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Is Your Next 'River of Garbage' Looming?

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In a post by my colleague, John Pennington, he highlights the need to 'think outside the box' as emergency managers and consider unique, creative, and innovative ideas when a situation stalemates.

In Beirut, Lebanon, there are many stalemates, including the inability to pick a national leader since 2014 due to political infighting.  Refugees, whose numbers are surpassing one million, are also becoming a major source of contention within the nation.  Furthermore without a formal national budget since 2005, the nation's electricity and water systems are failing, causing additional issues.

River of Garbage

As if that is not enough, it seems that yet another problem has evolved, one with the potential to greatly exacerbate some of the concerns already beginning to cripple the nation - its River of Garbage.  Recent photos show what looks like a white river snaking through Jdeideh, Beirut, Lebanon.

This river of garbage began approximately six months ago, when the government shut down its landfill - without offering an alternative.  The trash situation has sparked protests from citizens, who demand resolution from what they claim is a corrupt government and bribed leadership.

Just exactly what did the government think would happen to all the trash if it was not collected and deposited at the landfill?  Did they even think about the future consequences of their decision?  Did they even consider the health implications?  Or the reaction of its many residents?

Examining a Crisis

The city's trash became a crisis the very moment they closed the landfill without another option being available.  Outside of the obvious health implications, untreated garbage further threatens area water supplies.  A government ban on trash burning has not stopped citizen's from doing so, which is filling the air with toxic smoke and adding to the physical health implications of this River of Garbage crisis.

Exactly when does a crisis begin?  Sometimes, as with natural hazards, it is easy to see the beginning.  In other instances, the beginning of a crisis may be harder to discern, such as the Flint, Michigan water crisis.  Sometimes, a crisis occurs when the proverbial "straw that broke the camels back" falls into place, acting as the catalyst for smaller events that have taken months, years, or even decades to develop.

As emergency managers, looking ahead at how seemingly benign situations or concerns can evolve into a crisis is part of the job criteria.  It is every emergency manager's job to help prevent crises, or at least minimize their impact.  Thinking outside-the-box is a good start, but looking at what might be ahead by using strategic foresight, is also extremely important.  The more absurd the idea, likely the more that can be learned about what actually could happen.

Strategic Foresight

Rick Rescola, head of security at Dean-Witter and associates in the World Trade Center, actually considered such absurd ideas.  He often thought outside-the-box to consider scenarios, that while controversial or maybe even highly improbable, could actually be accomplished.  Rescola even rented a plane and flew around the World Trade Center to understand how one such idea might occur.  Now that is strategic foresight.

Take a look at your city or local jurisdiction.  What do you see?  A crumbling bridge?  An aging water delivery system?  A crowding of roadways?  Now, what don't you see?  What has the potential to erupt into your next crisis?  Are you thinking outside-the-box and considering how other people, organizations (public or private), or agencies may also create a crisis directly impacting you and your organization?

The River of Garbage was certainly a foreseeable crisis that likely, with a little strategizing, could have been avoided completely.

What is your next foreseeable crisis?  What will you do to prevent it from happening?

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.