|The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)|
|1 Improving community responses to industrial disasters|
Recent studies by the American think-tank Resources for the Future and the Swiss Reinsurance Company suggest that at least 10,000 people are killed each year in major industrial accidents and that insured losses are in the vicinity of US$5 billion annually.4,5 The losses are increasing. In 1970, comparable figures were around 1,000 deaths with insured losses of US$1 billion (Marbacher 1990; Glickman, Golding, and Silverman 1992). However, these figures merely hint at the magnitude of the problem. The complete burden of industrial hazard and disaster is undoubtedly much larger. No comprehensive data on global losses have been compiled, and available figures mainly pertain to acute and intensive events. They do not report uninsured losses, or delayed losses associated with acute events, or losses due to chronic industrial pollution such as that which has affected places like Minamata, Japan.
Minamata's experience with industrial disaster has been long and painful (Ellis 1989; Minamata City and Kumamoto Prefecture 1988). It is now 60 years since methyl mercury compounds were first released from an industrial plant in the city and more than 40 years since Minamata Bay became a disposal location. A few years later, the symptoms of Minamata disease were first publicly reported and it has been almost 30 years since scientists identified its causes and aetiology. The community is still living through - and coping with - the aftermath of those events. Thousands of people have been identified as victims and thousands more seek official designation. Lives have been burdened by physical disfigurements and impaired functioning or cut short by premature death. Ecosystems have been contaminated, and local food supplies have been quarantined. The community's economic base and the livelihoods of its people have been eroded. There have been deep disagreements about the allocation of blame and about appropriate restitution and countermeasures. Anxiety and mistrust have taken root in private lives and public discourse. Decision-making has been marked by protests, riots, and protracted legal disputes as well as by attempts at mediation and reconciliation. Citizen action groups have emerged to press disparate agendas, and new public institutions have been established to provide a permanent capacity for studying, managing, and memorializing the disaster. In the process, Minamata's identity has become inextricably bound up with the disease, both in the minds of its own residents and in the eyes of the outside world. Recovery continues but many uncertainties remain: the end of this disaster is not yet in sight!
Unfortunately, Minamata is only one entry in a growing list of places that have been grievously affected by industrial disasters. Others include Bhopal, Chernobyl, Seveso, and Times Beach.6 Moreover, it is not just specific communities that are affected: whole regions - the coalfields of Silesia, the oilstained shores of Prince William Sound, and the acid precipitation-damaged forests of south Germany - have been stigmatized by chronic releases of industrial effluents or by sudden catastrophic accidents involving industrial products (World Resources Institute 1992). In some cases, impacts more extreme than Minamata's have been recorded. The Kyshtym district of Russia provides a particularly chilling example that involved nuclear wastes - albeit most probably from military sources rather than civilian industries. Here, an area of about 1,500 square kilometres in the southern Ural Mountains is devoid of human occupation and most signs of life. Until 1957 it was home to about 200,000 people but most of the old settlements are now empty and large signs posted along nearby roads urge travellers not to stop in the vicinity. More than 30 years after soils, lakes, streams, vegetation, and animal life were contaminated by a catastrophic release of improperly stored nuclear wastes, much of the district remains abandoned (Medvedhev 1979). What became officially known in 1989 as "The East Ural Radioactive Trace" is an example of the worst kind of industrial or environmental disaster - one that results in the annihilation of affected communities and the demise or permanent relocation of their residents (Feshbach and Friendly 1992). Fortunately, such cases are still comparatively rare, and, with the reduction in East-West tensions, those that involve military-industrial facilities may be on the decline. The potential for catastrophic disasters associated with high-level civilian nuclear wastes is a continuing problem (New York Times, 5 March 1995). None the less, though deaths, injuries, economic loss, and disruption are attributes of industrial disaster, the bulk of experience suggests that most impacted communities survive and attempt to recover their former vitality.