Cover Image
close this bookManaging Natural Disasters and the Environment (World Bank, 1991, 232 p.)
close this folderRisk management
View the documentDisaster response: generic or agent-specific?
View the documentIntegrated planning for natural and technological disasters
View the documentEconomic incentives and disaster mitigation
View the documentCoastal zone management
View the documentDisaster insurance in New Zealand
View the documentCase study: reconstruction after North China’s earthquake
View the documentCase study: Nepal Municipal Development and Earthquake Reconstruction Project
View the documentTraining in the Asian-Pacific region
View the documentRemote sensing and technology transfer in developing countries
View the documentCase study: Minas Gerais Forestry Development Project
View the documentCase study: Da Xing An Ling Forest Fire Rehabilitation Project

Integrated planning for natural and technological disasters

Parviz Towfighi

Preparing simultaneously for natural and technological disasters is complex but planning models exist now that make integrated planning easier. Integrated planning involves a shift in emphasis from postdisaster relief to predisaster preparedness; a public education program that gets usable information to the people who should be prepared for disaster and that helps change their attitude from one of indifference or fatalism to one of preparedness; the establishment of early warning systems useful for all disasters; the integration of disaster planning into the mainstream of government decisionmaking; stronger organizations and better coordination of the links between them; better training at all levels; and the increased transfer of technology and knowledge to those at risk. Local media appropriate for disaster communications (especially radio) should be bolstered and local emergency response mechanisms strengthened. Regulation of land use (including the siting and transportation of hazardous materials) should be rationalized internationally as well as locally.

In 1989 a distinguished group of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General under the chairmanship of Dr. Frank Press was asked to prepare a program of activities for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. This group recognized the validity of an integrated approach to disaster preparedness. The agenda it prepared for the Decade included the following priorities:

· A shift in emphasis from postdisaster relief to predisaster preparedness and planning.

· A public education program to shift the public attitude from fatalism to awareness.

· Acceptance of an integrated approach to disaster mitigation.

· The establishment of early warning systems.

· The development of reliable historical databases.

· A reorientation of government thinking to integrate disaster planning into the mainstream of government decisionmaking.

· Improved organizational strength and the training of specialists.

· Increased transfer of technology and knowledge to those at risk, particularly in developing nations (Ad Hoc Group of Experts, UN IDNDR 1989).

The ad hoc group of experts laid the foundation for a system of disaster mitigation that will be developed globally, regionally, and nationally in the 1990s.

“Integrated planning” - which considers technical, technological, physical, economic, social, psychological, organizational, and institutional factors - diners substantially from traditional predisaster planning (which stresses regulatory measures) and disaster management (which is concerned solely with emergency preparedness and management). Does it make sense to combine planning for natural and technological disasters? After all, there are major differences between them. They differ most in predictability, the type of health hazard they entail, and the degree of specialized response they call for. A word, first, about those differences.

Predictability. Most natural disasters, except earthquakes, can be predicted with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Predicting the occurrence of natural phenomena relies heavily on technological systems. Predicting the probability of occurrence of technological disasters is more difficult because machines cannot factor in human error, a significant factor in technological disasters.

Health hazards. Natural disasters can cause casualties, property damage, and certain epidemics, which can be brought under control in a reasonable amount of time. The harmful effects on health of technological disasters tend to last longer and be harder to cope with.

Specialized response. Technological disasters require specialized emergency responses. The community, pulling together, can usually cope with the effects of such natural disasters as earthquakes and floods. A nuclear mishap is different. Dumping 5,000 tons of boron, lead, and other material on the reactor core at Chernobyl required specialized help and absolutely no community participation.

But both types of disaster require certain similar measures for preparedness, emergency response, and postdisaster periods. Early warning systems can be used for both natural and technological disasters, for example. And both require institutional response capabilities, logistical preparedness, community education and training, vulnerability and risk assessment, site evaluations, communications networks, and plans, procedures, and hazard control mechanisms.

