An account of Man-Made Disasters

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Relevance: GS III- Disaster and Disaster Management.

  • Man-made disasters have an element of human intent, negligence, or error involving a failure of a man-made system, as opposed to natural disasters resulting from natural hazards. Such man-made disasters are crime, arson, civil disorder, terrorism, war, biological/chemical threat, cyber-attacks, etc. 

  • Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the laws of the state for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom. Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public to try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism and to get immediate publicity for their causes.
  • Acts of terrorism range from threats of terrorism, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, bomb scares and bombings, and cyber attacks (computer-based), to the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. 
  • High-risk targets include military and civilian government facilities, international airports, large cities, and high-profile landmarks. Terrorists might also target large public gatherings, water and food supplies, utilities, and corporate centres. Further, they are capable of spreading fear by sending explosives or chemical and biological agents through the mail. 
  • In the immediate area of a terrorist event, you would need to rely on police, fire, and other officials for instructions. However, you can prepare in much the same way you would prepare for other crisis events. 
Nuclear and Radiological Disaster
  • The growth in the application of nuclear science and technology in the fields of power generation, medicine, industry, agriculture, research and defence has led to an increase in the risk of occurrence of Nuclear and Radiological emergencies.
  • India has traditionally been vulnerable to natural disasters on account of its unique geo-climatic conditions and it has, of late, like all other countries in the world, become equally vulnerable to various man-made disasters.
  • Any radiation incident resulting in or having a potential to result in exposure and/or contamination of the workers or the public in excess of the respective permissible limits can lead to a nuclear/radiological emergency.
  • Dropping of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and Chernobyl in erstwhile USSR, have strongly influenced the public perception of any nuclear emergency or disaster to be most often linked, erroneously though, to only these events.
  • Even though such situations may not easily be repeated, one must be prepared to face nuclear/radiological emergencies of lower magnitudes and ensure that the impact of such an emergency (which, for a given magnitude, is likely to be much greater today because of higher population densities coupled with an enhanced urban infrastructure due to economic prosperity) is always kept under control.
  • For improving the quality of life in society, India has embarked upon a large programme of using nuclear energy for the generation of electricity. 
  • Due to the inherent safety culture, the best safety practices and standards followed in applications and effective regulation by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the radiation dose to which the persons working in nuclear/radiation facilities are exposed to, is well within the permissible limits and the risk of its impact on the public domain is very low.
  • However, nuclear emergencies can still arise due to factors beyond the control of the operating agencies; e.g., human error, system failure, sabotage, earthquake, cyclone, flood, etc. Such failures, even though of very low probability, may lead to an on-site or off-site emergency.
  • To combat this, proper emergency preparedness plans must be in place so that there is the minimum avoidable loss of life, livelihood, property and impact on the environment.

Do’s and Dont’s

  • The probability of a major accident at nuclear facilities leading to the release of large quantities of radioactivity into the environment is always ensured to be negligibly small.
  • However, even in the event of a major release into the environment, the prompt and effective implementation of countermeasures can reduce the radiological consequences for the public.

Nuclear Safety Steps

  • With increased emphasis on power generation through nuclear technology, the threat of nuclear hazards has also increased. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has been identified as the nodal agency in the country in respect of man-made radiological emergencies in the public domain.
  • Nuclear facilities in India have adopted internationally accepted guidelines for ensuring safety to the public and environment.
  • A crisis management system is also in place to take care of any nuclear hazard. In addition to the other types of emergency response plans in place within the facility to handle local emergencies, response plans have also been drawn up for handling such emergencies in the public domain, which are called as “off-site Emergencies”.
 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
  • On April 26, 1986, a power output surged during a systems test. An emergency shutdown was attempted, but the power output spiked even more, which led to an explosion at reactor No. 4. Two workers died instantly. Further explosions and fire released highly radioactive material into the atmosphere.
  • The release of nuclear fallout at Chernobyl was 400 hundred times higher than that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Both mechanical malfunction and human error were cited as the causes of the disaster.

Zone of Alienation

  • At the time of the disaster, 49,400 people lived in Pripyat. More than 24 hours after the first explosion, residents were ordered to evacuate, but by this time, many had already suffered varying degrees of radiation poisoning.
  • Large quantities of radioactive materials were released into the air for 10 days. A large containment structure known as “the sarcophagus” was built to capture the materials. The structure trapped about 200 tons of nuclear fuel and debris that had melted through the floor and hardened.
  • By July 1986, there were 28 deaths due to radiation exposure. In the following years, 220,000 more people moved into less contaminated areas and a 19-mile zone of alienation was established.
  • To this day, any business or residential activities in the zone are strictly prohibited except for monitoring the power plant and installations to study nuclear safety. Workers are needed at the site because the remaining 3 reactors, although no longer operational, still contain nuclear fuel that needs to be monitored. The site is to be cleared by 2065. 

