Bridging the gap between human and environmental disasters

by Roy Brooke

Was the Bhopal chemical plant accident an environmental or a humanitarian disaster? What about the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption, which had far-reaching consequences for the environment as well as a severe impact on local people? And any other disaster, which regardless of its origins, affects either people, the environment, or both? Too often, disasters get labelled as being one or the other without considering their consequences in a holistic and integrated fashion.

This compartmentalisation is refl ected in how the disaster management community often responds to disasters. Many organisations are capable of providing humanitarian relief, but few have the mandate and experience to respond to environmental disasters and integrated response capacity is rare. At the international level, the Offi ce for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNEP founded the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit in 1994 to address this.

Effects cross over; response should too Very often, natural disasters bring harm to people and simultaneously change the environment. As such, important volcanic eruptions may produce combined negative results: human victims, destruction of natural habitat, heavy atmospheric pollution leading to climate change. Largescale fl oods and landslides may equally well damage soil and crops, affect important ecological areas, kill people.

On the other hand, technological or industrial accidents may have devastating effects on both population and the environment. Toxic spills from dumping sites and obsolete dams pollute rivers, kill aquatic life and pose serious threats to human health. Fires at pesticide storage facilities may lead to serious environmental damage and have negative effects on humans. Chemical pollution is dangerous both to people and other elements of the environment. That is why various man-made accidents, such as explosions, fi res, toxic leakages and pollution, are normally called by the single name “environmental emergencies”. However, the application of this term would depend on the general approach to interaction between humanity and the environment.

Take the well-known Bhopal accident, which is usually referred to as a serious environmental emergency. In fact, it turned out to be a human tragedy, when a poisonous gas escaped from chemical plant, killed thousands of people and left many more blind. Toxic gas disappeared relatively quickly leaving no other damage. In this case, if human beings and the environment are taken separately, this industrial accident should be called a humanitarian disaster than an environmental emergency.

Oil spills, especially large-scale events, such as the Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez and the Russian Komi spill, represent environmental emergencies that may badly affect nature without direct harm to human beings. In this case, economic activities may be disrupted but human life is not normally at risk. Special classes of truly complex environmental emergencies such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the Gulf confl ict, and a combination of natural and technological emergencies also exist.

Although there are certain differences in this great variety of disasters, from a practical point of view the causes of various emergencies are irrelevant. The fact is that all of them have negative impacts on various elements of the environment and can have devastating primary or secondary humanitarian impacts. This common point is important for practical assistance in case of different types of emergencies.

Traditionally international emergency assistance has evolved as purely humanitarian assistance. Assistance concentrated exclusively on human beings and its main task was to provide relief to the affected population by bringing food, drinking water, clothes and medicine. But industrialisation in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries, and the inevitable accidents, have increased the environmental awareness of the international community and led to the development of international environmental assistance.

Gaps recognised, solutions sought However, up to now only two particular types of disasters have been covered by international arrangements: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may provide assistance in the event of nuclear accidents; and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) takes responsibility for marine oil pollution from vessels. Many other kinds of environmental emergencies in developing countries, including industrial and chemical accidents, have remained without consistent assistance.

OCHA and UNEP sought to address this situation, considering two pragmatic aspects: the fact that human populations and the environment are closely interlinked and should be considered and treated as one single structure; and the availability of basic international mecha-nisms for traditional humanitarian relief that could be used for the provision of environmental assistance.

The idea was that “by helping people we assist the environment, and by assisting the environment we help people”. Indeed, some simplistic examples can be given. If an affected population receives enough international food assistance, they will not continue poaching; if they get appropriate fuel, they will stop cutting down trees.

On the other hand, when environmental assistance is provided – for instance in response to a chemical spill – it may save both aquatic organisms and human life. It means that international humanitarian and environmental assistance are as closely intertwined as man and the environment in general. These processes should therefore go hand in hand and be further developed as a single operation.

Moreover in many cases the practical form of international response would be the same in either type of emergency. A breaking dam containing toxic sludge must be repaired in any instance, whether it poses a threat to fi sh, people, or both. A harmful oil spill must be cleaned up, regardless of its exclusively environmental impact, provided the cleanup does not cause more ecological damage than the oil. Appropriate measures should be taken with regard to an accident at a chemical plant, in spite of its impact on humans only.

Now affected countries know exactly where to turn to in case of various emergencies, including environmental ones. Potential donor countries quickly receive all available information on disasters, which helps them to determine precisely what is needed in specifi c situations, taking into account assistance provided by difference sources. This speeds up the reaction of the international community and focuses it on the most immediate needs. Unifi ed Humanitarian- Environmental International Assistance is now coordinated and better provided to those in need.

Roy Brooke is programme offi cer at the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit.

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