Integrated planning

Preparing for natural and technological disaster is complex. Doubts about the feasibility of integrated planning in the 1960s and 1970s stemmed from the inability of existing planning models to relate many variables - especially qualitative and quantitative variables - to each other. The development of complicated models is less of a problem now than it was then. And certain steps are important to planning for both types of disaster. These are described below.


Industries have a great responsibility in preventing disasters. References to industries and disaster usually evoke images of the chemical and nuclear industries - and the preventive role of these industries cannot be overemphasized. But the focus of media and active anti-nuclear groups on technological disasters has obscured the importance of other industries, especially the construction industry, which can greatly reduce loss of life and property when appropriately regulated. Regulatory measures are more strictly observed for chemical industries than for construction.

Chemical industries, especially multinationals in developing countries, ordinarily deal with the central government. As a result, local authorities have little, if any, control over the siting and inspection of facilities or the policing of adherence to safety regulations and standards.

Siting decisions about nuclear power plants in developing countries rest with the central government. Decentralization of decisionmaking is impractical because local authorities lack the expertise needed for planning and control, local communities are unaware of the potential dangers of nuclear power plants, and local media are too weak to make an issue of such developments or to awaken the community about potential problems. As part of integrated planning, a process should be put in motion that will overcome such difficulties at the local level and preparations should be made for partial delegation of decisionmaking to local communities and governments.

Despite much debate about the transfer of technology, appropriate technology, and the adoption of technological safeguards, important technological issues remain unresolved, as they have to do with developing countries’ wishes for technological advancement and their ability to pay for transfer of the most advanced technologies, should barriers to such transfer be removed. A major goal of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction is to ease the transfer to developing countries of advanced technologies that can be used to prevent or mitigate disasters.

Technological disasters that result from the transfer of technology may occur because of the types of technology transferred or because of the recipients’ inability to use them, control them, or make them safe. Human errors play a large part in many technological disasters but so do economics, because budgets affect which technologies are used.


Western telecommunications are so advanced and the developed countries are so used to instant news on world events that telecommunications has assumed an exaggerated importance in disaster planning and management. Certainly speedy transmission of news of a disaster is valuable in disaster management. Equally important are community awareness and preparatory programs, local education and training programs, and simple guidelines and manuals that reflect awareness of local social and economic conditions.

Local predisaster planning should be a joint effort of local authorities and the communities they serve, whose active participation in planning will strengthen their ability to implement emergency measures. Local media must also be strengthened - and must be appropriate for the situation. If most of the population is illiterate, newspapers, manuals, and guidelines are not the best way to reach or educate the public - and radio may make more sense. But many local communities, especially in rural areas, do not have local radio stations, and regional or national stations do not have preparedness programs for natural or technological disasters that threaten a specific community. The IDNDR is drafting a strategy for bolstering local media.


In any manual or guideline for predisaster planning and preparedness one finds recommendations about land-use control, legislation, and regulations, as well as strict criteria for the siting of hazardous industries and the inspection of facilities. But rules and regulations, while necessary, are not enough to prevent disasters. Control of land use, for example, is as difficult to enforce in developed countries (which suffer from highly decentralized decisionmaking) as in developing countries (which suffer from centralized decisionmaking). Everywhere the economics of land use often overrides other considerations. Integrated planning must find practical ways to deal with this problem. Otherwise, the rules remain on the books and the manuals on the shelves while residential quarters continue to be built near airports and chemical facilities on unsuitable land threatened by-floods and landslides.

Sometimes governments violate safety standards rather than protect and safeguard them. The transboundary movement of toxic wastes is a case in point - a prime reason for having international laws and conventions to control the movement and dumping of such wastes. IDNDR could sort through the hierarchy and recommend which decisions should be made by local, regional, national, or international authorities.


