MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - Late 2007 and early 2008 have become a real trial for both the Old and New Worlds. Heavy snowfalls and frosts have paralyzed life for some time in California, states in America's Northwest, and the countries of Western and Central Europe.
Britain is expecting yet another flood. In Moscow, December and January have been the warmest in the history of instrumental observation, which started in 1780.
There were bigger natural disasters in history. Today scientists are predicting that the warming, which is a source of deep concern, will soon give way to a cold spell - the observed rise in temperature is of a strictly natural origin and has nothing to do with the greenhouse effect. Some experts believe that the genuine reasons of climate change are uneven solar radiation, precession (change in the direction of Earth's axis of rotation), unstable oceanic currents, periodical desalination and salinization of the Arctic Ocean's surface layers and their subsequent movement to the Atlantic.
Disasters caused by humans and associated environmental catastrophes are posing a much larger threat to humankind. According to a UN estimate, in terms of the number of casualties these events rank third among all calamities.
It is more and more difficult to breathe in big cities and unpurified water may cause health problems. Forests are being destroyed, and once fertile lands are turning into deserts. The mining of natural resources is creating huge holes in the Earth's crust. These processes are increasing, and the biosphere is no longer able to make up for the powerful anthropogenic influence, which is being aggravated by frequent man-made disasters. The latter include fires, floods and gas explosions in mines. They are not always of a global nature, but often produce the largest number of casualties and inflict considerable damage on the economy.
Man-made catastrophes have social roots because technical systems are being designed, produced and controlled by people. Disasters result from an error in the operation of sophisticated systems, and since these were built and operated by people, the human factor is beginning to play an increasing role in causing catastrophes. It manifests itself in engineering blunders, mistakes by personnel and the like. The human factor caused one of the worst environmental man-made disasters at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant 21 years ago. Its consequences are still felt by a number of countries, particularly Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
Viktor Osipov, director of the Institute of Helioecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes that natural and man-made disasters will become one of the main threats for humankind in the 21st century. A dangerous trend has become evident recently - damage from disasters and expenses involved in their cleanup are implacably growing. In an estimate by the institute's experts, by the middle of the century, up to 50% of global production growth will have to be spent on cleaning up the damage from potential disasters.
What risks does Russia face?
The huge national economy, its long-term extensive development, technological backwardness alongside structural reforms have created prerequisites for the growing threat of man-made disasters. The bad situation is made worse by obsolete technical equipment, the increasing wear and tear of basic production assets, and the growing number of potentially dangerous facilities nearing their life expectancies. The ratio between direct and indirect damage from man-made disasters and the GDP is two to three times higher in Russia than in the United States and other industrialized countries.
Russia has entered a phase of the systemic crisis, where negative economic, social and technical trends of the last 15 years are beginning to trigger new types of disasters. This is aggravating the threat of man-made catastrophes even more. At the same time, Russia's economic potential of ensuring a high level of technical safety is limited.
In an estimate by the Institute of Metal Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, starting in 2008 the number of gas pipeline breakings will grow by 2.5-3 times every year and will reach 5,500 accidents a year by 2010 unless measures are taken to eliminate pipe corrosion.
A quarter of the Russian railway main track has rails past their service life or with defects. A third of all motor roads are in critical condition and 65% of them require repairs. The safety of dams and other potentially dangerous facilities is not maintained on a proper level.
Russia has accumulated radioactive waste with an aggregate potential of 55 Chernobyls. Dozens of decommissioned submarines stay afloat in harbors with nuclear fuel on board. The accumulated reserves of enriched uranium and plutonium, warheads and nuclear charges are no less dangerous.
The internal environmental threats to Russia's security are exacerbated by external dangers because of its proximity to all major regions of world economic activity.
Can this situation be improved?
Obviously, it is impossible to avoid man-made disasters altogether. Director of the Institute of Sustainable Development and associate of the Russian Academy of Sciences Natalya Tarasova has emphasized that zero risk can only be achieved in systems devoid of accumulated energy and chemically and biologically active components.
Proceeding from this premise, Russia, just like other countries of the world community, has adopted a concept of "acceptable risks," which relies on the predict-and-warn principle. Experience shows that predicting future calamities and preparing for them costs at least 15 times less than their cleanup.
Yury Zaitsev is an academic counselor of the Russian Engineering Academy.