Incident vs Disaster

We often hear words of ‘incident’ and ‘disaster’ in daily conversation or articles on mass media. Some of us perhaps have question what the difference between those two words is, moreover there is a word ‘catastrophe’ that often being heard in a context of disaster management. In this article, some explanations about the difference of the words are reviewed in the context of disaster management in Indonesia.

In a Dictionary of Indonesian Language (Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia), the word of ‘incident’ has a meaning an event (particularly that is less important in the connection of other bigger event) or an occurrence, whereas in the Oxford Dictionaries, ‘incident’ or insiden means an event or occurrence. Meanwhile, the word ‘disaster’ in the Dictionary of Indonesia Language refers an event that causes distress, loss, or suffering.


One thing that is interesting in the context of disaster management in Indonesia, there is no use of word ‘incident’ in explaining related with an event or an occurrence that causes losses or suffering. However, in articles of mass media, we still find use of the word ‘incident.’ If we look closer the definition of ‘disaster’ in Laws Number 24 of 2007 on Disaster Management, the word ‘disaster’ means an event or serial events that threats and disrupt life and people’s livelihood that caused by natural, non-natural, and man-made factors and afterwards triggered numbers of victims, environmental damage, property losses and psychological impacts.

In addition to the definition of ‘disaster’ in the context of Indonesia, the word does not describe about size of impact and intensity, such as the word of flood disaster not only impacts on some houses in neighborhood association (RT); it will not same with the use of flood disaster inundates thousands of houses in some regencies.


It is interesting to review; the Laws does not mention about what the ‘incident’ is. So whatever the terminology related with ‘incident’ with the meaning as described in the Laws will be mentioned as ‘disaster.’

This is different with in the United States. If we see the document of National Incident Management System (NIMS), the word ‘incident’ which refers as ‘incident’ has a meaning an occurrence, natural or man-made, that necessitates a response to protect life or property.

The NIMS document mentions that the ‘incident’ refers to an occurrence that is planned events as well as emergencies and/or disasters of all kinds and sizes. In the document, the word ‘disaster’ is used for incidents such as forest fire, earthquake, tornado, flood, and situations of several incidents that have occurred nearby.


On the other hand, in the context of disaster management in Indonesia, we rarely encounter the use of the word ‘catastrophe’ which refers to a major disaster. Just as in the United States, they also do not specifically use the word, ‘catastrophe.’ The phrase ‘major disaster’ in Indonesian Dictionary means a disaster that devastates the building and the natural surroundings, causing many losses, while the word ‘catastrophe’ means 1) major catastrophes that come suddenly, (2) rapid and sudden changes to the surface of the earth; natural disasters.

In the context of disaster management in Indonesia, event or occurrence that refers to the definition of disaster in Law Number 24 of 2007 as ‘disaster’. The use of the word ‘incident’ or ‘catastrophe’ is almost rarely used or encountered in documents or statements by local authorities. However, these two words are still encountered in mass media articles in Indonesia.

Regardless of the different meanings and usages in the context of disaster management, we can add to the knowledge of the meaning of two words ‘incidents’ and ‘disasters,’ in addition to the language dictionaries and regulations that apply. Here are some of the different definitions related to some terminology, not only in ‘incidents’ and ‘disasters,’ but also ‘major incidents’ and ‘catastrophic’ from Partly and Tieney in a book entitled Disaster Management- International Lessons in Risk Reduction, Response and Recovery (2014).

Definition Incidents Major Incidents Disasters Catastrophes
Size of impact Very localised Fully or partially localised Widespread and severe Extremely large in the physical and social sphere
Size of response Local resources used Mainly local resources used, with some mutual assistance from nearby areas Intergovernmental, multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional response needed Major national and international resource and coordination are required
Plans and procedures activated Standard operating procedures used Standard operating procedures used; emergency plans may be activated Disaster or emergency plans activated Disaster or emergency plans activated, but huge challenges may overwhelm them
Impact on response resources needed for response Local resources will probably be sufficient Local resources and some outside resources needed Extensive damage to resources in disaster area; major inter-regional transfers of resources Local and regional emergency response systems paralyzed and in need of much outside help
Involvement of public in response Public generally not involved in response Public largely not involved in response Public extensively involved in response Public overwhelmingly involved in response
Challenges to post-event recovery No significant challenges to recovery Few challenges to recovery processes Major challenges to recovery for disaster Massive challenges and significant long-term effects





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