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Disaster Risk Reduction Platform
Disasters and conflicts can impact the environment in ways that threaten human life, health, livelihoods and security. In addition, environmental disasters can also have severe and long-lasting impacts on the ecosystems.
In many countries the rate of industrial growth has outpaced the setting up of appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with environmental emergencies. People living in developing countries and in particular the poorest are the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental emergencies which often have long term secondary impacts affecting their livelihoods.
According to UNEP’s Governing Council, “environmental emergencies are sudden-onset disasters or accidents resulting from natural, technological or human-induced factors, or a combination of these that cause or threaten to cause severe environmental damage as well as loss of human lives and property ".
A wide range of environmental emergencies occur around the globe. Three main types of environmental emergencies may be distinguished:
- Technological or man-made disasters (usually resulting from an industrial accident often linked to brownfields)
- Terrestrial and aquatic oil spills such as happening over decades in the in Niger Delta contaminating land, crops, drinking water, fisheries and mangroves
- Explosion of chemical plants or power plants such as burst of the reactor of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 leading to the death of 30 people and affecting over 200 by acute radiation sickness
- Toxic substances from mines such as the collapse of the uranium mine in Shinkolobwe, Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004 killing eight people and seriously injuring 13
- Pollution of rivers with toxic chemicals such as the major cyanide spill in the heart of Romania’s mining region in 2000 which decimated local fish populations and polluted drinking water in Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria, before dissipating into the Black Sea
- Deliberate dumping of toxic waste such as in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 2006 where toxic waste imported from Europe has been dumped at numerous sites around the city requiring medical treatment of over 80,000 people
- Natural disasters (often triggered by human activities)
- Large-scale vegetation fires release gases and particles noxious for humans and interfere with air transport such as the rainforest fires in Indonesia in 1997
- Earthquakes cause destruction of infrastructure and have the potential of secondary environmental impact such in Izmit in Turkey in 1999 where 17,000 people died and nearly 50,000 were injured
- Tsunamis such as the one in South Asia in 2004
- Landslides and earth slips such as the mudslides in Xiaolin, China in 2009 following heavy rainfalls from the typhoon Morakotwhich
- Floods such as the case in Pakistan 2010 where one fifth of the country was flooded killing 1,700 people, destroying or damaging 1.8 million houses and having a huge impact on the land use thereby affecting the livelihoods of 20 million people
- Hurricanes such as Katrina along the Gulf coast, USA in 2005
- Change in rainfall pattern and prolonged drought as happening in the Sahel in the last years leading to food shortages and mass migration
- Complex emergencies resulting from conflict and war
- Conflicts may put serious stress on the environment such as in Lebanon in 2006 as the Israeli air force bombed the Jiyeh power plant, damaging storage tanks and releasing an estimated 10,000 tonnes of heavy fuel into the eastern Mediterranean Sea
- Mass population displacements such as the conflict in Kosovo in 1999 leading to the migration of some tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Albania and Macedonia stressing drinking water and sanitation systems
- War and conflict situations lead to the breakdown of law and order thereby favouring uncontrolled open access to natural resources resulting in their depletion
Most disasters and emergencies have both humanitarian and environmental impacts. Human populations and the environment are closely interlinked; therefore international humanitarian and environmental assistance should also be interlinked.
Find more information about Environmental Emergencies on the UNEP and the OCHA websites and in the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit publication "Environmental Emergencies: Learning from multilateral response to disasters".