Human history is filled with man-made environmental disasters, from oil spills to chemical explosions. Several man-made environmental disasters have taken place around the world. However, the most number of disasters are attributed to the 20th and the 21st century.
Humans impact the environment in several ways- overpopulation, deforestation, pollution, burning fossil fuels, and more. These activities trigger climate change, air quality, erosion, and other issues.
Due to increasing population and growing demands, humans continue to exploit the environment and its resources. This rapid overexploitation of nature directly or indirectly leads to deadly environmental disasters.
Here are some of the deadliest man-made environmental disasters in history:
The Dust Bowl
The southwestern Great Plains region of the United States witnessed a severe drought between 1930 and 1940. Once an arid grassland, the plains became home to hundreds of farmers who farmed and grazed cattle on the land. As demand for wheat grew, farmers plowed the prairie grasses and several more acres.
The dry land farming led to the destruction of prairie grasses and large grassland areas. Eventually, the land turned bare and environmental damage began with the winds in the region being strong and devastating.
As drought began in 1930, the over-farmed and gazed lands began to blow away. The drought conditions and depleted land led to deadly dust storms- reaching 10,000 feet in the air. The strong winds blew across the plains, rising massive clouds of dust. The dust-covered numerous buildings and houses.
Over 100 million acres of land were affected by the dust bowl. There were approximately 14 dust storms in 1932 and 38 more in 1933. 300,000 plus people abandoned their homes and migrated to California. The dust bowl was one of the deadliest man-made environmental disasters in the United State’s history.
Poison in Minamata Bay
This disaster began when the people of Minamata, Japan, began to notice that the cats in the area were falling into the sea. Later, the whole region began to report strange illnesses such as numbness in the limbs, difficulty hearing or seeing, tremors in the arms, and even brain damage. It was clearly evident that something was affecting their nervous system.
In July 1959, experts from Kumamoto University found the source of the illness- high levels of mercury poisoning. They called it the ‘Minamata disease‘. As Minamata is a fishing town on the Shiranui Sea coast, the town’s people include fish in their daily diet. Thus, researchers suspected that the fish were being poisoned.
The petrochemical plant in Minamata, run by Chisso Corporation, was suspected. The corporation was releasing industrial wastewater with a high mercury level into the sea around Minamata from 1932 to 1968. An estimated 27 tons of mercury were dumped.
Over 1,700 people have died from the Minamata disease, which causes convulsions, loss of hearing and sight, paralysis, coma, and, gradually, death.
Ecocide in Vietnam
During the Vietnam war between 1955 to 1975, the United States military forces strayed Rainbow Herbicides such as Agent Blue, Purple, Pink, and Orange over the jungles of Southern Vietnam. The herbicides were used to destroy the forest cover to deprive the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops of hiding places and food.
The United States military forces strayed around 19 million gallons of herbicide over 4.5 million acres of land in South Vietnam. The term ecocide was coined to denounce the ecological damage and destruction and also as the cost of human life was devastating in the region.
Of all the herbicides, Agent Orange accounted for half of the deadly chemicals used by the military. The chemicals were not only sprayed in Vietnam but also in areas of Cambodia and Laos near the borders of Vietnam to test the spraying of the chemicals.
The world’s worst industrial disaster occurred on the 2nd of December 1984, when a chemical- methyl isocyanate (MIC)- split out from the Union Carbide India’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. It was India’s first huge industrial disaster, killing over 15,000 people and affecting around 600,000 workers. About 30 tons of MIC escaped into the atmosphere.
There were several warning signs long before the disaster occurred, such as pollution within the plant, death of workers, etc. A journalist even published his finding on the plant titled ‘Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano’.
The gas leak impacted humans, animals, and trees. After the leak, the trees in the area became barren. Animals were found dead. People ran on the streets, vomiting, suffering, and dying. Bhopal ran out of cremation grounds. Today, the plant remains a toxic waste site polluting the groundwater in Bhopal.
Around 40,000 people lost their livelihood when cod populations crashed in the waters off of Newfoundland in 1992. The region’s marine ecosystem was devastatingly affected due to overfishing.
Currently, fishing stocks from Iceland to Chile are suffering and overfishing. The world’s oceans are being pushed to their environmental limits. The ocean is dying as humans continue exploiting the sea’s life.
Decreasing fish populations severely affects the predators of the sea. The entire food chain in the ocean is being disrupted due to human greed. This can also affect the livelihoods and economics of local fishing communities.
Pollution in Lake Victoria
The largest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria, is become a victim of several environmental issues. The lake is currently experiencing chemical and raw sewage pollution, a plague of water hyacinth plants, overfishing, and exploding algae blooms that are harming flora and fauna around.
Further, the lake’s border is beginning to shrink by around 250 feet in a few places. Approximately 80 percent of the lake’s fish species have decreased. The water quality in rivers flowing into Lake Victoria continues to carry silt and nutrients due to human activities.
Around 40 million people from Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya rely on the lake for their livelihood and subsistence making this disaster one of the worst unraveling man-made environmental disasters.
Today, our entire world is facing a huge man-made environmental disaster simultaneously- Global warming. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, extreme wildfires, droughts, heat waves, flooding, and more are caused by humans’ increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Billions of people in the world are suffering due to global warming and climate change. Approximately 83 million people worldwide could be killed by 2100 because of global warming.
This disaster is going to be one of the longest and deadliest man-made environmental disasters in history.
Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.