What We Have Learned

  • The Chernobyl Forum was founded in 2003 to assess the environmental consequences and health effects of the disaster. In 2005, the forum released a Chernobyl's Legacy report. The report estimated that cancer deaths directly resulting from the incident may reach a total of 4,000 among the 600,000 workers who received the greatest exposure while cleaning up the disaster.
  • In addition, there have been many reported cases of thyroid cancer, mainly from people who were children living in the area at the time of the accident.
  • Scientists believe the children were affected by drinking milk from contaminated cows. Iodine 131, another radioactive element, can dilute very quickly in the air, but if it is deposited on grass eaten by cows, the cows then re-concentrate it in their milk. Absorbed into the body's thyroid gland, Iodine 131 can cause cancer. This was perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the disaster.
  • Because of the Chernobyl disaster, we now know to test the grass, soil, and milk for radiation near nuclear plants. Also, an evacuation of the Chernobyl area was not ordered until more than 24 hours after the incident.
  • Japanese authorities evacuated 200,000 people from the area of Fukushima within hours of the initial alert following the meltdown in March 2011. The mistakes and magnitude of the disaster at Chernobyl has taught the world how to handle the short and long-term effects of nuclear fallout.

Fukushima, Japan, March 2011

  • The earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, caused a serious accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on the northeastern coast of Japan. 

How did it happen?

  • The earthquake cut off external power to the reactors. tsunami, which reached levels more than twice as high as the plant was designed to withstand, disabled backup diesel generators, crippling the reactor cooling systems.
  • Battery power was quickly exhausted, and overheating fuel in the plant's operating reactor cores led to hydrogen explosions that severely damaged three of the reactor buildings. Fuel in three of the reactor cores melted, and radiation releases from the damaged reactors contaminated a wide area surrounding the plant and forced the evacuation of nearly half a million residents.

Three Mile Island

  • Middletown, Pennsylvania, USA, March 28, 1978
  • The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island Unit 2 is considered the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history, although it resulted in only small radioactive releases.


  • Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA, January 3, 1961
  • The withdrawal of a single control rod caused a catastrophic power surge and steam explosion at the SL-1 boiling water reactor that killed all the workers on duty at the time.


Cumberland (now Cumbria), UK, October 10, 1957

  • Windscale Unit 1’s core caught fire and melted, which led large amounts of radioactivity to be released to the surrounding area.
  • More than 200 cancer deaths are attributed to the disaster, which is considered to have been the worst to occur in the West.

Preparedness for Nuclear/Radiological Emergencies

  • The handling of nuclear emergencies requires coordination among different service groups of the nuclear facility. In the event of potential radiological consequences in the public domain, all the authorities at the three levels, i.e., district, state and central, will play a vital role.

Major Responsibilities of Nuclear Power Plant Operators

  • This includes the arrangements required to promptly classify an emergency, mitigate the emergency, notify and recommend protective actions off the site consistent with international guidelines, protect those on-site, obtain off-site assistance, conduct environmental monitoring of the affected area and assist off-site officials in keeping the public informed.

Major Responsibilities of Off-Site Officials

  • This includes the arrangements required to promptly implement protective actions and countermeasures in the affected area.

Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear Power Plants

  • Since the proper implementation of countermeasures can significantly reduce the consequences of an emergency situation, it is mandatory for all nuclear facilities that there must be a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan.
  • Prior to the issuance of a license for the operation of a nuclear facility, the AERB ensures that the facility has the Emergency Response Manuals for the three main types of emergencies, viz., plant, on-site and off-site and that the plans are in place to handle these types of emergencies.
  • The operators of nuclear facilities must make an assessment of the type and quantum of the release of radioactivity under various accident conditions and the extent to which it can spread into the environment.

Handling a Plant Emergency

  • When the radiological consequences of an abnormal situation are expected to remain confined to the plant boundary or a section of the plant, it is described as a plant emergency.

