Future disaster trends: implications for programs and policies

Quarantelli, E. L.
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Disaster Research Center
As the world continues to industrialize and urbanize, it is continually creating conditions for more and worse disasters in the future that, among other things, will contribute further to environmental degradation and hinder developmental programs. The industrialization and urbanization processes, however positive in effects along some lines, will both increase the number of potential disaster agents and enlarge the vulnerabilities of communities and populations at risk. Making for an increase are: (1) the accelerating expansion of accidents and mishaps in the chemical and nuclear areas; (2) technological advances that reduce some hazards but make some old threats more dangerous; (3) new versions of old and past dangers such as urban droughts; (4) the emergence of innovative kinds of technologies such as computers and biogenetics that present distinctively new dangers; and, (5) an increase in multiple (e.g., natural disasters creating technological ones) or synergistic type disasters resulting in more severe environmental consequences. Increasing the vulnerabilities are that: (1) both natural and technological disaster agents will have more built-up areas to impact; (2) more vulnerable kinds of populations will be affected than in the past; (3) metropolitan areas will be increasingly impacted and along certain lines the social organizations and group configurations of urban areas are not particularly well suited for coping with disasters; (4) increasing localities will have disastrous conditions from sources that may be quite distant and even from the past; and (5) certain future disasters have catastrophic potential although they may produce neither casualties nor do much property damage. There are some countervailing trends. Among the two most important are first, the increasing role of the mass media in calling attention to disasters; the second is the increasing activism of citizens in matters of public policy, including environmentally related issue. Nevertheless, they cannot match the effects of industrialization and urbanization that will almost make certain we will have both quantitatively more and qualitatively worse disasters in coming decades. However, policies can be established and steps can be taken that will reduce and weaken some of the negative effects of the probable catastrophic disasters of the future. Among major ones are: (1) noting and accepting the fact that all disasters are essentially social occasions that initially and primarily have to be dealt with by social means; (2) dropping the distinction in planning between natural and technological disasters and moving to an all hazard or generic approach; (3) making disaster mitigation at least as much a priority in planning and application as emergency preparedness, response and recovery; (4) more closely integrating disaster planning to the developmental planning or social change processes of the social system involved; and (5) ascertaining in what ways disaster problems are similar to and different from other environmental problems, and concurrently addressing both where there are similarities. If the right policies and measures are put in place, the future will not be the past revisited nor will it be only the present repeated.
*An earlier version of this paper was written to provide background material for the oral comments made at the session on Inter-relationships Between Natural and Technological Disasters held at the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in Yokohama, Japan on May 25, 1994.
industrialization , urbanization , future disasters , social trends