01 Jul 2019 Story Disasters & conflicts

Silver jubilee: celebrating the work of UN’s Joint Environment Unit in environmental emergencies

Humanitarian action offers the opportunity to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after man-made crises and natural disasters. It also offers the chance to prevent and strengthen preparedness for future emergencies.

Twenty-five years ago, following a Member States request, UN Environment and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs formed the Joint Environment Unit. The unit’s goal was to respond to the environmental dimensions of emergencies by coordinating international efforts and mobilizing partners to assist affected countries and communities.

“Our role in the unit was to bring different actors and partners together and to reach a common language,” says Vladimir Sakharov, first chief of the Joint Environment Unit. “This requires imagination and invention, flexibility, and I would say courage,” he adds.

The Unit’s work addresses the environmental dimensions of emergencies, offering technical support, tools and guidance to conduct rapid assessments and enhance the sustainability of humanitarian action.

The following are five major emergencies—out of over 200 missions completed so far—in which the unit has deployed its expertise:

Improve artisanal miners’ safety in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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In July 2004, eight people were killed and thirteen seriously injured during the partial collapse of the Shinkolobwe uranium mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Joint Environment Unit organized and carried out a multidisciplinary assessment of the collapse with experts in mining, environment, radiological contamination and environmental health.

“Because we had experts from several different disciplines within our team, we could look at all aspects of the mine collapse, then provide the authorities with recommendations on how to minimize environmental risks and enforce safety standards better, protecting local people, especially children,” said Rene Nijenhuis, then officer in charge of the Unit.

Protecting the environment in refugee camps in Darfur

In 2002 and 2003, long-term ethnic conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region escalated into open warfare, forcing an estimated 1.6 million people to flee their homes. The majority of the internally displaced were housed in temporary camps within Darfur, where their presence put pressure on already scarce environmental resources.

The Joint Environment Unit conducted, along with partners, a rapid assessment in three camps and identified serious emerging problems.

“The Darfur assessment confirmed that major negative environmental impacts arise from the survival-driven need to exploit natural resources, inadequate waste management and the life-threatening lack of proper sanitation. Addressing these and other environmental concerns needs to be integral to effective camp planning and management,” said Charles Kelly, Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment Project Lead.

Addressing hazardous waste management in Côte d’Ivoire

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In August 2006, hazardous substances were dumped at several sites in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s capital. In September, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team was deployed to assist.

The team identified up to 18 dumping sites and confirmed the toxicity of the chemicals found.

The Joint Environment Unit followed up by participating in a UN emergency preparedness support mission, where it was agreed that future disaster contingency planning include environment as a key component.

“An environmental emergency that has a major impact on public health can have a dangerously destabilizing effect in a country,” said Joanna Tempowski, a scientist from the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization. “This is especially true where a government is already operating in a climate of social unrest and political instability, as was the case in Côte d’Ivoire at the time. A prompt, well-coordinated and politically neutral response is therefore essential, and good communication among the different agencies is vital.”

Preventing future oil spills in Bangladesh river

On 9 December 2014, an oil tanker accident in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh led to the release of 350,000 litres of heavy fuel oil into the Shela River and mangrove ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage and Ramsar site.

A joint United Nations and Government of Bangladesh response mission was rapidly formed, deploying national and international experts to assess the situation. Ultimately, the mission recommended safeguards and mitigation measures in all significant marine routes, to minimize the risk of another vessel collision and potential oil spill.

Tackling dam instability in Colombia

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In May and June 2018, the Joint Environment Unit deployed a team of experts to address dam stability concerns at the Hidroituango dam in Colombia, in response to a request for assistance from the Government.

A series of landslides, coupled with rising water levels in the dam reservoir, led to significant risk of dam break. Downstream areas, with a population of up to 120,000, were evacuated. The team was led by a UN Environment team leader and included two experts mobilized by the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Remote provided environmental analysis services

The team advised the Government on real-time dam operations, thus facilitating the decision-making process during the emergency. The team also  provided longer-term recommendations on risk mitigation.

For further information, please contact Charlotta Benedek or Emilia Wahlstrom.

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