Major environmental issues arising for Haiti recovery

January 28, 2010
United Nations Environment Programme

Port-Au-Prince – Two weeks after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January, a massive humanitarian operation is underway and aid is beginning to reach those who desperately need it in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas. The most urgent priorities remain water, health care, shelter and food.

Thanks to a team of senior experts on the ground, UNEP continues to provide technical assistance and support on environmental matters to the Humanitarian Country Team and to the local government, including through emergency environmental assessments of affected sites and active participation in the humanitarian cluster system.

Field-based rapid assessments since 13 January have identified a number of major environmental issues for the short and medium term, including:

Medical waste: Emergency response operations are currently generating a very significant amount of medical waste, which is piling up in hospitals and medical treatment centers. No systems or equipment are yet in place to dispose of these potentially hazardous materials. UNEP is working with the Haitian Government and WHO to establish an appropriate containment space and handling procedures for this waste in the Port-au-Prince area.

Rubble and demolition material: In the epicenter and highly affected areas, the percentage of destruction or severe damage to buildings and other structures is 60-80%. The volume of demolition waste potentially generated by recovery and reconstruction operations has yet to be technically estimated, but will be in tens of millions of tons. Recycling efforts are already being observed, but debris is also being dumped in large quantities on the roadsides. Unless this issue is managed properly, additional environmental impacts will arise. UNEP is working with number of other partners to develop a Debris Management Strategy for Port-au-Prince and environs.

Secondary spills and hazardous chemicals: Recovery and reconstruction operations will in time work over a large number of badly damaged small industry and storage sites. This implies a risk of oil and chemical spills. The extent and impact of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from sources like damaged electric transformers also need to be assessed.

Landslides: Multiple small landslides visible on all hillsides in the impacted area. Little movement has been noted so far, mainly due to the coral sand geology and dry conditions. However, many more landslides are anticipated after the first heavy rains.

Geological and flood risks for rebuilt camps: Many damaged accommodation areas will be further degraded by the earthquake as it has destabilized slopes and blocked drainage lines with debris. There is a high potential for building back better and disaster risk reduction through improved hydrology, slope stabilization by revegetation, and geological engineering work.

Environmental impact of massive population displacements: The massive ongoing displacement of population represents an immediate pressure on local resources. It has been reported that over 1,000,000 people have moved to less affected rural and urban areas in the western part of the southern peninsula, central and northern part of the country. In the short term, these population's energy and livelihood needs will create additional pressure on Haiti's already exhausted natural resources.

Green food and cash for work schemes: Several million people have been economically affected by the quake, which has destroyed the Port-au-Prince regional economy for the medium term at least. It is anticipated that the most vulnerable will be assisted with large-scale food and cash for work schemes. Opportunities exist to direct these schemes to sustainable "green" and disaster risk reduction activities such as clean-up, urban catchment rehabilitation and reforestation.

UNEP will continue to support the people of Haiti and the international community throughout the emergency and early recovery phases, through targeted interventions aimed at mitigating further environmental risk, "building back better," and ensuring long-term sustainable recovery.

A Flash Appeal for USD 575 million, covering a period of six months, was launched by the UN and international partners on Friday 15 January. The Appeal includes USD 1 million for environmental interventions during the early recovery phase of operations.

In addition to post-disaster interventions, UNEP will continue to develop the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, a long-term programme to be implemented by a wide range of partners, aimed at reducing poverty and vulnerability to natural hazards through the restoration of ecosystems and sustainable natural resource management. Well planned, concerted action will be required over the next 20 years and beyond to halt the ongoing degradation and to gradually restore the Haitian environment and related livelihoods.

For More Information Please Contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson/Head of Media, on Tel +254 20 7623084, Mobile: +254 733 632755, Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

or Silja Halle, UNEP Communications Advisor, Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, on Tel: +41 22 917 8441, or Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)