Nobody expected the seas to roar and touch the sky on Bo Day 2004, swallowing more than a hundred thousand lives in a number of countries in the Indian Ocean.
Similarly, the thousands of people sleeping in their shanties near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal could not have imagined when they turned in for the day that a foul smelling gas would treacherously sneak into their rooms and attack their nervous systems killing them in their sleep.
Disasters happen suddenly and without warning. The fact remains that they do however happen, even if with unpredictable frequency. The human race, across continents and nations, recognizes this reality and takes a number of measures to predict, prevent and control these disasters, natural, industrial or otherwise.
The issue under analysis for this essay is to examine the veracity of the statement that if disasters are unique and each episode is significantly different from the other there would appear to be no point in discussing the reasons for its occurrence after the event. Hindsight would not only serve no purpose but furthermore be an exercise in futility as the next disaster to happen would have no bearing to this one and cause its own havoc anyway.
There is a karmic inevitability about this approach which, while intriguing, is inimical to the process of logical thought. Recent years have seen the introduction of stringent safety measures, wide legislation and international cooperation on disaster control. Business and government organizations are learning from every episode and trying to put their lessons into practice to further improve disaster management plans in specific areas.
In the latter half of the twentieth century giant strides have been made in putting
into place the mechanics for improving safety. Legislatory and regulatory frameworks which have been adopted by most industrialised nations have prevented some of the worst excesses of the past. Responsible organisations no longer have a cavalier attitude to safety. (Toft and Reynolds, F/W, 1994)
Disasters are possibly unique, but mostly at the micro or operating level. They are classifiable into various types and to a certain extent are bound by logic, for example it would be as improbable for a Tsunami to hit Bhopal as it would be for a poisonous chemical gas to kill hunter gatherers in the Car Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean.
While this may be a rather fanciful way of opening the thought process on the subject, it is now proposed to probe in depth and examine the hypothesis in greater detail using two cases of actual enormous disasters.
Two disasters, one natural and the other industrial have been chosen for the purpose of this exercise. Chosen for the extent of damage they caused to human life and property they also fall into the category of the extremely unexpected; where the victims and the local administration were utterly unprepared and caught by surprise. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 and the Tsunami of 2004, both December episodes caused enormous damage, claimed thousands of lives, and in their own ways, had profound effects on the methodology of dealing with disaster.
2. Bhopal and Methyl Iso Cyanate
On December 4, 1984, in the middle of the night, in the smallish city of Bhopal, long known as a beautiful lake city with a tradition of Muslim royalty, a yellowish gas with a sweet smell, Methyl Iso Cyanate started wafting out of the reservoirs of Union Carbideï¿½s chemical factory on the outskirts of the city, waiting for the wind to take it on where it willed.
Forty tonnes of the gas escaped and spread along the shanty colonies which had sprung up near the factory. The intensely poisonous gas claimed about 2,000 lives that night alone. Six thousand suffered terribly and took two more days to die. Approximately half a million more were affected but survived, many after weeks of unconsciousness. They were left blind, comatose, mentally dwarfed and otherwise affected severely in some way.
As news filtered out the next day, the stunned civic officials took to their heels, not wanting to mix duty with valour. Nobody had the heart to blame them, they knew that the accident had happened because of a gas leak and the storekeeper of the municipal corporation did not even know what a gas mask was. It was left to the young fresh faced students of Bhopal University who came out in hundreds and with handkerchiefs tied over their mouths started sorting out the dead from the not quite.
It was difficult to hire private trucks and the students took days to cremate the nearly ten thousand bodies. Nobody had the time to separate the Hindu corpses from the Muslim. Some of the dead went into mass graves and some found their way to burning pyres, as the students collapsed, retched, puked and still came back to pick up the next pile of decomposing, putrid and stinking heaps of flesh. The army came in after a couple of days and with the help of the young students could dispose of the last bodies by Decemebr11, a week from the day of one of the worst industrial accidents of all time.
