for an undergraduate audience in a 10-week term. The course is open to all years and all majors or concentrations.
→ Syllabus

Earth's Processes as Natural Hazards, Fall 2015
Syllabus for an undergraduate course exploring the relationship between humans and Earth's processes at the University of Virginia.
→ Syllabus 

Planetary Health Undergraduate Course, Spring 2017

Syllabus for a discussion based undergraduate course open to first through fourth-year students across all disciplines at Harvard University.
→ Syllabus 

Natural Disasters and the Impacts on Health
A natural disaster is defined as an event of nature, which overwhelms local resources and threatens the function and safety of the community. Generally, disasters are the ultimate test of a community’s emergency response capability. A thoughtful and well-organized emergency strategy will be able...
→ Read the Report

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