EXPERTISE SERVICES: DRR VOICES BLOG
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that borders cannot stop disasters. Viruses, ash clouds, radiation and chemical spills do not need passports to travel across countries. Twenty years after its entry into force, the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents remains more important than ever.
In 1986, an agrochemical storehouse caught fire in Schweizerhalle, Switzerland, releasing tons of pollutants into the air and the Rhine river. The disaster affected livelihoods and ecosystems from Switzerland to the Netherlands. It followed a vast number of accidents in industrial installations with devastating impact, killing people on and off-site, destroying infrastructure and properties, and causing severe damage to ecosystems, often across borders. There was a clear need to strengthen awareness of risks in neighbouring or riparian countries, and to improve transboundary cooperation.
Negotiations for the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention started following the Schweizerhalle disaster. In March 1992, 26 UNECE members and the European Union signed the Convention, which entered into force on 19 April 2000, twenty years ago. Currently, the Convention has 41 parties, and countries in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia are participating in its Assistance and Cooperation Programme.
The Convention is a legal instrument, designed to protect people and the environment against industrial accidents with potential transboundary impact. The Convention helps countries share good practice, develop and use guidance, and take joint action to mitigate consequences in case of accident.
The Convention has helped countries achieving a lot in the past 20 years: countries have identified hazardous activities which could cause transboundary effects in case of an accident, and have notified each-other of these. To understand the extent of risk and its implications across borders, countries use risk assessments methods. They are increasingly sharing information and consider developments beyond their borders to inform decisions on the location of industrial installations. Countries have also developed joint agreements, harmonized or joint contingency plans, and implemented joint inspections and exercises.
The Convention underlines the principles of international law and builds on the principles of good neighbourliness. In case of crisis, mutual assistance and information exchange are critical. When an industrial accident strikes in one or more countries, the agreement calls upon the international community to show solidarity and provide mutual assistance if necessary. Cooperation, coordination, transparency and commitment lay at the heart the Convention and are essential to build and maintain trust in communities and society.
The Industrial Accidents Convention also helps achieve the goals of other international treaties and frameworks, such as the Disaster Risk Reduction targets of the Sendai Framework. It contributes as wells to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals that relate to water, industry, cities, climate change and disaster risk.
A society can never be completely risk-free. This is why we need a conscious relationship with risks, the extent to which we accept them and how this picture evolves.
Many countries have developed National Risk Assessments. We use them to analyse the risks that could affect a country, drafting the scenarios of what could happen and where. In Norway, my country, this is called Analyses of Crises Scenarios (ACS). We finalized our latest update in February last year, using a variety of scenarios with the participation of expert groups to get the full picture. The exercise covers the entire risk spectrum, from natural hazard to security policy crisis. We follow an ‘all hazards and all of society’ approach.
Not surprisingly, a pandemic and the ensuing shortage of medicinal drugs are scenarios that represent the greatest risk to society in Norway. We now see how such a high-risk scenario has become reality with the COVID-19 outbreak. Our risk scenarios prepared us to respond to this crisis, but other large risks are also present, such as risks associated with nuclear accidents, a large rockslide or an avalanche.
When we consider industrial accidents, we mostly look at facilities handling hazardous substances. The impact of an accident can be significant in terms of death toll, injured people, financial losses and social disruption. An industrial plant releasing toxic gas would have major consequences, but the likelihood of such an accident is estimated to be low. On the other hand, the likelihood of a fire at an oil terminal in a city is predicted to have a moderately high likelihood and moderately high impact. Factors like urban planning, safety checklists and mitigation measures will influence the magnitude of the impact of these two scenarios.
Even if we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Industrial Accidents Convention, there is still much work to be done – for the coming decade and beyond, looking at the next 20 years.
Let’s start with the next 10 years. In December 2018, the Parties adopted the Long-Term Strategy for the Convention until 2030. It is an important vision going forward. The strategy underlines the need to significantly increase and improve industrial safety and to reduce the risk of technological disasters by ensuring the full implementation of the Convention. The Industrial Accidents Convention should be kept as a practical instrument in supporting risk management and governance policies within the UNECE region and beyond, at the global level. Countries worldwide can benefit from the Convention’s approaches to governance and transboundary cooperation, with its multitude of guidance materials and good industry practices – tools which can support them in meeting their commitments under the Sendai Framework to reduce technological disaster risk.
Emerging risks and developments are a key part of the Long-Term Strategy to make sure that while remaining rooted in today’s reality, the Convention addresses present and future challenges we will face. For example, urbanization and infrastructure developments with its smart technology, are driving an increasing demand for metals and minerals, despite progress towards a circular economy. This raises challenges to securely store and handle hazardous substances at mine tailings (or mine waste) management Facilities (TMFs). The Convention supports countries in their efforts to improve mine tailings safety. With all partners in the Convention, we contribute and give input to the global debate on tailings safety, mineral resource governance and sustainable infrastructure.
In this field and other parts of the chemicals industry, ranging from oil processing to textiles and fertilizer production, or storage facilities, the Convention plays an important role to address what the Sendai Framework regards as “new risks,” namely those of technological disasters. Going forward, I hope that the Convention’s role in supporting countries in technological risk management will be more visible, and that countries will actively strive to link their work under the Convention with the development of national disaster risk reduction strategies and action plans under the Sendai process.
Other megatrends and global developments are on our agenda as well – for the next 20 years, and likely beyond. These include more intense and frequent extreme weather events (lightning, floods, high energy storms) driven climate change, densified populations in urban areas, and increasing pressures on the environment. Let me mention in particular natural hazards triggering technological disasters, or NATECH. In the last years, natural hazards have caused unprecedented damage to industrial facilities. The consequences have been fires, explosions and toxic releases, which often have had severe and long-term impact on society, the environment and the economies. The hurricanes in the US (2012, 2005), flooding in Central Europe (2002), earthquake and tsunami in Japan (2011) and earthquake in China (2008) all illustrate the implications of NATECH-events. This is why we are expanding our experience in risk assessment and risk evaluation, safety measures and contingency planning to NATECH.
Drawing on our experience, we can further build relevant guidance, policy and expert dialogues. This will be continued in good cooperation with other international organisations working on the prevention, preparedness and response to industrial accidents as well as disasters caused by natural hazards.
It is my wish for the coming years of work under the Industrial Accident Convention, that we join forces to strengthen transboundary cooperation to improve industrial safety beyond the UNECE region, inspiring action where it is most needed. This will enable us to better prepare for an accident if or when it occurs.
The COVID-19 pandemic shows how far we are willing to go if we understand a risk – and how difficult it is to prevent a risk if we don’t understand it.
This post was written in cooperation with the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention secretariat, Max Linsen, consultant and Franziska Hirsch, Secretary.
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