Between Natural and Anthropogenic Disasters: What Do We Know So Far?
Wed, 07 Nov 2018 || By Jaehyeon Park

The 2018 Central Sulawesi earthquake illustrates to us the mercilessness of the natural disasters. According to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), as of October 21, the death toll from the 7.5-magnitude earthquake and its resulting tsunami waves has reached more than 2,200, needless to mention a larger number of those injured and displaced.[i] Among many fact-finding voices by a stampede of media is one that is particularly noteworthy but has been paid less attention: was the disaster simply natural or human-made as well? In line with this idea, one dominant critique is that the government revoked the tsunami warning too impetuously without enough grounds to do so.[ii] However, there have been more than the critique of the dormant warning system, all of which focus on the human-made nature of the catastrophic event: uncontrolled urban development, loose building codes and regulations, lack of understanding of liquefaction threats, lack of post-disaster leadership and governance, to name a few.[iii]

anthropogenic disasters

Figure 1.The  2011 Fukushima Daichii Nuclear Plant Disaster


If we turn around to look outside Indonesia, we quickly find it is no longer new that natural disasters become exacerbated by human-made activities. In other words, the borderline between natural and anthropogenic disasters is increasingly becoming blurry. In the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, it was not only the 9-magnitude earthquake, followed by maximum 40m tsunami waves, but regulatory and governance failures that worsened the crisis.[iv] The Japanese government was not well equipped with preventive safety measures, and at the time of the accident, the hierarchical culture that is rooted in the state and society impeded early and timely interventions. On a macro level, more and more experts begin to suspect the relationship between human activities, i.e., greenhouse gas emissions in this context, and natural disasters as witnessing more devastating and frequent hurricanes in the USA and typhoons in Hong Kong and the Philippines.[v] The intermeshing of natural and human-made disasters is common across countries in both the Global North and South, regardless of the national wealth that a nation possesses.


To decouple the anthropogenic contribution from devastating natural forces, approaches are necessary at every level. Particularly for the macro-level climate change mitigation and disaster risk reduction, international communities are increasingly aware of the importance of cooperation and shared responsibilities. Although it often turns out to be highly political games, the Paris Agreement in climate change which was adopted in 2015 is a giant step forward for such international engagement. Each country voluntarily takes the burden of emissions reduction based on a national goal. The Philippines, the most disaster-prone country next to Vanuatu and Tonga, has been at the forefront of the climate talks and the reduction commitment.[vi] Although the country’s global carbon emissions share is less than one percent, it aims to reduce its emissions by 70 percent by 2030.[vii] In a similar way, Indonesia, the world’s fifth largest emitter, targets 29–41 percent reduction by 2030.[viii] There has been growing awareness of the linkage between climate change and natural disasters, albeit at an early stage compared with its archipelagic neighbor.[ix] To be fair, however, this different level of awareness might come from the country’s natural disaster landscapes: more geological and geomorphological events such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruption that are presumably ‘loosely’ connected with climate change.[x] [xi]


Further at the local and national level, we easily see a strong belief in modern tools and techniques for disaster preparedness, mitigation and management in practice. These tools and techniques include engineering solutions such as forecasting and early warning systems and mega infrastructure projects based on remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS)-based modeling and mapping.[xii] The river ‘normalization’ for flood mitigation in Jakarta is an example. The state has driven river normalization as a means of separating or alleviating human-made effects from seasonal flooding.[xiii] Many kampung residents who illegally occupy riverbank land are thus often considered as attributable to river pollution and stagnant flow that worsen floods, or at best, as poor flood victims who have to be relocated to non-flood-prone areas.[xiv] As a consequence, the state’s modern approaches to managing floods in Jakarta (and also in Manila, the Philippines in a very similar context) end up with “river clearance in terms of fixed distances” drawn from geographical tools.[xv] River normalization may succeed in reducing the frequency and severity of flooding but may also engender new anthropogenic risks: for example, forced eviction — where and how do those displaced survive? This human risk can happen not only to flooding but other types of disasters, including volcanic eruption, earthquakes, tsunamis and sea-level rise. It was already the case, and still ongoing, since the Merapi eruption.[xvi] As sociologists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck warn, new risks are ‘manufactured’ by modernization processes to cope with external risks in the risk society.[xvii][xviii]


