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The Industrial Accidents Convention and natural disasters: Natech

What is Natech?

‘Natural Hazards Triggering Technological Disasters’ or Natech refers to the interaction between natural disasters and industrial accidents. Natech accidents are technological side effects of natural disasters: a natural disaster leads to a cascading technological disaster, accumulating its consequences.

Technological and industrial accidents can be a result of human factors such as operational errors, lack of maintenance or monitoring, ownership continuity or investment.  They can also be the result of natural events such as earthquakes, floods and heavy storms. This can happen in several ways: natural events can trigger damage, pressure and extreme temperatures leading to failure at installations; and natural extreme events can also convey accidental and heavy pollution caused by industrial accidents across national borders faster and further than in ‘normal’ conditions, through heavy winds, floods or tsunamis. 

Frequently occurring natural events triggering Natech events are lightening, floods, frost, rainfall, and windstorm. Landslides, heatwaves and earthquakes have also led to industrial accidents in the past. Many of these natural hazards listed are climate-related extreme weather events.

Natech events can lead to transboundary pollution through air or water systems. Natech accidents can range from interruptions and technical failures to hazardous substance spills, fire, explosions, mine tailings dam failures, among other things.

Examples of past Natech events with wide-ranging impacts are:

  • The Baia Mare and Baia Borsa accidents in Romania in 2000, with overflows of mine tailings dams caused by extreme snow fall combined with exceptionally high temperatures resulting in peak discharges, in addition to other technical failures. Notably the Baia Mare accidents caused wide-spread transboundary water pollution of the Danube, through Romania into Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria, finally entering the Black Sea.
  • The explosions at a chemical plant following Hurricane Harvey in Texas in the United States, 2017, and the unexpectedly high water levels it provoked - see the UNECE Press Release following the event.
  • A tailings dam breach of a gold mine in Krasnoyarsk, Russian Federation in 2019, following days of heavy rainfall, leading to wide-spread water pollution in the Seiba river – reported in the BBC news. The 2020 Norilsk diesel oil spill occurred in the same region, and reportedly resulted partially from consequences of permafrost thaw.
  • The Fukushima Daiichi power plant accident following the 2011 tsunami - a well-known example of a Natech accident - while nuclear energy facilities are not covered by the Industrial Accidents Convention.

Further examples of Natech events are included in the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC)’s e-Natech database. The JRC’s Lessons Learned Bulletin no 6 (December 2014)  provides detailed descriptions and lessons learned on 20 documented Natech accidents.

Key Partners

UNECE cooperates with key partners on Natech risk management. Our main partners are:

  • The OECD, as secretariat to the Working Group on Chemical Accidents, published an addendum on Natech to the Guiding principles for chemical accident prevention, preparedness and response.
  • The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), provides support in the EU and beyond in exchanging experiences on Natechs.
  • The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction UNDRR: – UNECE has participated in the UNDRR Scientific and Advisory Group on Natech, resulting in exchanges between UNECE and UNDRR on the implementation of the Convention as well as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. UNECE also contributed through sharing experience during several sub-regional and regional events on disaster risk reduction.
  • The UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit, which co-led the publication of the UNDRR Words into Action guidelines - Implementation Guide on man-made and technological hazards. The publication has been prepared as a collective effort; with substantive contributions from UNECE, OECD, the EU Joint Research Centre and others.

In collaboration with these partners, UNECE particularly focuses on the transboundary aspects of Natech risk management.

Please find some key resources on ongoing work on Natech by our partners here below:

How does the Industrial Accidents Convention address Natech risk?

Natech risk falls within the scope of the Industrial Accidents Convention. More specifically, the Convention applies to “the prevention of, preparedness for and response to industrial accidents capable of causing transboundary effects, including the effects of such accidents caused by natural disasters…

The Convention aims to protect human beings and the environment against industrial accidents by preventing such accidents to the extent possible. The Convention and its Parties do this

  • by reducing their frequency and severity; and
  • by mitigating their effects.

As many climate-related natural hazards are increasing in frequency and intensity, managing Natech risks through prevention, preparedness and emergency response is one of the priorities of the Convention.

Considering the scope of the Industrial Accidents Convention, Natech accidents can affect any chemical/industrial installation that manufactures, uses, stores, handles, or disposes of hazardous substances. Some examples of the type of installations that could be affected include:

  • Chemical plants and storage facilities
  • Oil terminals and storage facilities
  • Refrigeration facilities
  • LNG/LPG storage facilities
  • Mine tailings or tailings management facilities (TMFs).

