Natural hazards that become disasters produce literal tons of debris that need to be quickly cleaned up. However, very few countries consider disaster waste cleanup to be a critical service until it is too late, compounding the catastrophe.
By Meghomita Das, McGill University (@meghomita)
Citation: Das, M., 2023, Cleanup on the disaster aisle, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.316
The 2011 Tōhoku magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan created 22.63 million tons of debris and waste. In Haiti, the 2010 magnitude-7.0 earthquake produced 8.8 million tons of debris and waste. Japan was able to clean up from the disasters in four years. It took Haiti, meanwhile, a year to clean up only 2 million cubic tons of its debris and waste (1/9th the debris of Japan), while dealing with disease epidemics during the recovery process. The 2023 earthquakes in Türkiye are estimated to have produced more than 100 million cubic meters of debris and waste. The cleanup process is well underway but expected to take time.
Japan’s rapid cleanup was possible in part to its countrywide plan for post-disaster waste management, an often-overlooked part of a national disaster response plan. Natural hazards like earthquakes can leave behind a trail of destruction, requiring a truly Herculean cleaning effort to mitigate. Collapsed building and construction debris, rock falls and household waste all pile up. (In this article, we use “debris” to mean physical wreckage, and “waste” to mean human waste, garbage, food, bodies and so on; “waste management” includes both.) Timely cleaning and management of this debris and waste is crucial for post-disaster recovery and relief efforts. However, in most countries, disaster-induced waste management is often overlooked as a critical service during the recovery process.
A new study, presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in April 2023, argues that countries should view disaster waste management as a critical infrastructure and adopt such strategies as part of their standard disaster response plans. Such an adoption could help in the planning of disaster waste management and could speed up recovery efforts.
Waste management as critical infrastructure
When a natural hazard like a flood, hurricane, tsunami or earthquake strikes a city, a huge amount of debris and waste is generated in a relatively short amount of time, overwhelming existing waste management systems. If the debris blocks roadways, it can slow down relief and recovery teams; if it clogs waterways, water supply can become contaminated. And even after recovery efforts are underway, if typical waste management processes aren’t up and running yet, waste such as contaminated water and untreated human waste can accumulate in streets and eventually become a breeding ground for diseases such as cholera or the plague. Chemicals and pollutants from waste and debris can also leach into water and soil, causing long-term health hazards for residents. The longer waste and debris are left sitting, the higher the risks of human-to-waste interaction and resulting infection become.
Although the risks associated with improper management of disaster-related waste are significant, post-disaster waste management is not viewed as a critical infrastructure in most countries. Today, only Norway and Switzerland consider waste management as critical infrastructure. The U.S. and Japan also have emergency response plans for disaster waste management, according to Critical Infrastructure Protection database.
Critical infrastructure are systems essential to the functioning of a region’s economy and security — systems like water, energy supply and transportation. They are difficult to substitute or replace during a state of emergency, so administrations typically require an emergency response plan for each of these systems in the event of a disaster. But waste management is often excluded from plans and may be treated as secondary to other critical infrastructure because waste management does not typically create its own infrastructure. It relies on other existing infrastructure, such as roads and waterways. Therefore, waste management comes only after the other infrastructure becomes operational.
“One of the reasons disaster waste management is generally not considered critical is because unlike roads, water, and energy, we think that waste can be dealt with later,” says Gaia Marchesini, a doctoral researcher at the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and the lead author for the new research. However, because recovery and reconstruction happen over long timelines, there needs to be a defined period for waste treatment before it gets worse and starts impacting the population adversely, she says.
Waste management in action
While some countries have labeled waste management as critical infrastructure and have active plans in place to deal with it in the event of a disaster, the U.S. does not officially label waste management as critical infrastructure. When a disaster occurs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, usually directs a state’s emergency response and facilitates interagency coordination when the disaster escalates to statewide, cross-state or national levels. (Some emergencies are handled at the state level following FEMA’s guidelines.) However, some states that face many natural hazards, like Washington, do have their own plans for waste management.
“Here, we tailor our emergency responses depending upon the situation, so every response is unique,” says Martyn Quinn, a facilities specialist for the solid waste management program at Washington’s Department of Ecology who is not associated with the study. The waste management system is considered critical enough that the program engages with it on a daily basis and not just when disaster strikes, Quinn says.
Türkiye and Syria face a monumental cleanup effort after the two February 2023 earthquakes and aftershocks that killed 54,000 people in February. The U.N. Development Program estimates that quakes produced 100 million cubic meters of waste and debris in Türkiye and an additional 137,000 cubic meters of debris in Syria — more than 10 times more debris than the 1999 Türkiye quake that killed more than 17,000 people. There are also huge plumes of toxic dust released from destroyed buildings now “carrying poisons into rivers and plants, lungs and organs, risking serious health problems for years to come,” according to a Reuters report. Toxins like asbestos, silica, mercury and lead, as well as thousands of other toxic chemicals and substances are released when a massive quake occurs in a city.
Learning from countries that already have disaster waste management plans could be a good starting point for establishing waste management as critical infrastructure, Gaia says.
If waste management eventually gains the critical infrastructure label at the national level, in any nation, Gaia says she believes that it could lead to reorganization of the waste management system, more awareness, more assessment of risks and better preparedness, which will drastically improve the current response of the waste management protocols in the event of disaster.
Marchesini, G., Barroca, B., and Beraud, H., (2023). Organising disaster waste management as a critical infrastructure, EGU General Assembly, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14213, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14213
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