Nature and man can reduce whole cities to a pile of rubble hiding dangers that can do even more harm to innocent bystanders.
Hurricanes and earthquakes leave a trail of devastation that masks hazards like toxic waste, decomposing bodies and debris that can stretch for miles.
War leaves terrible destruction even though governments boast pinpoint accuracy from bombs and missiles. All the risks of natural disasters are present – plus the extra potency added to the mix of unexploded bombs, booby traps and mines.
This year seems a year of disasters with brutal hurricanes and storms ripping the heart out of the Caribbean and southern states of the USA.
Forest fires have struck across North America and Europe, while earthquakes have shaken Mexico to a standstill.
Burying waste in a hole doesn’t work
War in the Middle East has razed cities once home to millions to dust.
But what happens to the piles of debris and who clears up the mess?
The go to guys for mass clean-ups are Martin Bjerregaard, director of Disaster Waste Recovery, and Aiden Short, director of Urban Resilience Platform.
Bjerregaard explains that the quick-fix of digging a hole and bulldozing the debris into landfill is a short-sighted policy that does not work.
Although the composition of debris changes depending on the site, the waste includes toxins and dangerous substances, such as asbestos, pesticides, oils and solvents that can leak into the water table and trigger sickness.
Heavy machinery quickly deals with the problem but is expensive and must wait to be transported into many areas as part of a relief program.
How much rubble does disaster leave?
Paying the locals to sort the waste into reclamation for building is slower but brings money into the disaster zone.
How much rubble does a disaster leave?
The experts reckon the ruins of the Syrian city of Aleppo come to around 15 million tonnes of waste.
Timber, stone and other building materials will be reclaimed and recycled into new buildings. Any masonry that cannot be recycled is crushed and goes to road reconstruction.
“Waste is money,” says Ugo Blanco, who has been working for the UN in post-disaster environments for more than a decade. “Waste for many is rubbish, but if it’s properly handled it can be a social income.”