Nuclear facilities in the country already have the following provisions for the detection, classification, notification and mitigation of any emergency situation:

  • Emergency operating procedures for the assessment of an emergency condition and its mitigation.
  • Pre-identification of any facility-specific, abnormal situation for classification of a plant and site emergency.
  • Facility-specific approved nuclear emergency response plans specifying the jobs of all the functionaries who have assigned roles during the emergency.
  • Alerting the plant personnel by sounding the emergency siren and making an emergency announcement.
  • Adequate means for communicating a notification to the emergency response organisations at the facility, the district and state authorities, CMG of DAE and the central government authorities.
  • Identified assembly locations for plant personnel and casual visitors for their accounting, and assessment of persons trapped in the radiological areas.
  • Formation of rescue teams and activation of a treatment area and decontamination centre.
  • Radiation survey around the plant and outside the plant and site boundaries.
  • Assessment of wind speed, wind direction and the affected sector around the nuclear facility.
  • Whenever required, the nuclear facility is able to mobilise the services of the ambulance and paramedical staff at its site.
  • Equipment and materials for handling a nuclear emergency are kept at a designated place of the nuclear facility and ERC.
Chemical Disasters
  • Chemical, being at the core of modern industrial systems, has attained a very serious concern for disaster management within government, private sector and community at large. Chemical disasters may be traumatic in their impacts on human beings and have resulted in the casualties and also damages nature and property.
  • The elements which are at highest risks due to chemical disaster primarily include the industrial plant, its employees & workers, hazardous chemicals vehicles, the residents of nearby settlements, adjacent buildings, occupants and surrounding community. Chemical disasters may arise in a number of ways, such as:-

Process and safety systems failures

  • Human errors
  • Technical errors
  • Management errors
  • Induced effect of natural calamities
  • Accidents during transportation
  • Hazardous waste processing/ disposal
  • Terrorist attack/ unrest leading to sabotage

Status of Chemical Disaster Risk in India

  • India has witnessed the world’s worst chemical (industrial) disaster “Bhopal Gas Tragedy” in the year 1984. The Bhopal Gas tragedy was a most devastating chemical accident in history, where over 2500 people died due to accidental release of toxic gas Methyl Iso Cyanate (MIC).
  • India continued to witness a series of chemical accidents even after Bhopal had demonstrated the vulnerability of the country. Only in the last decade, 130 significant chemical accidents reported in India, which resulted in 259 deaths and 563 number of major injuries.
  • There are about 1861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units, spread across 298 districts and 25 states & 3 Union Territories, in all zones of the country.
  • Besides, there are thousands of registered and hazardous factories (below MAH criteria) and un-organized sectors dealing with numerous range of hazardous material posing serious and complex levels of disaster risks.

Safety initiatives taken in India to address chemical risk

  • The comprehensive legal/ institutional framework exists in our country. A number of regulations covering the safety in transportation, liability, insurance and compensations have been enacted.
  • Following are the relevant provisions on chemical disaster management, prevailing in country:-
  • Explosives Act 1884
  • Petroleum Act of 1934                                   – 
  • Factories Act 194
  • Insecticides Act 1968 
  • Environment Protection Act 1986                 
  • Public Liability Insurance Act 1991
  • Disaster Management Act of 2005
  • Government of India has further reinforced the legal framework on chemical safety and management of chemical accidents by enacting new rules such as MSIHC Rules, EPPR Rules, SMPV Rules, CMV Rules, Gas Cylinder Rules, Hazardous Waste Rules, Dock Workers Rules and by way of amendments to them.
  • The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of India had come out with very specific guidelines on Chemical Disaster Management.
  • The guidelines have been prepared to provide the directions to ministries, departments and state authorities for the preparation of their detailed disaster management plans.
  • These guidelines call for a proactive, participatory, multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach at various levels for chemical disaster preparedness and response.
  • Further, NDMA has provided specific inputs to the GOM for the avoidance of future chemical disasters in the country, along with suggested amendments on the existing framework.
Biological Disaster
  • Biological disasters are causative of process or phenomenon of organic origin or conveyed by biological vectors, including exposure to pathogenic micro-organisms, toxins and bioactive substances that may cause loss of life, injury, illness or other health impacts, property damage, loss of livelihoods and services, social and economic disruption, or environmental damage.
  • Examples of biological disasters include outbreaks of epidemic diseases, plant or animal contagion, insect or other animal plagues and infestation.
Industrial Disasters
  • Among the man-made disasters, probably the most devastating (after wars) are industrial disasters. These disasters may be caused by chemical, mechanical, civil, electrical or other process failures in an industrial plant due to accident or negligence, which may cause widespread damage within and/or outside the plant.
  • The worst example globally was the Methyl Iso-cyanate gas leak in 1984 from the Union Carbide Factory in Bhopal which has so far claimed more than 20,000 lives and injured several lakh persons besides stunting the growth of a generation born from the affected population. This disaster triggered a completely new legal regime and practices for preventing such disasters.
  • In the pre-Bhopal Gas Tragedy era, industrial safety was governed by legislation like the Factories Act, 1948 and the Explosives Act, 1884. These laws proved to be inadequate to provide safety to workers as well as to the people living in the surrounding areas.