For a few weeks, accounts of sudden death raining from the air, of sundered families and grieving relatives, of a panic-stricken city and a pathetically disorganized relief effort seized banner headlines and were flashed around the world in wrenching images that tugged at humanity\'s collective conscience. (Jasanoff, 1994, p. 1)
As news filtered out from the city slowly, covered only by the state owned television service, the world watched Union Carbide India Limited, one of Indiaï¿½s most prestigious companies enter the road to nothingness, destined to be wiped out by the guilt of itsï¿½ act.
Industrial accidents are not new in India. While theoretically there is a very strong mechanism to regulate industrial safety replete with Factory Inspectors, Labour Inspectors, Boiler and Pressure Vessel regulatory agencies, all backed with industrial and safety legislation, the all pervasive climate of corruption in India ensures that safety regulations are subordinate to expediency. While businesses are concerned about maintaining industrial safety, there are always two aspects to the issue, what the businesses thinks are appropriate and what the law demands. In most cases safety provisions follow the dictates and requirements of the management and the law is taken care of.
In this scenario industrial accidents were not rare, in fact they were fairly commonplace and meant to be taken in oneï¿½s stride. What stunned the collective Indian population was the name of the company.
Carbide, as it was fondly called, was a multinational, a company headquartered in the USA, talked of in the same breath as IBM, Ford and Coke. How could it happen to them? Was it true that the management did not value Indian life or was it just that they had also stopped following the rules, preferring to keep the Factory and Safety Inspectors happy? The answers have come out now and culpability rests squarely with the Union Carbide management.
As far as industrial disasters, be they at Bhopal, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, are concerned, accidents are always part of the big picture and while everybody theoretically expects them to happen and again, much like traffic accidents, nobody is ever prepared when it hits them.
The global reaction to Bhopal was sharply accentuated because of the size of the disaster, the number of lives lost and of course the corporate involved. The episode had many ramifications and exposed in its entirety a hugely rotten system.
The failures that first produced a lethal accident and then magnified its consequences to tragic proportions cannot be dismissed as a mere catalogue of mechanical failings. Although \"hard\" engineering played its part in precipitating the events, the plant\'s defective components--the leaking valve, the broken refrigeration system, the malfunctioning warning signal, and the inadequate storage tank--were themselves the symptoms of more deep-seated social problems. (Jasanoff, 1994, p. 2)
The social problems that existed in Indian society, as can possibly be surmised from the description of events in the immediate aftermath of the blast included wide ranging ignorance on medicine and science about this particular technology. Methyl Iso Cyanate was a new word for the national lexicon, quite like tsunami was to be twenty years later, drummed into the sub conscious and never again to be forgotten. As the world watched India struggle with the rehabilitation effort the extent of the lack of actual regulatory ability, relief and rehabilitation capability and the inefficiency of the legal system became apparent. Not one official of Union Carbide was charged with criminality though it became evident with time that the company had been wilfully negligent about the running of the plant.
Many of these deficiencies became apparent only in the aftermath of Bhopal, as institutions in India and abroad tried to construct a program of compensation for the victims and a framework of law and public policy to ensure that a disaster of this magnitude would never happen again. (Jasanoff, 1994, p. 2)
India is not the same after 22 years of the Bhopal tragedy. The country has one of the fastest growth rates in the world and improved education, management expertise, enhanced imported and indigenous skills and the effects of economic liberalisation and globalisation have made Indian government and business realise that the adoption of global best practices in every area including industrial safety are primary requisites for economic success.
Their have been no repeats of Bhopal. Gas leaks from industrial chlorine vessels have occurred but swift civic and regulatory responses have averted major mishaps. In totality the industrial safety situation is far better than what it was in 1984.
