War and climate: the recipe for industrial disaster a Geneva-based body wants to avert

A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (Keystone/AFP/STR)

The danger of a chemical spill or a plant blowing up for any number of reasons is always lurking. But extreme weather events and fighting near industrial facilities are heightening the risks. The industrial accidents convention is working with states in Europe and Central Asia to avoid a catastrophe.

The image of thick, orange smoke rising through the sky over the wrecked port of Beirut has stuck in the minds of people across the globe. In August 2020, around 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the Lebanese capital blew up, killing 218 people, injuring around 7,000 and displacing 300,000. It is said to be one the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history and a reminder of the devastation that an industrial accident can cause.

As climate conditions change, and bombs plummet down on Ukrainian cities, the risk of a major incident is ever more present, bringing to the forefront a relatively unknown legal instrument under the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents.

The pan-European regional agreement of 42 parties, headquartered at Palais des Nations, in Geneva, met from 29 to 1 December for the convention’s main conference to discuss these new challenges.

How it started

Industrial development over the last century has been accompanied by a large number of tragedies. Whether from negligence, lax precautionary measures or bad weather, industrial disasters can leave tragic death tolls and significant damage for ecosystems. A little over 100 years ago, an explosion of 4,500 tonnes of a mixture of ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate fertiliser in Oppau, Germany killed around 500 people and nearly obliterated the town. In 1984, a toxic gas leak from a pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal, in central India, caused a staggering 15,000 to 20,000 deaths.

But it wasn’t until the Sandoz disaster in 1986 that countries realised that borders would not be enough to contain the effects of an industrial catastrophe. A chemical leak near Basel, Switzerland, filled the Rhine River with tonnes of toxic pollutants, killing millions of fish and forcing France, Germany and the Netherlands to close water plants downstream. The states accused Switzerland and Sandoz of not notifying them of the risks sooner and said they would seek compensation.

It sparked negotiations for an international agreement in the hopes of averting another health, environmental – and diplomatic – fiasco of that magnitude, leading to the adoption of the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents in Helsinki in 1992.

“The convention broadly stipulates the taking of appropriate policy and governance measures for industrial safety. And more specifically, it asks countries to identify those hazardous activities which could in case of an accident lead to a transboundary effect,” Franziska Hirsch, the convention’s secretary, explained to Geneva Solutions.

A ticking time bomb

The convention has overseen the creation of safety guidelines and joint response plans as well as training, considerably improving the situation in Europe and Central Asia. “Countries that have higher levels of regulations are at lesser risk of accidents,” said Hirsch.

But new challenges are emerging for which countries are not well prepared. One of the biggest worries, according to Hirsch, is “natech”, meaning technological accidents triggered by natural hazards. According to data from the European Union, two to six per cent of industrial accidents are caused by natural hazards.

As global temperatures rise, some natural hazards, such as droughts, floods and hurricanes, are becoming more frequent and severe, increasing the risk of incidents. In 2017, 22,000 barrels of oil, refined fuels and chemicals spilled across Texas following Hurricane Harvey, according to analysis by Reuters. The US has signed the convention but has not ratified it.

In a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania, heavy snowfall and rainfall in 2000 caused a tailings dam (a structure built to hold mining waste material) to overflow and burst, releasing 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated waste water into the Tisza and the Danube River through their tributaries, killing fish across Hungary, Serbia and Romania.

“Tailings dam accidents can truly be devastating and in some parts of our UNECE region they're ticking time bombs,” said Hirsch, noting that the development of mining activity related to the transition towards renewable energy adds to the risk  when such activities are not safely managed.

While zero risk doesn’t exist, according to Hirsch, countries can manage residual risk. The convention has helped, for example, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – the only one of the four to be part of the convention –, map out tailing ponds along the Syr Darya river, where a disaster could impact over a million people downstream.

In an effort to consider the climate factor, Switzerland has also cross-referenced a map of the risks of flooding, landslides and rock falling in its territory with the locations of industrial sites, in order to pinpoint where the threats are.

Adding war to the mix

The meeting last week also marked the welcoming of Ukraine as a new member to the convention. Kyiv had been collaborating with the industrial accidents body for many years and had announced plans to join it at previous gatherings. In May, the Ukrainian parliament approved a bill proposing its accession to the convention. As a heavily industrialised country, Ukraine already faced enormous risk of industrial disasters, which have only been heightened since the Russian invasion.

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Between February and May 2022, 350 critical infrastructure facilities were damaged by the fighting in Ukraine, with heavy industry accounting for 41 per cent of the damaged sites. (Credit: Zoï Environment Network)

Hirsch is hopeful that Ukraine joining the agreement will bring more attention to the risks and support from other state parties. “Ukraine has about half of all the tailings management facilities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia,” she said.

An attack on a facility in the Dniester River basin could, for example, affect drinking water supply to the port city of Odesa as well as neighbouring Moldova.

With Russia as a fellow party to the convention, the conference could have been expected to turn into another space for international condemnation. But Hirsch said that aside from some political statements at the beginning, countries preferred to leave politics outside the room and focus on cooperation.

The convention also leaves little room for pointing fingers as it doesn’t have a compliance mechanism that can punish countries for not respecting the agreement. “It was discussed in a meeting of the parties in 2014, and there was a decision to rather have a supportive mechanism instead. So we have the Working Group on Implementation that supports parties and beneficiaries of the Assistance and Cooperation Programme in doing better implementation and preparing a national self assessment,” said Hirsch.

One of the main goals of the convention is to get countries to talk and work together, and yet it is one of the trickiest parts. While almost all parties to the convention have national emergency plans in case of an accident, only 12 of them reported having tested, updated and reviewed a cross-border contingency plan between 2016 and 2018.

“Accidents do not respect borders. Maybe in your neighbouring country people speak a different language or there are different procedures for border crossings that should be facilitated in the case of an emergency. All of this needs to be pre-discussed and tested,” said Hirsch.

Despite these gaps, the meeting produced advances, including the endorsement of a roadmap for mine tailings safety and the commitment to address natech risks, including those related to climate change.