Environmental emergency

Environmental emergency

The term environmental emergency is coming into increasingly common usage as the link between disasters and the environment becomes better understood. It relates to the interface between disasters, human life and health, and the environment.


An environmental emergency can be defined as a sudden onset disaster or accident 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.


All disasters have some environmental impacts.

Some of these may be immediate and life-threatening – for example when an earthquake damages an industrial facility, which in turn releases hazardous materials. In such cases these so-called ‘secondary impacts’ may cause as much damage as initial causal factor. As an example in January 2001, the eruption of Mt Nyragongo volcano in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo resulted in a massive lava flow that swept through the town of Goma and triggered the sudden displacement (and almost immediate return) of 450,000 people. The lava flow itself caused few deaths. However, four days later, lava flows set alight a petrol station. Fifty people, who had survived the initial volcano eruption, were killed by the petrol station explosion.

Disasters may also have longer-term impacts. For example, natural disasters may cause long-term waste management or ecosystem damage.

Major international conferences

The Advisory Group on Environmental Emergencies is a unique international forum that brings together disaster managers and environmental experts from governments, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society. It also provides guidance for the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, which provides a Secretariat to the meeting. The most recent meeting was held in Rosersberg, Sweden, June 13-15 2007. At this meeting, the ‘Rosersberg Initiative’ was launched to empower a wide range of stakeholders to address gaps in the global regime to respond to and prepare for environmental emergencies. More details are available at: http://ochaonline.un.org/ochaunep/

Relevant organizations

United Nations

The Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (Joint Unit): UNEP’s emergency response capacity is integrated into the Emergency Services Branch of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The Joint Unit can be reached 24 hours/day, seven days/week, all year round and operates at the request of affected countries. The Joint Unit should be called when acute environmental risks to life and health as a result of conflicts, natural disasters and industrial accidents are suspected. Contact: http://ochaonline.un.org/ochaunep/.

The UNEP Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch (PCDMB): The PCDMB leads UNEP’s support to early recovery by rapidly mobilizing teams of international and national environmental experts to conduct detailed environmental assessments based on field investigations and laboratory analyses. The assessments identify major environmental risks to human health, livelihoods and security, as well as institutional capacity challenges, and recommend an environmental recovery plan to the UN country team and national counterparts. Following the assessment phase, PCDMB implements capacity building, environmental diplomacy and clean-up programmes upon the request of host governments. Contact: http://postconflict.unep.ch.

Non-governmental organizations

CARE International: CARE works at the community level with survivors of disasters and conflicts, delivering immediate relief and longer-term rehabilitation. CARE provides a range of assistance, including food and seeds, tools, temporary shelter, clean water, sanitation services, medical care, family planning and reproductive health services. CARE aims to rebuild livelihoods and reduce disaster vulnerability through the sustainable use and management of natural resources. CARE has specific expertise and capacity in conducting community-based environmental assessments.http://www.care-international.org/.

Benfield Hazard Research Centre: The Centre transfers cutting-edge natural hazard and risk research, practices and innovations from the academic world to the humanitarian response community. In particular, the Center has developed a tool for Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disaster Response (REA). Real time REA assistance is available within five to seven days, and experts can remain in the field for up to a month. http://www.benfieldhrc.org/.

Disaster Waste Management (DWM): DWM’s goal is to provide timely solid waste management and environmental protection support to communities affected by emergencies. Working with key stakeholders, DWM’s support varies from advice and training to implementation of projects.

World Conservation Union (IUCN): IUCN is not a disaster relief or humanitarian assistance organization, but it can play an important role in addressing environmental impacts, particularly by supporting efforts to rehabilitate affected areas. http://www.iucn.org

See also

*World Conference on Disaster Reduction
*Global Alliance for Disaster Reduction [http://www.gadr.giees.uncc.edu/]
*Global Disaster Information Network [http://www.gdin.org/]
*Natural disasters
*Disaster management
*Risk management
*Emergency Capacity Building
*Environmental disaster


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