Lessons Learnt

  • After the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, a new chapter was inserted in the Factories Act, 1948 dealing with hazardous processes. The Environment Protection Act, 1986 was enacted. More importantly, several Rules were promulgated under the Act.
  • About 1633 major industrial hazard units are located in 245 districts in 19 States/UTs. Stringent environmental protection laws have prevented major industrial disasters after Bhopal, but minor disasters do take place on and off-site and also during transportation of hazardous materials, which claim a number of lives each year besides creating environmental problems.
  • Industrial disasters are a major concern today because of an increase in the pace of industrialization. With rapid industrialization, the threat of industrial disasters has increased.
  • However, in spite of the existence of a large number of laws, their enforcement has left much to be desired.
  • Example: Vizag gas tragedy

Bhopal gas tragedy

  • The Bhopal gas tragedy happened on the dreadful night of December 2, 1984. The highly toxic gas – methyl isocyanate – leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh and made its way to the small towns located near the plant.
  • The incident was India’s first major industrial disaster and one of the world’s worst. More than 3,787 people died due to the poisonous gas, while hundreds of others lived with deformities.
  • The Great Smog is known to be the worst air-pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom. In 1952, a highly toxic air-pollution event affected London causing major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas. In the cold weather of London, anticyclone and windless conditions caused airborne pollutants created by the use of coal to accumulate and form a thick layer of smog over the city.
  • A report later suggested that more than 6,000 people died in the following months as a result of the event. However, the pollution also brought with it various changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956 as a boon for the nation.


  • In India, the major sources of epidemics can be broadly categorized as follows:
  • Water-borne diseases like cholera (and forms of gastroenteritis), typhoid, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B etc – major epidemics of such diseases have been recorded in the past and continue to occur;
  • Vector-borne (often mosquito-borne) epidemics like dengue fever, chikungunya fever, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, kala-azar etc, which usually occur in certain regions of the country;
  • Person to person transmission of diseases e.g. AIDS and other venereal diseases.
  • Air-borne diseases like influenza and measles that can also be transmitted through fomites (used clothes etc.).
  • Epidemics often take place due to poor sanitary conditions leading to contamination of food and water or due to inadequate disposal of human or animal carcasses in post-disaster situations. They become real dangers during floods and earthquakes.
  • Sometimes, poor solid waste management may create epidemics like the plague. Incidence of plague is quite uncommon now but it can still occur claiming many human lives and disrupting normal life as it did in Surat in 1994.
Oil Spills
  • Chennai Oil Spill: On 28 January 2017 two ships collided off Kamarajar Port Limited’s (KPL) harbour and resulted in a major oil spill disaster. The Chennai Oil Spill resulted in irreversible environmental damage.
  • Sundarban: In 2014 Oil spill in Bangladesh created an environmental concern for India too. An oil tanker sank in Sela River which is an eco-sensitive region of Sundarban triggered the disaster. Indian wildlife too was badly affected.
  • ONGC Leak: In 2013 ONGC Uran plan developed a leak which resulted in 5,000 litres of the crude oil spill in the Arabian Sea.
  • Mumbai coast: In 2010 two ships collided off the Mumbai coast causing the oil spill. 800 tonnes of oil leaked before the leaked was plugged two days later.

What are the main causes of Oil Spills?

  • The common causes of oil spills are as following:
  • Natural causes: Tsunami, Cyclone, Thunderstorm etc.
  • Human Causes: War, attack, sabotage, human mistakes leading to a collision or some technical reasons.

 On Marine life

  • The most affected organisms are those which floats near the surface like turtles, fishes, crabs etc.
  • Sea animals caught in an oil spill, on being exposed to toxic petroleum products often results in lower reproductive rates, organ damage, and death. The effects remain for a long period of time.
  • Fishes die due to inability to swim or breath.

On Birds

  • Many birds die due to drowning or inability to eat due to oil sticking to their body.

