Technological disasters are typically defined as events caused by the malfunctioning of a technological structure and/or some human error in controlling or handling the technology. One of the oldest recorded technological disasters is the collapse of the Marib Dam in Yemen 570 AD. The event, which is alluded to in the Qur’an, led to the migration of an estimated fifty thousand persons to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, bringing an end to the then existing regional civilization. Dam breaches have remained a major source of technological disasters. The collapse of the Banqiao Dam and connected structures in southern Henan, China, following a period of unusually heavy rainfall in 1975 is said to have led to 171,000 deaths—potentially the deadliest technological disaster on record. Another major source of technological disasters is explosions. One of the earliest recorded industrial incidents of this kind is the 1626 explosion of the Wanggongchang Gunpowder factory, Beijing, which killed an estimated twenty thousand people. Again, explosions have remained a major cause of industrial disasters. The Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 started with a runaway exothermic reaction, which led to a leak that caused the release of forty metric tons of toxic methyl isocyanate over the capital of Madhya Pradesh, India. The state’s government confirms 3,787 deaths, but some researchers suggest a figure of around eight thousand. The emergence of nuclear power in the 20th century has added a new dimension to technological disasters. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident of 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine, led to thirty-one immediate fatalities, including twenty-nine firemen dying from acute radiation exposure. The WHO estimates long-term deaths at four thousand, while radiation scientists provide estimates as high as thirty to sixty thousand. The accident site now is part of a 2,600-square-kilometre exclusion zone. The 2011 Fukushima, Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan represents an example of a hybrid disaster where a natural catastrophe—in this case an earthquake and tsunami—disabled the cooling system of three reactors. No immediate radiation deaths were recorded, but the subsequent evacuation resulted in sixteen hundred fatalities. Compared to natural disasters, technological and hybrid disasters appear to be harder to predict and more difficult to classify, with discussions on causes and consequences being often politicized and contentious. The Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents has promoted cooperation between European countries, before, during and after disasters since 2000, and represents the first international agreement of this kind.
Classificatory and Conceptual Frameworks
The lines between technological, hybrid and natural disasters can be difficult to draw. Most authors would classify the 1975 Banqiao Dam breach as a technological disaster, although the collapse was triggered by unusual rainfall, suggesting that there was an element of hybridity to this incident. Conversely the 2005 flooding of New Orleans that caused 1,464 deaths is often described as a natural disaster, though, the insufficiency of flood defenses, existing land-use patterns, and incident mismanagement were major contributors to adverse outcomes. Within the broad category of technological and hybrid disasters, further distinctions have been drawn between: (a) civilian and military disasters; (b) peacetime and wartime disasters; (c) leisure and industrial disasters; and (d) low- and high-tech disasters, to name a few. The classification of humanitarian disasters, civil wars, and acts of terrorism in this context is also not entirely clear, as outcomes can be affected by technology and technological infrastructure. The category of industrial disasters typically refers to major incidents occurring in production facilities. Lastly, there are several partially overlapping meso-level classifications, with some authors categorizing disasters according to root causes such as explosion, structural failure, design flaw (other than structural failure), and fires. Others, meanwhile, focus on industry sectors such as defense, energy, food, industrial manufacturing (other than military), mining, and transport. Shaluf 2007 presents a useful expanded version of the traditional classification of disasters as natural, technological, and hybrid. Baum, et al. 1983 as well as Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985 provide a now-classical analysis of the specific characteristics of technological disasters as compared to natural catastrophes. The validity of this classification is questioned by Dalby 2017, which suggests that the notion of a pure natural disaster as compared to technological or human-made disasters has lost validity due to the expansion of human activity in the Anthropocene, while Dominey-Howes 2018 further examines the implications of the concept of the Anthropocene for disaster research. Dekker 2017 examines the emergence of Western thinking on disasters management in general and highlights how this has come to be understood as a technical problem. Ramli, et al. 2014 provides a Qur’anic perspective on disaster prevention and management that emphasizes communitarian and religious aspects. Perry 2018 summarizes key milestones in disaster writing, while Beck and Kewell 2014 provides a detailed account of the interplay of technological disaster, political discourse, and policymaking.
Baum, A., R. Fleming, and L. M. Davidson. 1983. Natural disaster and technological catastrophe. Environment and Behavior 15: 333–354.
This now-classical article suggests that the effects of technological disasters tend to be more long term, affecting people beyond the point of impact—and therefore pose different types of threat than natural disasters.
Beck, M., and B. Kewell. 2014. Risk: A study of Its origins, history and politics. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.
The book emphasizes the role of historical contingency, power, and vested interests in shaping our thinking about (and responses to) technological disasters and near-disasters.
Couch, S. R., and J. S. Kroll-Smith. 1985. The chronic technical disaster: Toward a social scientific perspective. Social Science Quarterly 66.3: 564–575.
An early comparison of technical and natural disasters argues that, apart from containing high levels of human/technological involvement, the former are longer in duration and therefore more likely to trigger conflict.
Dalby, S. 2017. Anthropocene formations: Environmental security, geopolitics and disaster. Theory, Culture & Society 34.2–3: 233–252.
This important advanced conceptual article argues that the idea of an external environment that underpins notions of natural disasters can no longer be taken for granted, because human environments are actively and drastically being reshaped in the Anthropocene.
Dekker, S. 2017. The end of heaven: Disaster and suffering in a scientific age. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
This advanced book explores concepts of disaster within the context of Western religion, philosophy, and politics. It argues that the scientific age has fostered a view where death resulting from natural or man-made problems is understood as a technical problem.
Dominey-Howes, D. 2018. Hazards and disasters in the Anthropocene: Some critical reflections for the future. Geoscience Letters 5.7: 1–15.
This article discusses emerging concepts of disaster with a focus on the Anthropocene and slow emergencies.
Perry, R. W. 2018. Defining disaster: An evolving concept. In Handbook of disaster research. 3–22. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
This chapter provides a scholarly history of the concept of disaster. It distinguishes three phases of intellectual development that are described as the classical period, the hazards-disaster tradition, and the recent emphasis on disasters as social phenomena.
Ramli, A., M. Mokhtar, and B. A. Aziz. 2014. Revisiting the concept of development, disaster and safety management: The Quranic perspective. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 9: 26–37.
Drawing on a wide literature, this article maps out an Islamic perspective on industrial disaster and safety management, which draws on the tripartite concepts of viceregency, cooperation for righteousness and consultation.
Shaluf, I. M. 2007. An overview on disasters. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal 16.5: 687–703.
This article discusses the classification of disasters into the three types: natural, man-made, and hybrid. It proposes the additional category of subsequent disasters, which can result from a natural or man-made disaster.
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