practical skills and applied knowledge in Security, defense, and risk management

 

What's the difference?

hazard and threat are not the same, but many authorities use them interchangeably

Hazards and threats are the sources of negative risk. The hazard and threat are different states of the same thing: The hazard is the source in a harmless state (such as a river remote to you), and the threat is the source in a harmful state (such as a flood that reaches you). 


Many authorities effectively treat hazards and threats as the same or use the words hazard and threat interchangeably. Some of this favoritism is disciplinary: Natural risks tend to be traced to hazards but not threats, while human risks tend to be traced to threats but not hazards. Effectively, such analysis ignores the transition between hazard and threat. The hazard is in a harmless state with potential to change into a threat; the threat is the same source, except in a harmful state. A threat could be changed into a hazard if it could be manipulated into a harmless state.


The routine conflation of hazard and threat is not satisfactory because it prevents our full differentiation of the harmless and harmful states and confuses our pursuit of the harmless state. For instance, many commentators within the defense and security communities routinely describe “threats” as other countries or groups that are really hazards (because they have not made up their minds to harm or acquired sufficient capabilities to harm), then they escalate to "imminent threat" or "clear and present danger" or even "enemy" to mean a literal threat, having wasted the word "threat" on mere hazards.


Poor analysis and loose language conflate hazard, threat, and risk, but they are separate concepts. The hazards and threats are sources of the risk in the sense that they are the actual actors or agents with the potential to harm, while the risk is the potential harm. For instance, the sources of the uncertain effects of political violence are the people who perpetrate such violence; the people (actors) cause the violence (event) that causes harm (returns). Neither the actors nor the event nor the returns are the same as the risk (the potential harm). 


Sources are important to identify because we instinctively seek to control the uncertainty or returns associated with the risk, in the process neglecting opportunities to terminate the sources. Even the simplest risks are usefully analyzed back to their sources and causes. For instance, a river, as a hazard, is one potential source of a flood; a flood is a threat to lives and property on the flood plain. The risks include potential drownings and potential property damage. If we want to terminate the source of the flood, we would need to prevent the river from ever flooding.


A hazard is a potential, dormant, absent, or contained threat. Hazard and threat are different states of the same thing: The hazard is in a harmless state, the threat in a harmful state. The hazard would do no harm unless it were to change into a threat. For instance, a river is a hazard as long as it does not threaten us, but the river becomes a threat to us when it floods our property, we fall into it, or we drop property into it. As long as we or our property are not in the water, the river remains a hazard to us and not a threat. Hazards become threats when we are coincident with, enable, or activate the harmful state. 


The hazard is the source of the event and of the associated risk, but it is not the same as an event or a risk. The risk is the potential returns if the hazard were to be activated as a threat. For instance, the risks associated with the flood include potential drownings, potential water damage, and potential waterborne diseases—these are all separate things to the threat (the flood).


A threat is an actor or agent in a harmful state. A threat is any actor or agent whose capacity to harm you is not currently avoided, contained, inactive, or deactivated.