Field-based assessments of the environmental impacts of crises on human health, livelihoods and security form the core of UN Environment’s conflict and disaster management operations. Through its Joint Environment Unit with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Environment mobilises and coordinates the international emergency response and identification of acute environmental risks caused by conflicts, disasters and industrial accidents.
Upon request from national governments, UN Environment is available to conduct detailed post-crisis environmental assessments based on in-depth fieldwork, laboratory analysis and state-of-the-art technology. These assessments identify major environmental risks to health, livelihoods and security and provide recommendations to national authorities on how to address them.
In specific cases, UN Environment deploys environmental field advisers to emergencies who support the whole humanitarian system respond to emergencies in a way that strengthens environmental management and avoids further damage to ecosystems and natural resources.
In Latin America and the Caribbean since 1994, UN Environment and the Office for Humanitarian Affairs have responded to emergencies in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Two successive events where significant numbers of dead fish were encountered in the river La Pasión were reported in the Petén region of Guatemala in 2015. There were two hypothesis related to the cause of the fish deaths: pesticide contamination or depletion of oxygen caused by organic waste, or a combination of both. The suspected source of contamination was a local industrial facility.
18 communities and 6475 people were affected by the emergency. Communities depend on the river not only for water for consumption but also for artisanal fishing, meaning that the environmental emergency had economic, nutritional and health consequences for the population of Petén.
The environmental emergency assessment mission developed and implemented a sampling programme. Water and sediment samples were collected and tested for a range of pesticides (organophosphates, organochlorides and pyrethroids). The large-scale death of aquatic life in the river was probably caused by a combination of both toxic substances as well as wastewater with a high oxygen demand.
The mission recommended that the emergency response continue with distribution of water be continued until safe water sources have been identified for all affected communities. The findings of the mission will be used to support local development and environmental policies to reduce the risk of a similar emergency in future.
Following the eruption of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic complex in Chile and the deposit of volcanic materials to an area of around 74,000 km² in Argentina and Patagonia, Argentina requested technical cooperation for the assessment of risks the population and the environment in 2011.
A joint technical cooperation mission with Belgium under the leadership of the UN Environment/Office for Humanitarian Affairs Joint Environment Unit was deployed to work with the Argentinean authorities. Four experts were sourced through the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism. The mission concluded that the volcanic material deposited posed a serious burden on lives and livelihoods. The team recommended a full toxicological risk assessment of volcanic material and to establish a comprehensive monitoring system of air, water and soil.
UN Environment was already on the ground when the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. UN Environment began to support government efforts to inspect public buildings as to their safety or need for demolition until the Ministry of Public Works was able to assume the task. UN Environment was then able to start to conduct rapid environmental assessments to identify the impact on natural resources of both the quake and the huge humanitarian operation that the Haitian and international communities were implementing.
Environmental health issues centred around: difficulties with collection and disposal of human bodies; problems of medical waste disposal; uncontrolled disposal of solid waste, with extensive illegal rubbish dumping; massive sanitation problems in the camps for displaced people; a lack of acceptable solutions for disposal or treatment of human waste taken from camps and urban areas, resulting in large-scale open-air dumping of human waste near crowded slum areas.
Natural resource exploitation issues involved: increased deforestation for timber for construction and for fuelwood and charcoal; widespread destruction of urban vegetated areas by uncontrolled settlements of displaced people; major reconstruction projects approved and funded without any real form of environmental impact assessment.
Awareness raising of the issues was a major task. UN Environment published and distributed a Rapid Environmental Assessment. The main target audience was the humanitarian community, which at that time consisted of over 800 active organisations. The reports were pioneering in some respects in that they visibly scored and ranked the environmental performance of the relief and recovery effort. As the observed performance was generally very poor, they were also highly critical.
Other environmental emergency response activities in Haiti:
Disaster waste management: to reduce the risk of chemical pollution and bacteriological contamination, UN Environment together with the World Health Organisation and the Metropolitan Service for the Collection of Solid Waste sought to manage the problems arising from post-earthquake medical waste.
Accordingly, assistance on medical waste management was provided to the Haitian Government through environmental experts and in collaboration with the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency. During the emergency phase, a committee was also established to coordinate emergency tasks and the management of the Truitier dump site, as well as to provide advice and recommendations on redevelopment of the waste management sector. In practical terms, collections of medical waste from 25 hospitals and health centres located in the area were made, and pits were dug at the Truitier site for the burial of medical waste and excreta. To help with this crucial work, UN Environment provided SMCRS with safety gear, including boots, overalls, gloves, helmets, waste containers, plastic bags, goggles and masks, to minimise the health and safety risks of those carrying out the work.