3. The Tsunami
At around 8 in the morning, local time, on December 26, 2004, an earthquake, measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale, occurred off the western coast of Sumatra It lasted for nearly ten minutes and ï¿½caused the entire planet to vibrate at least half an inch, or over a centimetreï¿½ (Indian Ocean earthquake, 2006) The forces that had been building up deep under the surface led to the quake that trigggered off a series of tidal waves or Tsunamis that spread from Indonesia to the coastline of India and Sri Lanka and further west to the coastline of Africa, enveloping a swathe of thousands of square miles in South and South East Asia. . ï¿½The only sign came just before the Tsunami struck when the waterline suddenly retreated, exposing hundreds of miles of beach and seabed.ï¿½ (The Tsunami Disaster Explained, 2005)
By the time the waters had receded entire islands had been submerged, thousands of people had been washed away from their houses into the open seas and billions of dollars of property. A complete Indian Air Force base at Car Nicobar was washed away by wave, which at a height of 100 feet swept away houses and airplanes, not to speak of officers and men.The officially recorded toll of victims, dead or missing amounted to 230, 000 people in the worst disaster tragedy of this century. One third of the dead were chilldren. ï¿½The earthquake that generated the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 is estimated to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)ï¿½ (The Deadliest Tsunami in history, 2005)
The total damage caused by the Tsunami directly and indirectly was enormous and even a short listing will run into several pages. However, to summarise in a couple of paragraphs, economic damages were extensive for the fishing and tourist businesses. The impact on the fisher folk was shattering with losses arising out of loss of equipment, boats, gear and most of all experienced and capable workers. It is estimated that ï¿½66 % of the fishing fleet and industrial infrastructure in coastal regions have been destroyed by the wave surgesï¿½. (Indian Ocean earthquake, 2006)
The heavy human casualties were accompanied by largescale devastation to the ecosystem of the region, including mangroves and coastal forests and by carpets of salt covering paddy fields near the sea.
4. Sharing of Information
The issue facing us again is that if Tsunamis are very rare in the Indian Ocean and the last one which occurred in the same place was more than a 100 years ago an exercise to determine the reasons for the Tsunami and localise possible precautionary measures that could have saved lives could be futile and would serve no purpose. As such, if crises are inevitable there is no reason for preventive and contingency planning.
An approach like this, akin to an ostrich and sand is not just incorrect but potentially very dangerous and an invitation to disaster as is evident from both the Union Carbide and the Asian Tsunami episodes. Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean but much more common in the Pacific and a number of tsunamis have occurred in the twentieth century, which has a competent system to scan the environment and come up with early warning signs.
While accidents and disateers are going to occur and each is going to be different from the other it is essential to be able to learn to spot danger points and take action for early intervention. In every area of life, be it in corporate structures or in government it is possible to scan the immediate and surrounding environment to locate events and issues that cold arise and have potentially threatening effects to lifeand property.
The concept of Isomorphic learning, developed by Brian Toft focuses on learning from the experiences of others. In both the subject cases, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Asian Tsunami, while the respective company and involved governments had no experience of the disasters that could befall them, enough material was availble through the experiences of others in dealing with similar potentially devastating situations for them to have learnt, prepared and intervened positively. Union Carbide, headquarterd in the USA had both the resources and the ability to access and use information that could have prevented one of the worst industrial acidents from taking place. It thus becomes critically important for information to be shared with refrence to disaster management and take advantage of the benefits that such knowledge can bring. The collective knowledge base which had been built up with reference to potential hazards from unsafe chemical factories and underwater earthquakes could have averted huge disasters if they had been accessed, studied and the knowledge obtained utilised effectively.
In 1992, Brian Toft suggested in an article that organisations can learn in various ways from the experiences of others.
These could be based on events where different incidents take place in different organisations or environments but end up eith the same results. Again helpful information could be obtained from environments in which the same processes are used. A fir cracker unit in rural Thailand could be using possibly te same basic technology as one in the US but with the most rudimentary knowledge of safety. Sharing of important information could enable the Thai factory to introduce safety measures which could cut down the chances of disasters significantly.
Isomorphic learning, while being phonetically very impressive is a very simple concept and its brilliance lies in being able to empower people and organisations to use their common sense and the information available to prevent disasters, whose magnitude might sometimes be extremely high.
The first and most obvious step in Isomorphic learning is to gather information and increase the knowledge base in a particular area. Once a particular and relevant area is taken up to examine the possibility of introducing intervention methods, information on accidents and disasters, natural and unnatural, can be obtained from various sources, many of which are available at the click of a mouse from the internet.
Trade organisations, government bodies and similar non profit organisations are also repositories of such information that can be sourced with great effect.
