24th November 2023

Book in Focus
Introduction to the Theory of Human-Induced Disasters

By Alfonso Niemand

Alfonso completed his PhD research at the University of the Free State (UFS), South Africa, in the faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. He studied under Professors Andries Jordaan and Dusan Sakulski of UFS, Professors Fabrice Renaud and Joerg Szarzynski of the United Nations University, Japan, and Professor György Pátzay of the University of Public Service, Hungary.

His book is a breakthrough in the field of disaster research. For the first time in the science of humanities, disasters which are directly caused by human beings are explored in detail. 

 Dr Niemand, why did you choose this title?

Disasters do not always come in the form of earthquakes, tornados, spewing volcanos, droughts, floods, and snowstorms. Those are the known ones, the natural hazards or acts of nature which have been researched extensively in all corners of the Earth. However, this book opens up a new, unexplored field in disaster research, namely disasters directly caused by humankind: human-induced disasters. It covers a broad spectrum of man-made disasters, from hazardous establishments that can explode, burn, or release toxic gases, to political corruption and incompetent leaders, rampant crime, mass shootings, and even vehicle collisions.

The book takes a closer look at risk exposure for humans, animals, vegetation species, and objects such as infrastructural assets and property. They are all vulnerable, in varying degrees, to the negative consequences of human-induced disasters. In addition to disaster vulnerability, related concepts such as resilience and coping capacity are explored. A new concept is also introduced, namely disaster sustainability, particularly applicable to human-induced disasters. This book should open up the minds of researchers to broaden their investigative scope.

What were your biggest challenges in writing this book?

Human-induced disasters have not been studied before. Resources from which I could gather guiding material were therefore non-existent. And yet, this kind of disaster happens around us every day! Examples are abundant and I tried to include as many as possible in the text, to bring the message home that disasters caused directly through human activities should be elevated to the same research and information level as natural hazards. Think about global wars as one example.

In human-induced disasters, people play a central role as the creators of the hazards and the initiators of the disaster. When we involve people, the science of psychology enters the arena. Human behaviour is determined by basic needs, motivation, and emotions, of which there are literally thousands in operation instantaneously in the human mind. The way in which psychology and human-induced disasters are interwoven astounded me. It took a lot of careful analysis to link the human mind to disasters in practical ways so as to understand the rationale behind disastrous events. Now that minefield was a gigantic study field that I had to explore, while continuously remaining alert to the risk of losing sight of the central focus of disaster dynamics.

Disasters have always been with us since the beginning of mankind. What makes your title different?

All research on natural disasters, or natural hazards, to date has focused on three main aspects: the vulnerability, resilience, and coping capacity of people as the basis for the formulation and implementation of disaster risk mitigation measures. My title introduces a fourth important concept, namely sustainability. It answers the following questions: can human, animal and plant life, as well as objects, be sustainable under human-induced disaster conditions? If not, what can we as people do to make it sustainable? Once we know the answers, we can start managing the disasters meaningfully.

Secondly, I introduced systems theory as a valuable analytical tool that helps us to understand the dynamics of any disaster, even those that are caused by natural hazards. It has never been done before. Systems theory is a study that focuses on the interrelationships between individual elements that collectively comprise a system. This means that the properties of the whole system are taken into consideration in addition to the properties of the individual elements. In this context, a system is considered an entity which maintains its overall function through the mutual interaction of its individual independent elements or components. Disasters are nothing but an interaction of individual system elements. For example, a human-induced disaster comprises the initiating human being, the activities involved, the event itself, and the various receptors of the disastrous event.

Thirdly, I introduced a new concept of objects or assets. They can also be affected negatively by disasters and the same principles of vulnerability, resilience, coping capacity, and sustainability are true for them. Take, for example, a reactor in a hazardous chemical production facility. It is a very important piece of equipment; it makes products that are sold on world markets and generate revenue for the company owners, shareholders, employees, and their families. If the reactor had been designed incorrectly, or operated poorly, a major disaster can be the result. Another case in point is a vehicle accident. The vehicle is an important asset to its driver and the driver’s family. If it gets damaged or destroyed in a collision, many people will suffer the effects of loss of transport and continued bank payments.    

Fourthly, I cast the net widely where the impacts of a disaster are concerned – it’s not only about human beings, it’s also about animals, flora, and faunal species. Disasters affect them too.

What can potential readers expect from reading your book?

The book has been written for a diverse spectrum of readers that includes researchers, academics, lecturers, students, disaster responders, and the general public. The disaster risk concepts are generously illustrated through proper examples. The book gives the reader new insights into the mechanisms of human-induced disasters, how they are caused, their consequences, how they can be prevented, and how they can be managed through mitigation of the effects. It explores new concepts in disaster theory in general and provides a platform from which further research can be done. Several case studies are included to illustrate the concepts of vulnerability, resilience, coping capacity, and sustainability. The reader is encouraged to use these case studies to further explore the theory of human-induced disasters. In this regard, questions are listed at the end of each case study, to stimulate discussion by readers or learner groups.

If there is one highlight in the book, what is it?

Throughout the years of research, disaster experts have not endeavored to quantify the concepts of vulnerability, resilience, coping capacity, and sustainability. In this title you will find a methodology for quantifying these qualitative parameters. I considered it imperative to do that because, as Lord Kelvin said, if you can measure what you are talking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it. Human-induced disaster risk comes in all shapes and sizes and we have to be able to quantify and compare them to be able to manage them. For example, when we formulate risk mitigation measures to protect humans, animals, vegetation, and assets, we should be able to measure the effectiveness of these measures. Otherwise, it may be a wasted effort.   

What can humankind learn from this title?

The silent killer in our time is human-induced disasters. They have always been with us, taken for granted as something that we have to live with and nothing more. The prevention and mitigation of human-induced disasters is everybody’s responsibility, not that of the authorities. Every citizen should be aware of them, every day. This helps to make our world a better place for us all to live in.

Alfonso Niemand is a business consultant, specialising in the assessment of health and safety risks and environmental legal compliance in industries. He spent more than 30 years in the petrochemical industry in various managerial positions. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of South Africa in chemistry and theoretical physis, and a Masters’ degree in business leadership from the same university. For his Doctoral degree at the Disaster Management Training and Education Centre of the University of the Free State in South Africa, he developed an optimised model for the regulatory management of human-induced health and safety risks associated with hazardous establishments.

Introduction to the Theory of Human-Induced Disasters is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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