Press Releases

    20 January 2005

    UNEP Executive Director Calls for Greater Integration of Environmental Issues in Disaster Preparedness, Response

    Environmental Impact of Tsunami Could Be High, He Tells Conference

    (Reissued as received.)

    KOBE, Japan, 19 January (UNEP) -- Environmental issues, as an integral part of disaster-reduction plans, must be at the centre of all development activity, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said today.

    Speaking at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer called for greater integration of environmental issues in disaster preparation and response, and underlined the importance of learning lessons from the recent tsunami disaster in South Asia.

    He warned that while it was too early to present a detailed assessment, early indications from UNEP’s work on the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster were that the direct damage to the environment, including water supplies, forests and other natural resources will likely be high in many of the countries affected.

    "Beyond the immediate concerns of threat to human health and livelihoods, there is increasing evidence of serious impacts on the natural environment, such as damage to coral reefs and protective forests in a number of countries", he said.  "At this stage, it is necessary to carefully assess the situation in a scientific manner.  Beyond this we must look at the necessary responses and also learn lessons from this terrible tragedy."

    "At the global level, in addition to a tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean, it is increasingly clear that we also need a multi-hazard early-warning system that can cover all forms of natural and man-made disasters -- from typhoons to hurricanes to chemical accidents and oil spills", Mr. Toepfer said.

    "Such systems must incorporate more than technology", he said.  "They should represent a new way of thinking that ensures environmental stability factors, based on local wisdom and knowledge, are built into disaster plans."

    "We need a robust nature that can tolerate impacts of disasters and help fight the consequences”, Mr. Toepfer said.  “Therefore, there is a clear need to invest in the environmental capital of natural resources whether they are forests, mangroves or coral reefs."

    "Such an investment, whether in the coastal communities of the Indian Ocean or elsewhere, will lessen the impact of disasters when they happen, and provide for greater stability and reduced vulnerability around the world."

    Using the example of existing rules and guidelines for the construction of roads and buildings in earthquake zones, Mr. Toepfer said:  "In the same way that we have building standards for construction in earthquake zones, we need to put a disaster prevention value on our natural ecosystems.  We need to make our own ‘construction criteria’, criteria that place an ecosystem value on our homes and infrastructure."

    "To achieve this we need more disaster risk environmental assessment, as well as a clear set of risk indicators and warning information.  Without the environmental dimension firmly in the equation there will be no long-term disaster risk reduction", he said.

    Since the devastating tsunami hit coastal communities across the Indian Ocean on 26 December, UNEP, along with other United Nations bodies and the international community, has been assisting the countries affected, and dispatched staff to the region.

    Specific requests for help have so far come from Indonesia, which has asked UNEP to establish an environmental crisis centre, the Maldives, which has requested emergency waste management assistance and impact studies on coral reefs and livelihoods, and Sri Lanka and Thailand for environmental impact assessments.

    An initial assessment report of the environmental damage, including damage to natural sea defences such as coral reefs and mangrove swamps and chemical and waste installations, is expected from UNEP teams next month.  In addition, there will be more detailed assessments of the impact on the environment at eight affected areas.

    Another tragedy in 2004, in the Caribbean, where floods and mudslides caused by Hurricane Jeanne killed up to 3,000 people in Haiti and left another 200,000 affected, demonstrated all too vividly how disasters strike differently, depending on how the ground was "prepared for them".

    In Haiti, extensive deforestation left large hillsides bare, allowing rainwater to run off directly to the settlements at the bottom of the slopes.  In neighbouring Dominican Republic, hit by the same storm, there were few victims to mourn, and part of the reason is that their hills are still covered by a protecting forest.

    In a new analysis by UNEP on the impact of the cyclone, research reveals an 89% correlation between the extent of deforestation and incidence of victims per exposed.  There is also a clear correlation between the extent of environmental degradation and level of development in the countries affected, a point that underlines the vulnerability of the poor to natural and man-made disasters.

    In another example, Japan’s response to its deadliest storm in 25 years provides an excellent opportunity for the world community to draw lessons in disaster preparedness.

    A new UNEP report on the Tokage typhoon that swept across much of southern Japan on 20 October last year shows that, while the human impacts were heavy, extensive damage was avoided due to the good practices put in place at all levels of Japanese society.

    It says the package of measures related to governance, education and awareness, information and data management, and related procedures collectively helped in mitigating the negative impacts of the disaster.

    "Japan has been in the forefront of sound practices in minimizing the destructive impacts of disasters", said Mr. Toepfer.  "This UNEP study will provide valuable lessons for mitigation and management in other countries facing similar disasters."

    "The report also reinforces the importance of environmental concerns in the entire disaster management cycle of prevention, preparedness, assessment, mitigation and response and to integrate environmental concerns into planning for relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and development", he said.

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