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Human-induced disasters

A number of major accidents involving chemicals and radioactive materials have drawn attention worldwide to the dangers of mismanagement, particularly in the transport, chemical and nuclear power sectors. These events often have impacts that transcend national boundaries; they also emphasize the fact that issues of technological safety concern more than just the developed countries.

The 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey

On 17 August 1999, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.4-7.8 on the Richter scale hit the city of Izmit, Turkey, and the surrounding areas. Damage from the earthquake was estimated at more than US$13 billion. More than 15 000 people were killed, 25 000 others were injured and 600 000 people were left homeless. The earthquake was blamed for increasing the national account deficit of some US$3 billion in 1999-2000 (equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of the GNP).

A significant part of the damage could have been avoided had local building codes been effectively implemented. Many new buildings had not been properly designed, had not been built on foundations strong enough to resist earthquakes, and had not been sited in areas where the effects of earthquakes would have been diminished.

Source: ISDR 1999


Apartment block split in two by the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey

Source: Alexander Allmann, Munich Re

Some disasters have resulted in the introduction of voluntary or mandatory regulations designed to prevent similar occurrences. Public concern following the explosion in 1976 at a pesticide plant in Seveso, Italy, with the release of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-pdioxin (TCDD), led to the introduction in 1982 of a European Directive on the major-accident hazards of certain industrial activities. Similarly, other major accidents, such as the methyl isocyanate leak at Bhopal, India, in 1984 and the Switzerland-Sandoz warehouse fire in Basel in 1989, stimulated legislation in many countries to prevent and control chemical incidents. Influenced by the Bhopal accident, in particular, the International Labour Office developed in 1993 the Convention Concerning the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents No. 174 and the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Recommendation No. 181. These documents call for an international exchange of relevant information, development of policies aimed at addressing the major accident risks, hazards and their consequences, and recognition that a major accident could have serious impacts on human life and the environment. Major nuclear accidents such as those at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and at Chernobyl in 1986 have not only catalysed action to strengthen nuclear safety and emergency preparedness but also forced many countries to abandon or severely restrict development of the nuclear power sector. Following the Chernobyl accident, two major international treaties were adopted - the Convention on Assistance in the Case of Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency and the Convention on the Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident. Most recently, the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety, committing parties to a higher level of nuclear safety, and the 1997 joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management were adopted.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska resulted in enormous environmental and economic damages and catalysed the development of the 'Valdez Principles' - a voluntary code of conduct for corporate behaviour towards the environment - by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economics (CERES). The 'Valdez Principles' guide corporations in the establishment of environmentally sound policies and require the raising of corporate environmental safety standards and the taking of responsibility for environmental harm that may be caused by them (Adams 1994).