04.10.2010 Red sludge disaster, Hungary

The red sludge disaster (full report in PDF file)

On 4 October 2010, the wall of a giant reservoir of an alumina factory collapsed near Ajka, Hungary. The reservoir contained the caustic by-product of aluminium production (the so-called red sludge). Approximately one million cubic meters of red sludge – diluted by recent heavy rainfalls – flooded three nearby settlements and approximately 40 square kilometres of land. Some components of the mud were seriously hazardous. It polluted the ecosystem, caused chemical burns on humans and animals, and there were incidences of upper respiratory catarrh due to inhalation of the fine fugitive dust of the desiccated mud.

The outburst was unanticipated and sudden, leaving no chance for preventive evacuation. In addition, neither the locals nor the first responders had appropriate information about the hazardous qualities of the material. This lack of information resulted in confusion that had a negative effect on the first attempts of interventions


The red sludge flooded three settlements and the surrounding arable lands. 718 people were permanently evacuated. There were serious casualties: 10 people died, 286 required medical attention, and 120 people were hospitalised (Hajaajaajas 2011).3 Some first responders were also injured as initially they did not wear appropriate protective gear due to the mixed messages about the hazardous nature of the sludge.
Several residential buildings, public properties, industrial and commercial establishments were ruined. A total of 364 properties had become uninhabitable or needed reconstruction. 810 hectares of agricultural land were covered with sludge (Vágf öldi 2011).


Most important lessons learned

– CMS should be operating as a Complex Crisis Management System that provides complexity in two ways:
– CMS protocol should provide continuity of crisis intervention from the acute phase all through long-term aftercare and ensure the relationship between these phases. Helper teams change in between the phases but victims remain the same and should be treated with consideration of previous interventions.
– The CCMS coordinating team should include a representative of each discipline involved in order to promote and coordinate cooperation between different intervening agents. As Wisner (2011) proposed, referring to IDRiM:
It would bridge scales from the global to the local, involving a wide range of actors or stakeholders. It would draw on local as well as outside specialist knowledge, and this external knowledge would come from a wide array of professional and scientific fields from economics and the social sciences to the earth and biological science and engineering, public administration and communication. (Wisner 2011, 1)
– Professional complexity was present only within high-level leadership of CMS in time of the red mud disaster. Neither members delegated to mid-level CMS nor their way of operation was well thought trough.

As psychosocial interventions are of great importance throughout the entire crisis management process, experts should be delegated into mid-level CMS leadership.
– Protocol should include ways of funding and institutional resources to provide compensated institutional psychosocial work on site after three months’ volunteer work.
– All methods and competence that psychology has to offer should be utilised, far beyond clinical treatment. (E.g. psychological first aid, psychoeducation, mediation, coaching, stress management, conflict resolution, counselling, community building, etc.)
– Promoting resilience and social cohesion (as social capital) should be a priority in CCMS. Victims should regain control over their lives as soon as possible, their sense of control and competence and their social cohesion should be supported.
– The use of media and social media should have special attention. An effective and dedicated communication strategy should be designed for CCMS for the entire process of aftercare including guidelines for mid-level decision makers.
– According to our experiences in the aftermath of the red sludge disaster, most members of the Hungarian CMS were not aware of the importance of psychosocial interventions. We believe that psychosocial awareness should be represented in mid-level CCMS management, therefore, as a crucial element of prevention, we suggest lectures and/or trainings for municipal leaders and potential decision-makers about psychosocial processes in crisis situations.