People, Prosperity, Planet, Asia Pacific, Climate Change, Peace & Partnership

Gauging the environmental impact of disasters

UN Environment | Oct 09, 2018

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This article was originally published by UN Environment and is republished with permission.

Indonesia’s mountainous Sulawesi Island is famed for its many active volcanoes and numerous lakes. It is also an area of high seismic activity.

Agriculture plays a key role in supporting the local economy through the production of cocoa, coconut, rice, vegetables and fruit. Fishing, forestry and nickel mining are also major activities on the island which hosts national parks including the Bogani Nani Wartabone, home to many species endemic to Sulawesi.

On 28 September, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, centered 17 miles northeast of the island’s central Donggala regency, triggered a tsunami which caused massive destruction in the coastal city of Palu. Over 1,500 people died and more than 70,000 were displaced.

The Sulawesi disaster has grabbed the world’s attention through the dramatic images of destruction. However, the full extent of the damage and final casualty figures could take a while to ascertain.  

While the focus will now be on the primary objectives of humanitarian action to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity, earthquakes and tsunamis traditionally generate large volumes of disaster waste – soil and sediments, building rubble, fallen trees, fishing boats, municipal waste, hazardous materials, as well as human and animal remains.

Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami stand next to a ship stranded on the shore in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi. Photo by REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The Sulawesi earthquake showed once again the potential cascading impacts of disasters, with landslides reportedly triggered by the event. At the same time, the Soputan Volcano in northern Sulawesi erupted on 3 October, spewing volcanic ash up to 4,000 metres into the air. This is yet another reminder of the environmental impacts associated with disasters.

Coordinating efforts for faster and better response

Since its inception in 1994, the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit (JEU) has mobilized experts and equipment backed by a strong international network of partners. The joint unit, which is a partnership between UN Environment and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has continuously worked to improve the response to environmental impacts of sudden-onset disasters and complex emergencies.

Since August 1999, when the joint unit was involved in the response to the deadly earthquake which killed more than 17,000 people in northwest Turkey’s Izmit Province, its response procedures have transformed from ad hoc basis to a guaranteed standby capacity. 

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, in which at least 290,000 people were killed or listed as missing, the joint unit deployed environmental experts as part of the United Nations Disaster Assistance and Coordination (UNDAC) teams sent to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This is just one of the emergencies in response to which the joint unit mobilized environmental expertise. With close to 200 response missions completed so far, the joint unit will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2019.

The frame of a new home rises above a field of debris in Kampung Tondo, north of Palu, Central Sulawesi. Photo by REUTERS/Tom Allard

 “Environmental emergency response must be coordinated with overall disaster and humanitarian response, making use of existing national and local coordination structures. At the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit, we work to ensure that environmental expertise is incorporated into existing UN disaster response mechanisms,” said Vera Goldschmidt, Head of the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit.

A host of resources and training are available to member countries

A publication prepared by the joint unit, The Environmental Emergencies Guidelines, highlights the roles and responsibilities of regional and international institutions in emergency response. The guidelines outline the type of support the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit is able to provide to assist countries requesting international assistance for responding to environmental emergencies.

The joint unit further supports nations in fostering their readiness to respond to environmental emergencies by training experts who can then deploy on UN environmental response missions. It also provides them with tools and guidelines to rapidly assess environmental risks, such as the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool (FEAT) and the Disaster Waste Management Guidelines.

The joint unit offers five online courses through the Environmental Emergencies Centre website, an online one-stop shop on environment and emergencies.

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