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A Case Study on Manmade Disasters - Bhopal Gas Disaster 1984

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 3371 words Published: 3rd Sep 2021

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1.1 Disaster:

“Disasters don’t just happen. They are the result of a chain of events, locked together in moment in time.”Disaster is defined as an emergency situation causing wide spread destruction which far exceeds our ability to recover. Disaster is a very common occurrence to the human society. Though its form may be diverse, it has been a challenge for society across castes, creeds, communities and countries. Disasters mainly divided into two most important categories. These include manmade and natural disasters. Whatever may be the type of disaster, it can occur at anytime and anywhere. The biggest problem and very sad thing is the way a disaster occurs; they occur with swiftness and unexpectedness. Disasters themselves have no constraint to specific parts of world.

1.2 Man Made Disaster:

These are mostly caused due to certain human activities. The disasters themselves could be unintentional, but, are caused due to some intentional activity. Most of these are due to certain accidents – which could have been prevented – if adequate precautionary measures were put in place: Nuclear Leaks, Chemical Leaks, Terrorist Attack, Structural destroy etc.

1.3 Disaster management: Disaster management is the discipline of dealing with and minimizing risks: Disaster Management has assumed great importance in current times. To manage the situation efficiently, we need to be well-resourced with newest technologies. It cannot avert the situation, but can mitigate its impacts. Actions taken depend in part on perceptions of risk of those exposed. Effective emergency management depends on thorough incorporation of emergency plans at all levels of government and non-government involvement.

Disaster management cycle:

Disaster phase, Preparedness phase Response phase, Recovery/ Rehabilitation phase,

2. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Title: Bhopal Gas Disaster

Disaster: Bhopal Disaster

Date of disaster: 3 December 1984

Nature of disaster: Human error


The Bhopal disaster, also referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy, was a gas leak incident in India, considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. It occurred on the night of 2-3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals from the plant resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people. A government official declaration in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries .There were mass funerals and mass cremations as well as disposal of bodies in the Narmada River. 170,000 people were treated at hospitals and temporary dispensaries. 2,000 buffalo, goats, and other animals were collected and buried. The gas cloud was composed mainly of materials denser than the surrounding air, stayed close to the ground and spread outwards through the surrounding community. The early effects of exposure were coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation. Owing to their height, children and other people of shorter height inhaled higher concentrations

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2.2 IMPACT OF DISASTER:            

The actual disaster results in a lot of damage to the population in terms of loss of life and property. This direct result can be dubbed as the ‘first disaster’. The impact of the first disaster sends another wave of destruction triggered by chain of events relating to the first disaster by means of cause-and-effect, resulting in indirect damage to people remote from the original disaster. This can be called the ‘second disaster’.

2.2.1 PHYSICAL – Health effects:

The gas cloud was composed mainly of materials denser than the surrounding air, stayed close to the ground and spread outwards through the surrounding community. The initial effects of exposure were coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation.

Thousands of the seriously affected survivors still go through such extensive lung damage that they can no longer apply themselves physically and walking briskly even for a few minutes sends them gasping to their knees.

Women have abnormal gynecological problems and are still giving birth to distorted children. The acute symptoms were burning in the respiratory tract and eyes, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting.

Findings during autopsies revealed changes not only in the lungs but kidneys, fatty degeneration of the liver .The stillbirth rate increased by up to 300% and neonatal mortality rate by around 200%.


Health problems have severe social consequences. Health issues include gynecological and endocrinal complications, as well as high levels of abnormal menstrual and reproductive difficulties as well as higher incidence of miscarriages.

The children of gas and water affected women also suffer from a vast array of congenital deformities, and mental and physical disabilities. In the particular context of deprived and religiously conservative Indian communities, reproductive difficulties and chronic illnesses render many women undesirable marriage partners, causing them to bear significant social stigma.

Indeed, the inability to conceive healthy children sentences many women to live without ever getting married, which can lead to incapability to ever attain economic security.


This could be prevented if taken care when it occurred:

2.3.1 Work conditions:

Attempts to reduce expenses affected the factory’s employees and their conditions. Kurzman argues that “cuts…meant less stringent quality control and thus looser safety rules. A pipe leaked? Don’t replace it; employees said they were told … MIC workers needed more training? They could do with less. Promotions were halted, seriously affecting employee morale and driving some of the most skilled … elsewhere”. Workers were forced to use English manuals, even though only a few had a grasp of the language. No maintenance supervisor was placed on the night shift and instrument readings were taken every two hours, rather than the previous and required one-hour readings .serious communication problems and management gaps between Union Carbide and its Indian operation”,

2.3.2 Equipment and safety regulations:

The MIC tank alarms had not worked for four years.

There was only one manual back-up system, compared to a four-stage system used in the US.

The flare tower and the vent gas scrubber had been out of service for five months before the disaster. The gas scrubber therefore did not treat escaping gases with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), which might have brought the concentration down to a safe level. Furthermore, the flare tower itself was improperly designed and could

Only hold one-quarter of the volume of gas that was leaked in 1984.

