The horrific train crash near Larissa on March 1 shows how disaster can manifest anywhere at any time. The February 6 earthquakes on the Turkey-Syria border demonstrate how unprepared many authorities in the region are for typical environmental events. We could avoid disasters if we choose. How well does Greece do?
We have a NASA-funded project researching and detailing examples of disasters avoided. We are learning from Greece and can offer Greece lessons from the world. Transportation and industrial disasters can be prevented through systems engineering, well-trained staff, and a behavioural culture of risk reduction.
Similar actions can avoid disasters involving earthquakes, weather, and other environmental phenomena. People and communities require political power and sufficient resources to create a society including infrastructure that can withstand nature’s energies and forces. Disasters do not come from nature, but from choices to build in harm’s way, and to force people into harmful situations, without adopting known measures for reducing risks. So called, ‘natural disasters’ do not exist, they are just ‘disasters’.
In fact, Larissa previously indicated how to avoid disaster.
On March 3 2021, a shallow, moderate earthquake rocked the area followed by at least three significant aftershocks. Roads and other infrastructure experienced severe damage. In addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, earthquake-induced landslides and broken power lines posed threats.
Yet in Larissa, years of education and building codes helped to avert calamity. With around a dozen injuries and likely at least one death, tragic circumstances still emerged. It could have been much worse. After the shaking stopped, teachers helped their pupils to leave their schools (which had not collapsed) without injury. Others safely evacuated their homes and workplaces. A major disaster could have occurred, but did not due to long-term actions to avert problems from known seismic potential.
The possibility of disasters remains. On September 7, 1999, Athens was shaken by an earthquake around half as powerful as Larissa in 2021. Over 140 people died. On July 23, 2018, more than 100 people perished in a wildfire in Mati on the outskirts of Athens. October 15, 2022 witnessed a handful of deaths during floods in Crete, five years after a dozen people were killed in flash flooding just west of Athens.
Greece boasts Law 3013 (ΦΕΚ 102/1-5-2002) on “civil protection” alongside the General Secretariat for Civil Protection aiming to prevent, plan for, and deal with emergencies. “Xenokrates” (Ministerial Decision no. 1299/2003) is the National Civil Protection Plan. Numerous warning systems, such as the European Flood Awareness System and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in Toulouse, along with regular training exercises and rescue teams including EMAK, support Greece in avoiding and responding to disasters. The Hellenic National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (HNP-DRR) backs many of these efforts.
Our Disasters Avoided project proffers further lessons from other countries. In Bangladesh, flood risks are tackled by cooperative and coordinated action among national and local government, non-profit organisations, businesses, academia and, crucially, ordinary people (including volunteers). They have worked for years toward long-term commitments and actions to minimise the harmful impacts of flooding from cyclones, monsoons, and rivers. It is not risk elimination. Rather, through continuous vigilance, governance, and accountability—and learning from near misses—warnings, evacuations, and living with water help to avoid disasters involving floods.
Meanwhile in Australia, wildfires through bushfires and grassfires are intrinsically part of many landscapes. Some native species such as eucalypts depend on fire for life and rejuvenation. Indigenous peoples around the country have long lived with fire. Today’s Australia is understanding their methods within overall efforts to manage wildfire risk and cascading impacts such as on vegetation and soil leading to post-fire flood risks.
Major fires, notably the 2009 Victoria bushfires and the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, led to Royal Commissions and a strong focus on coordinated action to avoid disasters and to live with nature. Governance and accountability are paramount.
Neither Australia, nor Bangladesh, nor Greece remains immune from catastrophe. Each provides plenty to each other while gaining through exchange. The key is willingness to invest in saving lives, which also reaps financial rewards through avoiding the huge costs and horror of a disaster. Disasters in Greece can and should be avoided by acting over the long-term to apply existing knowledge.
Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England and a Professor II at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. His research interest is linking disasters and health, integrating climate change into both.
Gareth Byatt owns Risk Insight Consulting, and has previously held various full-time senior risk roles in the international engineering and construction sector. He assists clients to maximise and transform their performance with corporate, operational, and project risk management and the application of practical organisational resilience.