Transboundary effects of Natech events

Because of the potential of Natech events to cause effects across borders, transboundary cooperation on Natech risk management has a legal basis in the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention. This means that the actions on industrial accident risk management – i.e. to manage risk of industrial accidents and to mitigate their consequences – apply to Natech risk management as well, and this includes particularly those risks affecting neighboring and riparian countries. Parties to the Convention and countries that have committed to its implementation, such as the beneficiaries of the Assistance and Cooperation Programme, should prepare:

  • preventive measures (comprising risk analyses and safety studies, the development and implementation of related legislation, policies and measures). This means that operators are required to show that they are managing a hazardous activity in a safe manner.In relation to Natech this includes accounting for risks that originate from natural hazards (see article 6 and annex IV of the Convention).
  • land-use planning and the siting and modification of hazardous activities need to address the exposure to the population that may be affected by natural hazards and risks, as these could cause Natech events – in addition to technological hazards and related risks that are otherwise covered by the Convention (see article 7 and annexes V and VI of the Convention).
  • emergency preparedness through contingency planning – on- and off-site plans, harmonized or joint across borders. These should be reviewed and updated if industrial activities evolve, or if new information or methods on risk assessment and awareness of natural hazards and their possible impacts become available, for example (see article 8 and annexes V and VII of the Convention).
  • mutual assistance and response in case of an accident to minimize its consequences, including technical measures (barriers, pumps, etc.). If triggered by a natural hazard such as a flood, landslide or earthquake, consequences of technological risks may be more extreme and adding to the consequences of the ‘initial’ hazard, which may require additional assistance efforts and respective preparedness (see articles 11 and 12 of the Convention).  

Activities under the Industrial Accidents Convention’s workplans addressing Natech 

The Convention has worked on Natech risk management through guidance development, capacity building and by contributing to projects and workshops, together with partners.

Guidance development

  • Together with other international organizations, UNECE prepared the Words into Action (WiA) guidelines on man-made/technological hazards. It reports on commitments under the Sendai Framework and how to implement them. The WiA guidance contains a dedicated section on Natech risk reduction.
  • Sector-specific guidance and good industry practices on oil terminals, tailings management facilities and pipelines has been prepared through UNECE’s network of experts, including its Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents (JEG), covering relevant aspects of Natech risk.
  • Cross-sectoral guidance has also been prepared under the auspices of UNECE, for example on land-use planning, which also address aspects on Natech risks.
  • Together with the Major Accidents Hazards Bureau of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, an ‘Overview of Methodologies for Hazard Rating of Industrial Sites’ was prepared. It provides an overview of hazard rating systems used by competent authorities in many UNECE member countries for prioritizing resources and directing attention to chemical hazard sites and industries.

Capacity building

  • Transboundary Natech risk has been considered in the Project on hazard and crisis management in the Danube Delta (Danube Delta Project). One of its results was a harmonized hazard map, which includes a Water Risk Index and identifies the location of oil terminals in the Danube Delta, spanning the Republic of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine.
  • To support the implementation of the Industrial Accidents Convention as well as the EU Seveso II Directive, a project on industrial safety and security for the countries of South-Eastern Europe was implemented by UNECE as part of the Environment and Security initiative. It resulted in a guidance and sectoral checklist for preparation and inspection of a safety report on the installation level, which also lists questions on natural hazards.

Projects, workshops and seminars held on Natech with partners

UNECE contributed, under the leadership of the OECD and Germany, and in cooperation with the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Environment Unit, the UN Joint Research Centre and other countries to several Projects and workshops on Natech risk management:

Natech-I Project and workshop on Natech risk management (Dresden, Germany, 23-25 May 2012)

  • This workshop followed the Natech I project, which resulted in a questionnaire to countries on their Natech management practices.
  • The goals of the Natech I workshop were to raise and increase awareness of Natech accidents, make recommendations on best practices, propose enhancement of the OECD Guiding Principles on Chemical Accident Prevention, improving international co-operation and identifying Natech-related research gaps.
  • Following this workshop, the OECD Working Group on Chemical Accidents developed the addendum number 2 to the OECD guiding principles for chemical accident prevention, preparedness and response (2nd edition) to address natural hazards triggering technological accidents (Natechs).  

Natech-II Project and workshop on Natech risk management (Potsdam, Germany, 5-7 September 2018)

  • Its objective was to exchange information by sharing identified good practice examples, to examine how Natech risks can be better integrated in risk management, emergency planning, disaster management and risk communication.
  • Conclusions and recommendations were adopted, highlighting the need for further activities and knowledge-sharing on Natech risk management, including in a transboundary setting.

Natech-III Project (2020 – 2024)

  • In follow-up to the Natech-II project and workshop, UNECE is continuing its cooperation with OECD, Germany, the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit, the EU Joint Research Centre, and other member States and partners, to develop guidance and a brochure on Natech risk management.

Looking ahead: Natech challenges

In 2018, Parties adopted the Long-Term Strategy for the Convention aligned with Agenda 2030, namely the SDGs and the Sendai Framework.  It presents important next steps vis-à-vis Natech risk management (in section 4): “The increased risk of Natech events will be considered in risk assessment and evaluation, safety measures and contingency planning and reflected in the relevant guidance, policy and expert dialogues. The Convention will support national efforts to adapt and strengthen resilience to climate-related hazards and natural disasters (establishing a link to SDGs 11 sustainable cities and communities and 13 climate action).” This support to strengthen resilience addresses future challenges shows that Natech will remain topical, both in adapting to climatic conditions and extreme weather events by 2030, and in increasing technological readiness and safety in times of a growing demand for resources.