3.7. Why do people live in hazardous areas?

Remember that a hazard is something that has the potential to give rise to a dangerous situation. While a risk is a measure of exactly how dangerous a hazard might in a particular situation. So wherever there is a hazard, then a risk assessment needs to be done to (a) measure the size of the risk and (b) try to find ways to reduce it.

But it should be noted that not all places that have hazardous environments are heavily populated. In some places where volcanoes and earthquakes and storms brew, the population density is very low. But in many places, where natural hazards in one or more forms occur with varying frequency, people appear to go on living there and in quite large numbers. Why? It must be the pluses far outweigh the minuses.
Just look at the evidence:



What do we need to look at to decide why?

People make decisions on the basis of :

Physical/ environmental – how often will I be at risk? The climate is good (warm enough and wet enough), soil is fertile, the natural resources for fishing, farming are there to make a good living
Human/social – the family has always lived there, there is a community, work, it is a pleasant place to be, do not have a choice or do not see themselves as having one, lack of education to do other work. There are things that can be done to reduce the risk
Economic – work, from farming, tourism maybe, fishing, it is where property is owned.

The physical environment

Exactly how hazardous is the environment? Does the volcano, earthquake or tropical storm occur very often? In most cases the answer to this is no.
High category storms rarely hit the same place more than once every 10 years. For example the most serious incident before Cyclone Sidr was in 1991, which was also a category 4 (it has no name as this was before cyclones had names)
Serious earthquakes can be even less frequent. For example, the highly unstable San Andreas Fault had an earthquake in 1906 but did not have another serious one until 1989.
Volcanoes are even more variable. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991. But before that it was more than 600 years since its last eruption
So it would appear that in many cases, the danger is something that is likely to occur sometime, but if life is sufficiently attractive in the meanwhile, the population is likely to take advantage of the good times.
Alternatively, because they are infrequent, the affects may not be really understood, especially in poor areas with inadequate education.
If the other conditions are good, the climate the soil, the natural resources then they more likely to stay as the advantages far out weight the disadvantages

The Human and social conditions

Often the family has lived there for generations and maybe has never suffered a major disaster. Family is important in many communities. The elderly need to be cared for and would not move so the younger generations feel bound to stay.
The community holds many advantages and work is there. The skills gained may not be transferable to other places.
Perceptions are important in a social context. Many people feel they are not able to move – regardless of the reality. Maybe they can make their community safer over time, and so will not need to move?

The economic environment

If people own land in a particular place and depend upon it to feed themselves and their family, this is a pull to stay, as this cannot be transplanted. There could be good fishing or a growing tourist industry which offers money and security.

There must be advantages other advantages

The advantages of living near volcanoes:

The soil is excellent. Lava breaks down over time to produce the most fertile soil on earth. e.g. around Vesuvius where much of Italy’s tomato crop is grown.
Along plate edges, geothermal power is often a cheap and clean source of power – e.g. Iceland
Usually, there are sufficient signs to move to safer places, so while property could be as risk, increasing people are less so, e.g. Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 was the 2nd largest eruption in the 20th century but only 300 died because of mass evacuation of the area.
Tourism is a strong pull, e.g. in Uganda, a country trying hard to increase its tourist industry, the volcanic region around Mt Elgon is being heavily promoted for it's landscape, huge waterfalls, wildlife, climbing and hiking and its remote 'get away from it all' location.

The advantages of living in earthquake zones:

Along plate edges, geothermal power is often a cheap and clean source of power – e.g. Iceland
Many earthquake areas are close to the coast – the climate is good, fishing and farming are easy.
Many of these places like Japan get daily earthquakes and they have learnt to deal with them. They cause little or no damage as they adjust building methods for example.
The big ones are very infrequent – 1906 and 1989 in San Francisco, so people believe they can manage.

The advantages of living in areas subject to cyclonic storms:

These are close to the coast – the climate is good, fishing and farming are easy.
Transport links tend to be good and the flat land near the coast is a good place to build towns and cities.
With modern technology, there should be enough time to evacuate areas in danger (although as with Katrina the right choices are not always made), so while danger to property and services are still at risk, the danger to life should be much reduced.

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