25 Sep 2019 Story Disasters & conflicts

Weathering the storm after Hurricane Dorian

Photo by Corentin Cartuyvels/OCHA.

The Abacos are a picturesque group of Bahamian islands and cays that form a 120-mile-long chain stretching over 650 square miles. Historically, the islands’ economy was based on fishing and boatbuilding but in recent years, tourism and citrus farming formed the major source of livelihoods.

In ordinary times numerous tourists flock the islands whose sparkling blue waters are perfect for water sports and fishing. But these are no ordinary times. Since 1 September 2019, when Hurricane Dorian made landfall, tourism has been shattered.

The hurricane, the second strongest in the Atlantic on record and the strongest to ever hit The Bahamas, caused widespread destruction of property and infrastructure. According to the government, as of 15 September, 50 people lost their lives. With over 1,300 people still missing, the casualties are expected to rise.

On 8 September, the Joint Environment Unit of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, deployed an expert, as part of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team sent to support the response, to conduct a rapid environmental assessment following the disaster.

 Many airports were closed and hundreds of flights cancelled in the Bahamas and the US
Many airports were closed and hundreds of flights cancelled in the Bahamas and the US. Photo by Margherita Fanciotti/Joint Environment Unit

“The area in between Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay was the worst affected by this emergency. The hurricane left a catastrophic trail of destruction, with demolished buildings and windswept trees. Power distribution has been hampered as all power lines were damaged,” says UNEP environmental expert Margherita Fanchiotti.

“I’m here to support the local administration as well as the government’s Department of Environmental Health Support in mapping and assessing damage to facilities that use hazardous substances. Early detection of risk allows us to rapidly mitigate negative impacts to human health, livelihoods and the environment before it is too late.”

Since its inception in 1994, the Joint Environment Unit has mobilized experts and equipment to over 200 emergencies globally, backed by a strong international network of partners. It has continuously worked to address and mitigate the negative environmental impacts of sudden-onset disasters and complex emergencies.

“With storms like these we are looking at massive amounts of rubble, which take significant financial and human resources to manage. There is a potential to recycle a lot of the debris and we are working with the government to develop a comprehensive disaster waste management strategy that will address opportunities for recycling as well as special considerations for hazardous waste,” says Fanchiotti.

Hurricanes such as Dorian have crystallized the existential threat posed to small island developing states
Hurricanes such as Dorian have crystallized the existential threat posed to small island developing states. Photo by Samaritan’s Purse

In October 2018, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction released a report which highlighted the staggering financial impact of climate-related disasters. In the period between 1998 and 2017, disaster-hit countries reported direct economic losses of US$2,908 billion, of which climate-related disasters accounted for US$2,245 billion, or 77 per cent of the total.

It will take time before the full impact of Dorian in the Caribbean and the southern United States is established. However, the storm is yet another reminder of the need to accelerate increased investments in disaster prevention, response and recovery mechanisms. 

In May, UN Member States at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Geneva, Switzerland called for increased investments in ecosystem-based solutions for disaster prevention.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Integrated coastal zone management should recognize the importance and economic expediency of using natural ecosystems such as mangroves and tropical coral reefs to protect coastal human communities.” Natural systems will need to be protected and enhanced if we are to mitigate the impacts of future climate emergencies.

But response will also always be required. The Joint Environment Unit supports nations in their response to environmental emergencies by training experts who can deploy on UN environmental response missions. It provides humanitarians and environmental experts with tools and guidelines to rapidly assess environmental risks, such as the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool and Disaster Waste Management Guidelines.

A power sub-station owned by Bahamas Power And Light company. The Abacos experienced power cuts due to damage from the hurricane
A power sub-station owned by Bahamas Power And Light company. The Abacos experienced power cuts due to damage from the hurricane. Photo by Margherita Fanciotti/Joint Environment Unit

The Joint Environment Unit also offers five online courses through the Environmental Emergencies Centre website, an online one-stop shop on environment and emergencies.

UNEP is a co-founder of the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction, a global alliance of 24 organizations that promotes ecosystem-based solutions to disaster risk reduction. The alliance calls for increased investments in ecosystem restoration and protection, with particular attention to lakes, swamps and peatlands to reduce the impacts of water-related disasters.

For further information on the mission, please contact [email protected].

Learn more about the work of the unit.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.