On January 14, 2005, the office of the President of the United States released its policy for an improved early Tsunami detection system and committed millions of dollars to the the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS)
The new system will provide the United States with nearly 100% detection capability for a U.S. coastal tsunami, allowing response within minutes. The new system will also expand monitoring capabilities throughout the entire Pacific and Caribbean basins, providing tsunami warning for regions bordering half of the worldï¿½s oceans. (GEOSS) (Hopkins, B, 2005)
It needs to be emphasised that initiatives such as this, which are interventionist in nature and aim to provide early warning and time for preventive and loss mitigating action, arise only out of information sharing at various levels and are in many ways a result of isomorphic learning crystallizing into action.
The hypothesis regarding disasters being unique, while being true in some ways, is also open to the corollary that there are certain elements in every disaster or accident that are common to other such incidents, this being true for both natural and unnatural disasters. A study of information on such events or of the processes and sub events that led to such events can provide a wealth of detail that could be extremely helpful.
The tragedy lies in the fact that Union Carbide was not involved in rocket science. It was running a chemicals manufacturing plant and needed to use a poisonous gas in the manufacturing process, a fact well known to the factory management as well as to the board. In spite of knowledge and access to resources, the accident still happened. The foreword to Brian Toftï¿½s book on Disaster Management has some extremely pithy statements that are very relevant in this particular case.
So why does the body corporate find it so hard to learn from past mistakes? Organisations will only be able to absorb the lessons of history if they understand the full range of cultural forces at work as well as the technicalities of any accident. Much of the focus of normal investigation is on the operations which immediately precede a disaster. There is rarely an understanding that operators are the inheritors of system defects, incorrect installation, faulty designs, wrong materials and above all bad management. Attention tends to concentrate on the final garnish rather than the basic ingredients of a lethal brew which has already been long in the cooking. (Toft and Reynolds, F/W, 1994)
Things could not have ben truer in the case of Union Carbide. A certain amount of responsibility, a refusal to accept an accident as inevitable and unique, a desire to know more from similar industries and situations and access to information already available on the issue would very likely have led to preventive action that would have saved thousands of people and a thriving, successful company from being wiped off the face of the earth.
Comfort, L. K. (Ed.). (1988). Managing Disaster: Strategies and Policy Perspectives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=3098548
A Comprehensive Disaster Management Plan. (2006, February 8). Manila Bulletin, p. NA. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5013853846
Hopkins, B, (2005), Tsunami Detection and Warning System, Retrieved 19 September, 2006 from www.pmel.noaa.gov/tsunami-hazard
Howard, M. M., & Buck, R. A. (2002). World Trade Center Recovery: A Challenge to Traditional Disaster Management. The Public Manager, 31(1), 47+. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000794189
Indian Ocean Earthquake 2004, (2006), Wikipedia, Retrieved 19 September 2006 from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake - 147k
Jasanoff, S. (Ed.). (1994). Learning from Disaster: Risk Management after Bhopal. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=11137543
Krischenbaum, A. (2004). Chaos Organization and Disaster Management. New York: Marcel Dekker. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=109113737
Mcguire, B. (2005, March). Global Disaster Paves Way for Global Thinking: In the Wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Disaster Expert and Geophysicist Bill McGuire Explains Why Future Disaster Management Must Place a Greater Emphasis on Preparedness as Well as Response. Geographical, 77, 14+. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5008913431
Omer, H., & Alon, N. (1994). The Continuity Principle: A Unified Approach to Disaster and Trauma. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(2), 273+. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000284084
Robinson, C. (2005, July). Chaos Organization and Disaster Management. Security Management, 49, 116+. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5009847061
Schneider, S. K. (1995). Flirting with Disaster: Public Management in Crisis Situations. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=91927045
The Deadliest Tsunami in History (2005), National Geographic, Retrieved 19 September 2005 from news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1227_041226_tsunami.html
The Tsunami Disaster Explained, (2005), BBC, Retrieved 19 September, 2006 from news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/4136289.stm
Toft, B, and Reynold, S (1994), Learning from Disasters, Butterworth-Henneman , ISBN 0750606924