This is the old website of UNU-ISP, which is now part of the new UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS). Please visit the new UNU-IAS website at

Human Security and Natural Disasters


This UNU-ISP research project extends and applies the “human security” approach to natural disasters, in order to better understand and mitigate their impacts on people. Taking the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami as the starting point, it seeks to place Japan’s “triple disasters” in comparative context. It does so by considering them in relation to a range of other major catastrophes, such as the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The project explores how the concept of human security reveals the “human-ness” of “natural” disasters:

  • the role humans play in creating, preventing and mitigating disasters;
  • how the way people are affected differs based on biological and social categories;
  • how people become more (or less) vulnerable to disasters;  
  • how the lives of individuals and communities can be rebuilt; and
  • what opportunities for empowerment exist during and after disasters.

Natural disasters expose people – regularly in great numbers – to extreme risk, and create massive human security challenges. These events are particularly problematic as they tend to interact in a pernicious and reinforcing manner with existing vulnerabilities. Disasters do not impact people equally; the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged members of society suffer disproportionately. Addressing their vulnerability requires fully understanding the role of humans in giving shape to “natural” disasters, by moving beyond immediate events and considering how they embedded within everyday practices and societal structures. The human security approach that this project adopts emphasises that even in the most desperate of situations people retain their agency, and it is important to foster possibilities for empowerment. This is particularly valuable in the context of natural disasters, where it is all too easy to view affected people as passive victims. Natural disasters can leave people feeling totally helpless – at the whim of the elements – so anything that can be done to empower people is vital.

The approach to human security and natural disasters being developed by UNU-ISP is informed by the dynamic between the immediate event and the deeper societal structures that shape human vulnerability and possibility. To date, UNU-ISP has hosted a series of academic workshops and public events exploring these issues. For more information, please refer to the News and Events section. A series of online articles and editorials have been published outlining initial findings, which can be found on the “Publications” page. In 2013, an edited academic book and a policy brief will be published, as well as more research and public events being planned.


“Human security” is an approach which rejects the traditional prioritization of state security, and instead identifies the individual as the primary referent of security. It offers a way of broadening our perspective, and recognizing that the most pressing threats to individuals do not come from interstate war, but from the emergencies that affect people every day, such as famine, disease, displacement, civil conflict and environmental degradation. Human security is meant to entail “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want,” a situation in which people can live their lives with dignity. To date, much of the work on human security has focused on threats emerging from war and conflict. Natural disasters have tended to be overlooked by this agenda, even though the UNDP 1994 Human Development Report and the Commission on Human Security explicitly identified them as a threat to human security. This reflects the fact that natural disasters cause many of the same problems as conflict: widespread death, massive destruction, extensive displacement, and heightened vulnerability for people, especially for parts of the population already marginalised. In the 2000s, more than 2,323 million people were affected by disasters, with more than 1 million killed. Considering the sheer number of lives directly impacted by natural disasters, it would seem very strange if human security did not apply. Natural disasters certainly do not affect countries and people equally, but they do represent an increasingly major human security threat to people everywhere. A human security doctrine that does not adequately deal with, and respond to, natural disasters will be of limited value in managing the threats we collectively face in the twenty-first century.