Best understood like a row of toppling dominoes, one disaster causes another in a series that leads to worse impacts over a wider area than is expected. Unlike dominoes, the path and impacts can be difficult to predict. In a world that is increasingly reliant on technological networks and interconnected essential infrastructure—power, internet, global food chains, sophisticated waste treatment—one flood or earthquake can cause many different problems.
“Cascading disasters are difficult to mitigate and to respond to,” explains Lisa Guppy, UN Environment Programme’s Regional Coordinator for Disaster and Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific.
Guppy points to the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 as another example. “The initial earthquake caused a tsunami which led to a nuclear accident. These incidents show that even well-prepared countries can be caught off guard. The Japanese example also shows that the unexpected effects of cascading disasters on the environment can be felt for many years. Contaminated water and soil management is still a problem in Fukushima in 2019, and it was not until 2015 that radiocesium levels in all fish sampled in the accident zone reached zero.
“As human dependence on technology and critical infrastructure increases, so too does the threat.”