To decrease energy costs, the refrigeration system, designed to inhibit the volatilization of MIC, had been left idle-the MIC was kept at 20 degrees Celsius (room temperature), not the 4.5 degrees advised by the manual, and some of the coolant was being used elsewhere.

The steam boiler, intended to clean the pipes, was out of action for unknown reasons.

Slip-blind plates that would have prevented water from pipes being cleaned from leaking into the MIC tanks through faulty valves were not installed. Their installation had been omitted from the cleaning checklist.

Water sprays designed to “knock down” gas leaks were poorly designed-set to 13 meters and below, they could not spray high enough to reduce the concentration of escaping gas.

Carbon steel valves were used at the factory, even though they corrode when exposed to acid. On the night of the disaster, a leaking carbon steel valve was found, allowing water to enter the MIC tanks. The pipe was not repaired because it was believed it would take too much time and be too expensive.

UCC admitted in their own investigation report that most of the safety systems were not functioning on the night of December 3, 1984.


This is the period that immediately follows the occurrence of the disaster. The ambulances and medical personnel arrive, remove the injured for transportation to medical camps or hospitals and provide first aid and life support.

In Bhopal case

Medical staffs were unprepared for the thousands of casualties.

Doctors and hospitals were not informed of proper treatment methods for MIC gas inhalation. They were told to simply give cough medicine and eye drops to their patients, within a few days,

Trees in the vicinity became barren. 2,000 bloated animal carcasses had to be disposed “Operation Faith”: On 16 December, the tanks 611 and 619 were emptied off the remaining MIC. This led to a second mass evacuation from Bhopal.

Formal statements were issued that air, water, vegetation and foodstuffs were safe within the city. At the same time, people were informed that poultry was unaffected, but were warned not to consume fish.


The implementation of mitigation strategies can be considered a part of the recovery process if applied after a disaster occurs.

3.1 Disaster spread and control:

Chemicals discarded at the plant continue to leak and pollute the groundwater.

Contamination at the site and proximate area was not caused by the gas leakage. In 1991 the municipal authorities declared water from over 100 wells unfit for drinking.

UCC’s laboratory tests in 1989 revealed that soil and water samples collected from near the factory were toxic to fish. Twenty one areas inside the plant were reported to be highly polluted. In 1994 it was reported that 21% of the factory premises were seriously contaminated with chemicals.

Studies made by Greenpeace and others from soil, groundwater, wellwater and vegetables from the residential areas around UCIL and from the UCIL factory area show contamination with a range of toxic heavy metals and chemical compounds.

Substances found, according to the reports, are naphthol naphthalene, alpha naphthol, mercury, organochlorines, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, hexachlorethane, Hexachlorobutadiene, pesticide HCH (BHC), volatile organic compounds and halo-organics. Many of these contaminants were also found in breast milk.

3.2 Disaster Recovery

The aim of the recovery phase is to restore the affected area to its previous state. In Bhopal, community participation is not only vital but necessary, and this is apparent in the many different organizations and projects that have evolved out of the tragedy of the Gas Disaster.For years, the Chingari Trust was operating a rehabilitation and special education center out of a very small building in Bhopal. In 1985, in an attempt to address the overwhelming economic impacts of the

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Union Carbide Gas Disaster, the government set up approximately 50 training/production centers in different localities throughout Bhopal to provide gas-affected women with training in trades such as sewing and stationary manufacture.  Thousands of Bhopali women were employed at these sewing and stationary centers in the hopes of improving their economic situations, as many of them were widowed by the tragedy or had husbands incapacitated by the gas.



Previous warnings and accidents:

A series of prior warnings and MIC-related accidents had occurred:

In 1976, the two trade unions reacted because of pollution within the plant.

In 1981, a worker was splashed with phosgene. In panic he ripped off his mask, thus inhaling a large amount of phosgene gas; he died 72 hours later.

In January 1982, there was a phosgene leak, when 24 workers were exposed and had to be admitted to hospital. None of the workers had been ordered to wear protective masks.

In February 1982, an MIC leak affected 18 workers.

In August 1982, a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC, resulting in burns over 30 percent of his body.

In October 1982, there was a leak of MIC, methylcarbaryl chloride, chloroform and hydrochloric acid. In attempting to stop the leak, the MIC supervisor suffered intensive chemical burns and two other workers were severely exposed to the gases.

During 1983 and 1984, leaks of the following substances regularly took place in the MIC plant: MIC, chlorine, monomethylamine, phosgene, and carbon tetrachloride, sometimes in combination.

Reports issued months before the incident by scientists within the Union Carbide Corporation warned of the possibility of an accident almost identical to that which occurred in Bhopal. The reports were ignored and never reached senior staff.