In a first step toward preparing communities to be ready for impending disaster, IDNDR has already put a reasonable amount of emphasis on the development and deployment of global and regional early warning systems. A second and perhaps the more daunting task is to develop or improve local response mechanisms. What is needed is a partnership between global early warning systems and initiatives to develop national and local response mechanisms. International agencies should address this issue. Developing countries need financial and technical assistance to build such capabilities.


Natural and technological disasters are the domain of scientists and experts whose studies are more often concerned with technical and scientific issues than with their social, psychological, and economic ramifications. But technically oriented educational programs and information systems have only marginal value to the people who might be affected by such disasters. Industries, civil defense organizations, and the scientific community are most active in preparing the information and educational programs, and most of those that are available focus on the emergency and postdisaster period. There is little on how to prevent certain disasters or mitigate their impact. Roles must be defined for predisaster planning.

It is important not only to create and share technological and scientific databases, but to develop information systems for the people who are vulnerable to specific natural and technological disasters and to find the right mechanisms for getting that information to them. But making people in disaster-prone areas aware of a potential danger is not much help to them if the price of prevention or protection is beyond their means or that of the community. Whatever their form, information packages should indicate practical actions that communities should and could take in cooperation with other actors.


To some extent, disasters cause death and property damage because of value systems, superstition, unawareness, indifference, curiosity, fatalism, and sentimental attachment. In a raging blaze, people sometimes risk their lives to rescue household effects of sentimental value. Spectators gather near a chemical explosion to watch. In disasters for which people should stay indoors, curiosity leads some to venture out. People tend to rebuild their houses on sites destroyed by earthquake. Authorities tend to ignore scientists’ and technicians’ warnings. Instead of making preparations to mitigate disasters, public officials often try to minimize the extent of risk. Institutions established to control land use and enforce building codes become lax in carrying out their duties. Short-term economic gains take precedence over public safety. Relocation efforts encounter resistance because people do not believe they are in immediate danger. Distrust of authorities, fatalism, and sheer ignorance often increase the number of casualties.

To change attitudes that reflect cultural values is not easy. Predisaster planning is alien to many communities, the need for it not readily felt or understood. The first step is to increase awareness. Changing attitudes takes longer. Programs such as APELL (Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level) should be improved and translated into local languages and dialects. Issues should be discussed in the context of local cultures. Guidelines and manuals should be made more useful for the educated public and government institutions. There is little that authorities can do if the support, understanding, and participation of local communities are not forthcoming.

The economics of disaster prevention and mitigation

Preparedness and mitigation measures, it is often argued, cost much less than losses in life and property that would otherwise occur as the result of a disaster. This argument is morally sound but can be carried to an extreme. One could recommend, for example, scrapping plans for all future nuclear power plants and dismantling the existing ones; relocating people who live in coastal areas threatened by hurricanes or tsunamis or installing protective facilities; relocating settlements on major faults; preventing the poor from building on land subject to landslides and floods and giving them land in safer zones; building all chemical plants far from population centers; relocating most international airports, and so on. Few take these recommendations seriously, but this does not prevent people with good intentions from suggesting them.

At the other extreme - not often recognized as such - preparation for disasters is a cost-effective response to risk, based on an assessment of vulnerability and the probability that a certain disaster will occur. How valid are these assignments of probability? No one can tell. The probability given for a meltdown in a nuclear plant was one in 10,000 years but a meltdown did happen. An event with a zero probability of occurrence does not have a zero possibility of occurrence. Risk assessment techniques are developed primarily for insurance purposes, so they are not a suitable basis for formulating policies and measures for preventing and mitigating disasters. Bhopal and Chernobyl are good arguments for changing the bases of risk assessment and economic rationales for disaster preparedness.

Developing countries cannot afford to undertake disaster mitigation measures without outside help. Protecting them from such effects of global warming as recurrent floods, hurricanes, and rising sea levels will require bold measures and international cooperation. Industrialized countries have already discussed helping Bangladesh contain its devastating floods.

IDNDR should seriously consider establishing an international fund for predisaster preparedness and prevention projects. This might prove to be a better service to the developing countries than funds for reconstruction and development.