Why it's time for a global agreement on preventing technological disasters

Mike Weightman, who leads a fact-finding team from the International Atomic Energy Association, assesses damage caused by the tsunami to the Reactor Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. There is currently no global agreement in place to prevent and prepare for technological disasters. Photo by: Greg Webb / IAEA / CC BY-SA

An expected 8,000 people will take part next week, March 14-18, in a historic World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. A fitting location — this month marks the fourth anniversary since the Fukushima nuclear meltdown reminded the world of the threat posed by technological disaster.

We will be joining government officials, scientists and global leaders as we grapple with finding practical ways for countries to build resilience to disaster.

In the shadow of Fukushima, we will look at a growing but often neglected hazard demanding our renewed attention: the threat posed by technological disasters like chemical accidents, nuclear emergencies and transport accidents with hazardous materials.

According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, more than 1,000 technological disasters were reported worldwide since 2010. These numbers will grow with urbanization, expanding industrialization, climate change, the intensity of storms, sea-level rise and the effect of melting permafrost.

While focused health care programs and monitoring of radiation or other fallout are needed in the immediate aftermath of technological disasters, so too are efforts that minimize deep-rooted and long-lasting human, societal, economic and environmental consequences of these incidents.

Our experience from Europe and Central Asia in tackling the human consequences of nuclear disasters is all the more relevant today. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986 caused widespread radioactive contamination in areas that are now part of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands were uprooted, and millions were left psychologically traumatized by lingering fears about health and their prospects for work.

Decades of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk in Eastern Kazakhstan, have had severe humanitarian, social, economic and environmental effects. Similar challenges exist in Central Asia, where uranium tailings from abandoned mines are often located close to densely populated areas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Effective recovery from disasters goes far beyond cleaning up infrastructure. It also means helping communities pick up the pieces of shattered lives of the survivors. This human side of recovery has certain characteristics that run through nearly all disasters, including technological ones.

In the short term, people need information on the risks and impacts, as well as psychological support and counseling to ease fears of radiation, anxiety, helplessness and feeling of abandonment.

In the longer term, the needs of communities are best addressed by providing means to generate economic and social opportunities that restore self-confidence and adopt a forward-looking mentality.

Promotion of activism and self-help attitudes can counter the “victim mentality” and culture of dependency that arises in these circumstances.

To avoid the affected territories being stigmatized and treated as “dirty and contaminated,” targeted efforts to support marketing, create employment opportunities, and concerted efforts to keep young people in the region are necessary.

Assistance to affected communities should start early and aim to minimize the disruption of people’s normal lives as much as possible. The concerns about lack of information, resettlement, and social benefits come into play immediately after a disaster occurs. Long-term challenges, such as psychological impacts, stigma of the territory and restoration of job opportunities can be minimized if appropriate action starts in the period of early recovery.

This weekend’s World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan is tasked with adopting a post-2015 framework for reducing risk to disasters. To date, there is no global agreement in place to prevent and prepare for technological disasters. Now is the time to address this shortcoming if a new global framework is to be truly comprehensive and relevant to today’s disaster threats.

Such a framework should drive home the need to improve risk assessments and guidelines for both natural and technological hazards. It should urge national governments and international partners to make their work on disaster risk reduction comprehensive by including technological hazards. It should call for public information and community engagement for better preparation for technical disasters. Furthermore, business and industry must command an indisputable role in preventing technical accidents and complying with relevant regulations.

A nuclear legacy in Europe and Central Asia has provided valuable historical insights as to how to handle some of the human consequences of such disasters, and improve recovery programs to get people’s lives back on track. What is further needed is a global agreement to prevent and prepare for these kinds of technological disasters. The Sendai conference is just the place to start.

What’s your take on including technological disasters prevention and preparation in the new disaster risk reduction framework? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the authors

  • Cihan Sultanoğlu

    Cihan Sultanoğlu is assistant administrator and director of the Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States at U.N. Development Program. In her more than 30 years with UNDP, she has held a variety of positions at its headquarters, as well as in Asia, Africa and the Arab states.
  • Rastislav Vrbensky

    Rastislav Vrbensky is the manager of the U.N. Development Program regional hub for Europe and the CIS in Istanbul. Prior to this, he has been assigned in Montenegro, Tajikistan, Serbia and in his home country Slovakia. Before joining UNDP, he worked for the Slovak government and an international NGO. He holds a doctorate in development studies from Comenius University in Bratislava.