Technological hazards: From risk reduction to recovery

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Chernobyl exclusion zone in the town of Prypiat, Ukraine. Most of the Chernobyl-affected areas suffer from high unemployment and poverty, while residents suffer from victim syndrome, a dependency culture, and lack the information. Photo: UNDP in Ukraine

This past December marked the 30th Anniversary of the Bhopal disaster—3,000 people were killed and another 170,000 injured when a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked chemical substances into the air. Regarded by many as one of history’s worst industrial accidents, Bhopal remains a horrific reminder of risks we continue to face today in an ever-industrializing world.

According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 192 technological disasters were reported worldwide in 2013.  Technological hazards are expected to grow as urbanization and industrialization spread, and as climate change brings increasingly unpredictable threats to technological infrastructure.

To date, no global agreement is in place for preventing and preparing for technological disasters. While there are a number of regional and sectoral frameworks, as well as mechanisms and policies to address various types of technological disasters, we lack an overarching framework that is equipped to address the sheer complexity of issues and diversity of actors involved.

The post-2015 framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) offers a unique opportunity to address precisely this, and it gives us a real opportunity to strengthen national coordination and legislative frameworks, and to expand the capacities of all stakeholders for all risks, including technological ones.

If a global framework is to be both truly comprehensive and relevant to today’s technological disaster threats, the following have to be addressed:

  • We Must Improve Risk Assessments: Methodologies, tools, and guidelines for multi-hazard risk assessments that incorporate both natural and technological hazards should be developed, refined and disseminated. It is important to not only focus on the hazards themselves, but also the implications of socioeconomic and environmental vulnerabilities.
  • We Must Strengthen Coordination, Governance and Legislation: Technological accident prevention should be made a political priority by national governments by including technological hazards into national DRR frameworks and associated risk mitigation actions, such as land-use planning, plant and process designs, and skills training.
  • We Must Ensure the Availability of Public Information and Promote Community Engagement: Operational procedures need to be pre-designed, logistics pre-placed and easy-to-understand instructions shared with local communities to ensure they understand the risks and actions required in the case of an emergency (especially when they are left without effective communication).
  • We Must Improve Preparedness for Response and Recovery: Regional response mechanisms and partnerships can offer a good complement to national preparedness efforts, and the involvement of industries themselves should be mandatory.
  • We Must Engage the Private Sector: Business and industry have an indisputable role in shaping sustainable industrial development. In additional to regulation compliance and accident prevention, businesses are now increasingly realising the benefits they stand to gain from a more proactive risk management and corporate social responsibility policy.

Though it happened over thirty years ago, the Bhopal accident is by no means a relic of the past. The disaster had the impact it did because a highly hazardous industrial site was located near densely populated residential areas.  Today, chemical production in developing countries is rising, hazardous industries continue to cluster, and industrial areas continue to attract housing and business. Bhopal is a warning we need to heed today, a spur to ensure better collaboration between industry, municipal governments and community members.