When natural disasters account for anthropogenic catastrophes

The importance of Natural Hazard Impact Assessment

In 2005, New Orleans levees broke under the pressure of Hurricane Katrina, causing the flooding of about 80% of the city and at least 986 human deaths [1]. On 11 March 2011, a major earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a 15-meters tsunami that caused a nuclear accident in Fukushima [2]. These two events are recent reminders of the power of natural hazards to interact with human infrastructures in harmful ways.

This video depicts the consequences of the damage the tsunami generated to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors [4]:

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) usually account for natural hazards that could result from a project but pay less attention to potential impacts of the environment on the proposed project [3]. In the light of such events however, integrating natural hazards more thoroughly within the EIA process becomes a necessity.

This can be achieved through the use of Natural Hazard Impact Assessment (NHIA) defined by the Caribbean Development Bank as: « A study undertaken to identify, predict and evaluate natural hazard impacts associated with a new development or the extension of an existing facility (from existing hazards as well as those which may result from the project). This is achieved through an assessment of the natural hazards that are likely to affect or result from the project and an assessment of the project’s vulnerability and risk of loss from hazards. An NHIA is an integral component of and extension to the environmental review process and environmental impact assessment in that it encourages explicit consideration and mitigation of natural hazard risk. » [3]

A NHIA guide to EIA practitioners

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 18.01.07
Fully and explicitly investigating the relationship between a proposed project and natural hazards is not only essential in disaster-prone regions such as Japan or the Caribbean [3], but also for any future project proposed in hazard-prone areas.

To ensure natural disaster risk reduction through the project cycle, EIA practitioners can and should refer to Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 2004 guidelines presented in the Sourcebook on the Integration of Natural Hazards into the Environmental Impact Assessment [3]:
– Section 1 presents the rationale behind the addition of an NHIA component to the generic EIA process.
– Section 2 details how to integrate considerations related to natural hazards in every step of the EIA process. For instance, the project description should include information on soil characteristics, slope and drainage, proximity to rivers and coasts, and hazard or damage history in the area.
– Section 3 discusses the role of natural hazard risk considerations within the Cumulative Effects part of the EIA procedure.
– Section 4 provides examples of the framework implementation at the national level in the Caribbean that could serve regulators and policy-makers.
– Appendices give adequate tools, checklists, and methodologies for practitioners to implement NHIA-EIA studies.

Advantages of the NHIA-EIA Framework

Overall, NHIA intends to strengthen EIA practitioners’ vision of exposure and vulnerability to natural hazards as an environmental issue [3]. The set of tools and methodology developed in the Caribbean innovates in the way it copes with natural hazard risk in EIA in a preventive manner, rather than through traditional emergency response to disasters. This is essential in a world where the frequency and magnitude of natural events are increasing with change in climate.

The crucial contribution of NHIA to cumulative effects assessment is an important lesson to learn, especially because Cumulative Effects Assessment is increasingly accepted as the best practice for impact assessment [3]. The New Orleans and Fukushima events illustrate well significant environmental and social impacts that may arise from the combined action of natural hazards and infrastructure failure.


[1] Plyer, A. (2014). ‘Fact for Features: Katrina Impact’, The Data Center [Online]. Available at: http://www.datacenterresearch.org/data-resources/katrina/facts-for-impact/ [Accessed 8 February 2015]

[2] World Nuclear Association (2015). ‘Fukushima Accident’ [Online]. Available at: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident/%5BAccessed 8 February 2015]

[3] Caribbean Development Bank and Caribbean Community (2004).  Sourcebook on the Integration of Natural Hazards into the Environmental Impact [Electronic]. Available at: http://www.caribank.org/uploads/2012/03/Source-Book5.pdf [Accessed 8 February 2015]

[4] Nature Video (2011). Fukushima nuclear crisis, six months later [Online Video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCNFMoe8ASI %5BAccessed 10 February 2015]

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