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Are disasters inherent risks?

by Hugh Cortazzi

The recent Soma mining disaster in Turkey led to the death of more than 300 miners. A number of mining executives have been detained on suspicion of negligence. The Turkish government has been criticized for not enforcing safety standards in Turkish mines.

The South Korean Sewol ferry disaster caused the death of more than 300 people mainly school children. The captain and many of the crew have been arrested and face charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has disbanded the coast guard and criticized the crew.

Malaysian Airline flight MH370 disappeared with a loss of almost 250 lives, the majority Chinese. In the absence of any debris it is impossible to discover what caused it to disappear. Nothing suggests that the aircraft’s disappearance was due to natural phenomena. The assumption must, therefore, be that its disappearance was the result of either some criminal act or possibly the failure of machinery as a result of faults in maintenance or manufacture.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013 led to the death of more than 1,100 people. The owners of the building, which housed a garment factory, were largely responsible for this tragedy, but demand from developed countries for cheap textiles and the failure of clothing companies to insist on proper standards was a factor.

Criminal negligence cannot be condoned and those who take actions that put lives at risk or who fail to deal adequately with threats to safety must be held responsible and dealt with under the laws of their countries.

Man-made disasters such as these do have an international dimension.

The international dimension is particularly significant in the mass murders committed by terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is also a major factor in civil wars — such as those in Syria and southern Sudan — that have caused many more deaths than have occurred as a result of the horrific natural disasters that have struck the world in recent years.

Natural disasters such as the recent Haiyan typhoon, which led to more than 6,000 deaths and huge destruction of property, can rarely be clearly forecast and can cause greater suffering than man-made disasters other than armed conflicts. But the devastation and loss of life they cause can be compounded by human error and negligence. Japan’s sufferings as a result of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami were exacerbated by bureaucratic failings and coverups.

Many risks are outside the control of any single government and can only be dealt with through multilateral agreements and action. Air pollution in Japanese cities is now far less severe than in Chinese cities: Chinese air pollution as a result of winds and other climatic factors inevitably spreads to Japan.

Climate change and global warming will have a greater impact on some countries than on others, but all will be affected to some extent.

We must expect that torrential rains, hurricanes and typhoons will increase in frequency and intensity. Apart from the physical damage these will cause, agricultural production is likely to suffer in some countries.

Malthusian predictions about population growth may have been wrong, but the current world population of more than 7 billion is likely to rise to more than 8 billion by 2025. To feed this population, agricultural productivity will have to be increased at a time when it is being affected by natural disasters.

China’s one-child policy may have put a brake on population growth, but it has left it with an aging population and an excessive number of males over females.

Nuclear accidents can affect distant countries, as Britain and other European countries discovered after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Food and fish can become contaminated and consumption of contaminated products can affect human health.

Diseases know no frontiers. AIDS may have started in Africa, but quickly spread to developed countries. So-called Spanish flu probably killed almost as many people as died in fighting in World War I. Another such pandemic is quite possible.

The international dimensions of disasters call for international responses. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),established in 1863, was one of the first international organizations with a remit outside national boundaries. The United Nations also runs organizations such as the U.N. Food Program, which addresses hunger and promotes food security. Multinational organizations need to be expanded and provided with more resources.

National plans to cope with natural disasters need to be revised to take account of climate change. In Britain the floods of last winter made many homes uninhabitable and caused huge damage. Drainage, flood and coastal defenses need strengthening.

Road accidents cause more than a million deaths world wide each year. People injured on the roads inevitably strain medical and hospital facilities. The safety of roads and vehicles calls for continuous improvements.

Poor hygiene and inadequate control of ingredients pose another threat. Children can suffer serious injury through inadequate safeguards in schools.

Risks are inherent in everyday life and it is not possible to ensure a totally risk-free environment. Some people in Britain think that “health and safety regulations” to cope with such problems have been taken too far and are being used to curb the spirit of adventure in the young. But current measures worldwide to cope with disasters and threats to human life and safety are inadequate.

Individual governments, for whom the basic guiding principle must be the sanctity of human life, must decide what proportion of the limited resources available should be allocated to the competing demands for resources.

In reaching their decisions, they need to be always aware of the international dimension of most disasters.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.