Skip to Main content

Complexity disasters

(a) Breakdown of institutional structures (loss of stabilizing and reorganizing capacity)

The vast literature on resilience has argued that socio-ecological systems in general retain varying capacities to ‘absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks’ (Walker et al., 2004). In the context of hazards and disasters, societies are able to overcome the damages brought about by the occurrence of natural hazards, either through maintaining their pre-disaster social fabric, or through accepting marginal or larger change in order to survive (Gaillard, 2006). We take it that the capacity of societies to reorganise themselves and find a new stable state are embedded in their existing institutional structures, such as formal family or political structures, and informal rules and norms that govern societal behaviour. Breakdown of institutions as a consequence of inappropriate interventions may result in the loss of these inherent attributes for restoration and reorganisation into a new stable state, thereby increasing the level of distress and vulnerability than what had been just after a disaster. In this sense, the loss is not in physical terms, but in the capacities of society to reorganise itself.

(b) Failure of the society to maintain its metabolism/changes in society–nature interactions

This variable relates to the failure of the society to maintain its metabolism in the way it once did. For example, in the way a society organises (via their formal and informal institutions) material and energy exchanges with its natural environment necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of a society. This includes the extraction and use of primary resources for food, machines, buildings, infrastructure, heating and many other products, and their return, with more or less delay, in the form of wastes and emissions to their environments. Any society’s existence would be impossible without these biophysical exchanges with nature. The quantity and structure of matter and energy a society draws from its environment largely depends on their mode of subsistence and lifestyle, which in turn is related to technology.

(c) Increasing dependency on higher systems

In recent decades, large parts of the agrarian ‘developing world’ have become increasingly integrated within a global division of labour and the world market. Under the rubric of development, nation-states have devised programmes to expedite this process by introducing a variety of services (education, medical, legal), transport infrastructure, subsidies and fossil-fuel-based technologies in agriculture. While they indeed improve the quality of life to some extent (access to clean water, health care, legal rights, etc.), these interventions require heavy inputs of resources from the outside to sustain them. In other words, these economies – still largely unchanged and quintessentially retaining an agrarian mode of production – are not able to generate an income to pay for the quality of life based on increased resource flows or subsidies from outside. Over time, these societies become dependent on constant supplies, subsidies and services to meet their needs, the failure of which may lead to setbacks and impoverishment. Humanitarian aid, if inappropriately organised, may guide the system into a similar system of dependency and vulnerability.


Gaillard, J.-C. (2006) ‘Traditional societies in the face of natural hazards: the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption and the Aetas of the Philippines’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 24(1): 5–43.

Walker, B., Holling, C.S., Carpenter, S.R. and Kinzig, A. (2004) ‘Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems’, Ecology and Society, 9 (2): 5.

For further reading:

Coppola, D. (2006) Introduction to International Disaster Management. Elsevier.

EMDAT – The International Emergency Disasters Database. Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

Guha-Sapir, D., Hargitt, D., Hoyois, P. (2004) Thirty years of natural disasters 1974-2003: The Numbers, UCL Presses Universitaires De Louvain.

Noji, E. (1997) The Public Health Consequences of Disasters. Oxford University Press: New York.

Singh, Simron J. (2009) Complex disasters: the Nicobar Islands in the grip of humanitarian aid. In: Geographische Rundschau – International Edition 5(3), pp. 48-56.

UNDP (1994) Human Development Report 1994. Oxford University Press: New York & Oxford.

United Nations, Department of Humanitarian Affairs (1992) Internationally Agreed Glossary of Basic Terms Related to Disaster Management (DNA/93/36), Geneva: United Nations.

Vatn, Arild (2006) Institutions and the Environment, Edward Elgar Publishing House, UK.

This glossary entry is based on contributions by Willi Haas, Simron Jit Singh and Annabella Musel

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

Comments are closed.