On Humans

  • Direct exposure can have varying effects depending on the toxicity and chemicals involved in the spill.
  • Humans get exposed to toxicity through breathing gaseous oil compounds and/or oil compounds adsorbed on particulate matter (dispersed through the air). Exposure can also happen due to the activities in the contaminated ground (e.g., soil) or through skin absorption when touching spilled material.
  • There is a huge economic cost attached to such disasters.
  • In 2015 India ratified the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, 2001 (Bunker Convention). Convention ensures adequate, prompt and effective compensation for damage caused by oil spills.
  • An international forum on oil spill prevention, preparedness, response and restoration systems was constituted in 2011 viz. Oil Spill India (OSI).
  • In 2016 September there was a convention in Mumbai of OSI.
  • The theme was “Commitment, Synergy, and Excellence (CSE)”
  • The convention showcases best practices in the world for oil spill preparedness.
Desert Locusts
  • Desert Locusts, Schistocerca gregaria, are undoubtedly the most dangerous of locust species. Under favourable environmental conditions, a few solitary individuals can dramatically multiply, form large swarms able to migrate great distances and threaten agriculture over a large part of Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
  • In the last century, there have been six plagues of Desert Locusts, one of which lasted almost 13 years. Initial Desert Locust control efforts were largely curative but the trend in the twentieth century had been toward preventing such plagues from occurring.
  • Affected countries have assumed ever more responsibility for monitoring locust breeding areas and treating infestations before they increase in size and number.
  • In fact, our knowledge of the Desert Locust has evolved along with the ability to manage locust plagues.
  • International cooperation lies at the core of an effective strategy for locust control, as a result, locust management decisions are based on information gathered by and exchanged with national agencies and international organizations that have developed programs to regularly monitor locusts and the weather in the desert before they reach agricultural areas.
  • This strategy has proved to be quite effective.
  • Nevertheless, plagues are not always prevented and often substantial control operations are required to reduce locust numbers and try to bring a halt to an upsurge or plague.
  • It has become apparent that such operations could be strategically applied at certain times or in specific areas.
  • One example is the delaying of control operations until locusts become concentrated into a relatively small area, which would allow more locusts to be treated using a lower quantity of pesticides applied over a smaller area.
  • The challenge in coming years will be to evolve Desert Locust management strategies in a manner that ensures food security while minimizing any detrimental effects on the environment.
Fire Disasters
  • Bush fires, forest fires, and mine fires are generally started by lightning, but also by human negligence or arson. They can burn thousands of square kilometres.
  • If a fire intensifies enough to produce its own winds and “weather”, it will form into a firestorm.
  • Some example, Pennsylvania started in 1962, it ruined the town and continues to burn today, The Great Chicago Fire, The Peshtigo Fire (both of 1871) and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
  • Casualties resulting from fires, regardless of their source or initial cause, can be aggravated by inadequate emergency preparedness.
  • Such hazards as a lack of accessible emergency exits poorly marked escape routes, or improperly maintained fire extinguishers or sprinkler systems may result in many more deaths and injuries than might occur with such protections.
  • Recently some of Australia’s largest cities were affected the victoria bushfire, including Melbourne and Sydney — where fires damaged homes in the outer suburbs and thick plumes of smoke have blanketed the urban centre.

The Disaster Management Act, 2005

  • This Act provides for the effective management of disaster and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. It provides institutional mechanisms for drawing up and monitoring the implementation of disaster management. The Act also ensures measures by the various wings of the Government for prevention and mitigation of disasters and prompt response to any disaster situation.
  • The Act provides for setting up of a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs) under the Chairmanship of the Chief Ministers, District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) under the Chairmanship of Collectors/District Magistrates/Deputy Commissioners. The Act further provides for the constitution of different Executive Committee at national and state levels. Under its aegis, the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) for capacity building and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) for response purpose have been set up.
  • It also mandates the concerned Ministries and Departments to draw up their own plans in accordance with the National Plan. The Act further contains the provisions for financial mechanisms such as the creation of funds for response, National Disaster Mitigation Fund and similar funds at the state and district levels for the purpose of disaster management.
  • The Act also provides specific roles to local bodies in disaster management. Further the enactment of 73rd and 74th Amendments to the constitution and emergence of local self-government, both rural and urban, as important tiers of governance, the role of local authorities become very important. The DM Act, 2005 also envisages specific roles to be played by the local bodies in disaster management. 


National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)

Details of responsibilities are as follows:

  • Lay down policies on disaster management 
  • Approve the National Plan and plans prepared by the Ministries or Departments of the Government of India in accordance with the National Plan
  • Lay down guidelines to be followed by the State Authorities in drawing up the State Plan
  • Lay down guidelines to be followed by the different Ministries or Departments of the Government of India for the purpose of integrating the measures for prevention of disaster or the mitigation of its effects in their development plans and projects
  • Coordinate the enforcement and implementation of the policy and plan for disaster management
  • Recommend provision of funds for the purpose of mitigation
  • Provide such support to other countries affected by major disasters as may be determined by the Central Government
  • Take other measures for the prevention of disaster, or the mitigation, or preparedness and capacity building for dealing with the threatening disaster situation or disasters
  • Lay down broad policies and guidelines for the functioning of the National Institute of Disaster Management.

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