1 This collective volume sets out to answer the following question: how do populations react when disaster hits the place where they live? The importance of this question is growing as the world increasingly faces unprecedented risks: technological risk, with the development of dangerous industries that can affect nearby populations (chemical and nuclear in particular); climatic risk, with extreme climatic events becoming both more likely and more intense, leading to population movements as people seek to escape rising temperatures. Using data on previous disasters, the authors of the 12 chapters in this collective volume seek to inform decision making in relationship to future disasters. The risks are grouped under three main headings: nuclear accidents, forest fires, and other natural disasters.
2 Today, governments face the need to produce low-carbon energy in order to comply with the Paris Agreement and limit the rise of global temperatures. While some have chosen to invest massively in renewable energies already, others have been turning to nuclear energy as an important component in the transition of the energy mix from fossil fuels towards renewable energies. Apart from the question of waste, nuclear energy is considered to produce low levels of pollution, but it poses major risks in case of technical failure. There have been three nuclear accidents classified at Level 4 or above on the INES scale: Three Mile Island in the United States (1979, Level 4), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986, Level 7), and Fukushima in Japan (2011, Level 7). Chapters 2 and 11 examine the consequences of the last two of these accidents for the population.
3 The authors of Chapter 2 go beyond the question of the impact of radiation on the health of individuals, and seek to demonstrate that the main impact of nuclear catastrophe lies in the massive population movements that it causes and the sudden loss of social and economic capital that results (p. 17). Importantly, they point out, unlike other natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions or floods, the contamination of the affected areas prevents local populations from resettling there. Public support for refugees in the areas where they settle is thus particularly important, so that they are not doubly penalized, both by exodus itself and by being unable to find a place in their new environment. The rapid resettlement of the oldest individuals into still-contaminated areas shows that the impact of being uprooted can be more costly than the health risks associated with exposure. Chapter 11 shows the importance of maintaining links between members of communities living in irradiated areas who are forced to move. In the case of Chernobyl, the Soviet Union’s highly centralized management of the disaster contributed to the destruction of these community ties and the associated social capital. In the case of Fukushima, these community bonds were better preserved thanks to a decentralized approach to crisis management.
4 Three separate chapters look at the issue of forest fires. As increasing global temperatures bring more episodes of drought and intense heat, wildfires tend to become more likely. The fires on the island of Euboea (Greece) in August 2021, for example, followed the worst heat wave in the country in 30 years. Moreover, with technological progress and increasing global income, the financial impact of forest fires is also growing. Recurring megafires in California, often linked to electrical installations, offer a reminder of this fact every summer. In 2021, the Dixie Fire almost completely consumed the small town of Greenville.
5 Chapter 3 looks at the demographic consequences of these forest fires, and in particular at where inhabitants resettle after their place of residence is destroyed. Taking the 2017 wildfires in northern California as their research object and school enrollment statistics as their key source of data, the author of this chapter shows that affected individuals seek above all to remain in their city of origin. Thus, after these fires only 500 out of 7,800 people left the county where they had been living. This finding highlights individuals’ attachment to their local roots and shows that public authorities need to support them through rapid reconstruction. Chapter 7 analyses the consequences of forest fires through the case of the small town of Morwell, Australia. Its economic activity has been heavily dependent on an electricity production plant that burned down in 2014, and yet the town’s population has not decreased. Chapter 4 examines the causes of forest fires. Looking at the case of Russia, the author of this chapter offers an analysis that runs counter to classical ideas. Highlighting the correlation at the local level between a low rural population and the intensity of the fires in 2010, the author argues that the few individuals remaining in the countryside lack the skills required to limit the risk of forest fires. This risk, she argues, is amplified by the state’s withdrawal from forest management before 2010.
6 Finally, three Chapters examine the question of natural disasters and their impact on local demography. These chapters provide insights from previous experiences in disaster management, which may prove particularly useful as global heating makes meteorological events such as cyclones and floods more frequent and intense. The floods of July 2021 in Germany and Belgium (more than 200 dead) are a striking recent example.
7 The authors of Chapter 6 study three cities hit by natural disasters: New Orleans, United States (Hurricane Katrina in 2005); Christchurch, New Zealand (two earthquakes in 2010 and 2011); and Innisfail, Australia (two cyclones in 2006 and 2011). They examine the urban land use management after these disasters, in a context of rapid population decrease. While it is clear that initially, restoring functioning infrastructure is essential, in the longer term different responses are needed, depending on the situation. In New Orleans, the hurricane accelerated a decline that was already underway, leaving some neighbourhoods abandoned. Christchurch, in contrast, benefited from a positive dynamic that was only temporarily stalled by disasters. The earthquakes led to a rethinking of land use management, spurring a desire to make the city greener and airier. But in reality, the city was reconstructed along identical lines. In contrast to these analyses of urban areas, the authors of Chapter 7 examine the impact of natural disasters in two sparsely populated areas, northern Sweden and northern Australia, which have experienced very different post-crisis trajectories.
8 Chapter 10 deals with the impacts of two natural disasters on essential infrastructure (electricity, water, transport): a major heatwave in 2009 in southeastern Australia, and a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010. The first led to major power cuts, which increased the vulnerability of at-risk populations (city dwellers and older adults), while the second cut off air travel to much of Europe for an extended period, preventing the delivery of fresh produce and essential components for production chains. The political responses in both cases were rapid. In the first case, the power cuts led to a search for better ways to use the electrical grid in the event of heatwaves; in the second, the aftermath of the eruption stimulated more in-depth research on the exact level of tolerance of aircraft to volcanic dust in order to avoid total airspace closure.
9 In conclusion, this volume offers interesting insights into the nature and consequences of a number of major disasters. However, it lacks an overall architecture that would facilitate understanding of the issues at stake. The chapters juxtapose historical disasters and demographic developments, but does not always offer much clarity on the links between the two.