What our current technical interventions in reducing and preventing natural disasters on the architectural, urban planning and civil engineering sides are often missing are localized mitigation and ‘adaption’ practices. Against floods, kampung communities operate an early warning system and build up upper floors for evacuation purpose, often shared with neighbors.[xix] Through her fieldwork in Jakarta, a Dutch anthropologist Roanne van Voorst finds that kampung residents ‘normalize’ not the river itself  (in contrast to the desire of the state) but the uncertainty of their lives both behaviorally and psychologically.[xx] Residents near Mountain Merapi regard volcanic eruption as a life cycle and possess the local wisdom to evacuate as well as reconstruct their homes with locally available and sustainable materials.[xxi] Settlers in Simeulue island, Aceh Province, have inherited their indigenous knowledge of tsunami warning through the Smong story over a century thus could minimize the impact from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis.[xxii] How to accommodate the humanistic adaptive and resilient capacity mentioned above into our regulatory and governance system will pave the way towards our disaster-proof future.

Written by Jaehyeon Park, CfDS UGM Visiting Research Fellow


[i] The Jakarta Post. (2018, October 22). Central Sulawesi quake, tsunami inflicted US$911 million in losses: Govt. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[ii] The Jakarta Post. (2018, September 28). Tsunami warning in Central Sulawesi revoked after wave subsided: BMKG. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[iii] The New York Times. (2018, October 16). Nature cursed Indonesia, but it took neglect to make a disaster. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[iv] The New York Times. (2018, October 16). Nature cursed Indonesia, but it took neglect to make a disaster. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[v] South China Morning Post. (2017, November 10). Are natural disasters man-made? It’s hard to deny when the effects of climate change are all around us. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[vi] The Washington Post. (2013, November 12). This map shows why the Philippines is so vulnerable to climate change. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[vii] Sunstar Philippines. (2017, November 18). Mitigation, a priority for Philippines in climate talks. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[viii] Wijaya, Arief, Hanny Chrysolite, Mengpin Ge, Clorinda Kurnia Wibowo, Almo Pradana, Andhyta Firselly Utami, and Kemen Austin. (2017). How can Indonesia achieve its climate change mitigation goal? An analysis of potential emissions reductions from energy and land-use policies. World Resources Institute Working Paper. Washington DC: World Resources Institute. Accessed from

[ix] Disaster preparedness and resiliency: Indonesia. Give2Asia website. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[x] McGuire, Bill. (2012). Waking the giant: How a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xi] The Guardian. (2016, October 16). How climate change triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[xii] Jha, Madan Kumar (Ed). (2009). Natural and anthropogenic disasters: Vulnerability, preparedness and mitigation. London: Springer-Verlag.

[xiii] Yarina, Lizzie. (2018). Your sea wall won’t save you. Places Journal. Accessed April 1, 2018 from

[xiv] Warta Kota. (2017, November 16). Sudah saatnya Anies-Sandi cari alternatif normalisasi tanpa mengorbankan warga. Accessed March 5, 2018 from

[xv] Yarina, Lizzie. (2018). Your sea wall won’t save you. Places Journal. Accessed April 1, 2018 from

[xvi] UNISDR PreventionWeb. (2014, May 1). Reducing the volcano risk in Indonesia. Accessed November 5, 2018 from

[xvii] Beck, Ulrich. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. New Delhi: Sage.

[xviii] Giddens, Anthony. (1999). Risk and responsibility. Modern Law Review, 62(1), 1-10.

[xix] Padawangi, Rita. (2014). Humanistic planning and urban flood disaster governance in Southeast Asia: Metro Manila and Jakarta. Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 228. Singapore: National University of Singapore. Accessed from

[xx] van Voorst, Roanne. (2016). Natural hazards, risk and vulnerability: Floods and slum life in Indonesia. Abingdon; New York: Routledge.

[xxi] Sinaga, Marsen. (2017). Belejar bersama ArkomJogja: Pengorganisasian rakyat & hal-hal yang belum selesai. Yogyakarta: Insist Press; ArkomJogja.

[xxii] Rahman, Alfi, Aiko Sakurai, and Khairul Munadi. (2018). The analysis of the development of the Smong story on the 1907 and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis in strengthening the Simeulue island community's resilience. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction29, 13-23.