Union Carbide was warned by American experts who visited the plant after 1981 of the potential of a “runaway reaction” in the MIC storage tank; local Indian authorities warned the company of problems on several occasions from 1979 onwards. Again, these warnings were not heeded.


It is during this time that the victims actually realize the impact of disaster. It is now that they perceive the meaning of the loss that they have suffered. During this phase, they need resources and facilities so as to enable them to return back to their own homes, pursue their occupation, so that they can sustain their life on their own, as the help from the government and other nongovernmental organizations is bound to taper in due course. This is called Rehabilitation.

4.2.1 Economic rehabilitation:

Immediate relief was decided two days after the tragedy. Relief measures commenced in 1985 when food was distributed for a short period and ration cards were distributed.

Madhya Pradesh government’s finance department allocated INR874 million (US$15.82 million) for victim relief in July 1985.

Widow pension of INR200 (US$3.62)/per month (later INR750 (US$13.58)) was provided.

From 1990 interim relief of INR200 (US$3.62) was paid to everyone in the family who was born before the disaster.

The final compensation (including interim relief) for personal injury was for the majority INR25,000 (US$452.5). For death claim, the average sum paid out was INR62,000 (US$1,122.2).

On 24 June 2010, the Union Cabinet of the Government of India approved a INR1,265 core (US$228.97 million) aid package. It will be funded by Indian taxpayers through the government.

4.2.2 Occupational rehabilitation

33 of the 50 planned work-sheds for gas victims started. All except one was closed down by 1992.

1986, the MP government invested in the Special Industrial Area Bhopal. 152 of the planned 200 work-sheds were built. In 2000, 16 were partially functioning

It is estimated that 50,000 persons need alternative jobs, and that less than 100 gas victims have found regular employment under the government’s scheme.

4.2.3 Habitation rehabilitation

2,486 flats in two- and four-story buildings were constructed in the “Widows colony” outside Bhopal. The water did not reach the upper floors. It was not possible to keep cattle. Infrastructures like buses, schools, etc. were missing for at least a decade.

4.2.4 Health care

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the health care system became tremendously overloaded. Within weeks, the State Government established a number of hospitals, clinics and mobile units in the gas-affected area

The Government of India has focused primarily on increasing the hospital-based services for gas victims. Several hospitals have been built after the disaster.

The Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) is a 350-bedded super speciality hospital. Heart surgery and hemodialysis are done. Major specialities missing are gynecology, obstetrics and pediatrics. Eight mini-units (outreach health centers) were started. Free health care for gas victims were to be offered till 2006. The management has faced problems with strikes, and the quality of the health care is disputed.

Sambhavna Trust is a charitable trust that registered in 1995. The clinic gives modern and Ayurvedic treatments to gas victims, free of charge.

4.2.5 Environmental rehabilitation

In order to provide safe drinking water to the population around the UCC factory, there is a scheme for improvement of water supply.

In December 2008, the Madhya Pradesh High Court decided that the toxic waste should be incinerated at Ankleshwar in Gujarat, which was met by protests from activists all over India.[48] On 8 June 2012, the Centre for incineration of toxic Bhopal waste agreed to pay INR25 crore (US$4.53 million) to dispose of Union carbide chemical plants waste in Germany.

On 9 August 2012, Supreme Court directed the Union and Madhya Pradesh Governments to, within six months, take immediate steps for disposal of toxic waste lying in and around the Union Carbide factory.


The events in Bhopal revealed that growing industrialization in developing countries without concurrent evolution in safety regulations could have terrible consequences. Even without enforcement, international standards could provide norms for measuring performance of individual companies engaged in hazardous activities such as the manufacture of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in India National governments and international agencies should focus on widely applicable techniques for corporate responsibility and accident prevention as much in the developing world context as in advanced industrial nations Specifically, prevention should include risk reduction in plant location and design and safety legislation.

Local governments clearly cannot allow industrial facilities to be placed within urban areas, regardless of the evolution of land use over time. Industry and government need to bring proper financial support to local communities so they can provide medical and other necessary services to reduce morbidity, mortality and material loss in the case of industrial accidents.

The Bhopal disaster could have changed the nature of the chemical industry and caused a reexamination of the necessity to produce such potentially harmful products in the first place. Safety procedures were minimal and neither the American owners nor the local management seemed to regard them as necessary. When the disaster struck there was no disaster plan that could be set into action.

We need to introduce a system of laws which will make them liable for higher standards of safety. Multinationals operating in India, must agree as a condition of doing business that they will submit to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts both civil and criminal. They must agree to be responsible for the acts of their subsidiaries and not disown them like rats leaving a sinking ship

Prevention is better than cures. Lesson learned from this manmade disaster is to understand the nature of disaster before it occurs and implement better disaster management system in place. When series of accidents occurred frequently in Bhopal plan, if prevented on time properly by Union Carbide India Limited they could avoided this nightmare.

The dead may not have been so unlucky after all. The end came horribly, but at least the nightmare was brief.


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