08 Sep 2020

Venue: International Environment House II (7-9 ch. de Balexert) & Webex Meetings

A briefing on the recent Environmental Emergencies organized within the framework of the Geneva Environment Network, took place on Tuesday, 8 September. Participation to this event was upon invitation.

About this session

This event offered the latest environmental analysis and assessment of three emergencies currently faced by the international community and UNEP’s response:

  1. Environmental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic
  2. Environmental risks of the Beirut explosion
  3. Oil spill in Mauritius from MV WAKASHIO

UNEP and the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit are working around the world to respond to the environmental impacts of natural disasters, industrial accidents, and conflicts. They conduct field-based assessments to reduce the risk of disasters and conflicts and promote environmental cooperation for peacebuilding, among other activities.

The event was a dynamic exchange between environmental experts and an invitation-only group of member states and humanitarian experts. It was a combination of a physical meeting at the International Environment House and on-line virtual participation.



Director, UNEP Europe Office


Director, UNEP Crisis Management Branch


Chief, OCHA Geneva and Chief of Emergency Services Branch


Operations Manager, UNEP Crisis Management Branch


Associate Expert, UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

Charlotta BENEDEK

Head, UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit



Introduction to UNEP Crisis Management Branch | Gary LEWIS, Director, UNEP Crisis Management Branch

This year, the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report identifies climate change and biodiversity loss among top five risks and major challenges the world faces in 2020. For the first time in the survey’s history, the top five risks are all environmental: extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, major natural disasters, major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and human-made environmental damage and disasters.

UNEP’s Crisis Management Branch (CMB) looks at the drivers of human insecurity and responds to them. CMB has over 140 staff in the team, located in GVA, Nairobi, New York, and in some of the fragile states.

CMB has four pillars of area of work:

  1. Environmental security, early warning, pathways to insecurity driven by environmental factors;
  2. Disaster Risk Reduction;
  3. Rapid response to environmentally driven disasters;
  4. Stabilization recovery.

Today’s session will focus on three key response work by UNEP:

  1. Environmental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic
  2. Environmental risks of the Beirut explosion
  3. Oil spill in Mauritius from MV Wakashio.

Introduction to the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit | Rudolf MÜLLER, Chief, OCHA Geneva and Chief of Emergency Services Branch

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has five core mandates on coordination, humanitarian financing, policy, advocacy and information management.

With the Emergency Services Branch, it focuses on mobilizing through partnerships and United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) system to provide assistance to environmental and humanitarian emergencies in the wake of a disaster or conflict.

The Joint Environment Unit (JEU) coordinates and develops tools and mechanism to enable the organization to mobilize the resources in the field through partnerships to respond to environmental dimensions of emergencies. In doing so, the JEU offers a wide range of services to holistically address the links between environment and emergencies, most recently the COVID-19 response, Beirut explosion, and Mauritius oil spill.

COVID-19 has been a challenge for humanitarian actions in Beirut and Mauritius. Since 1994, JEU has been successfully responding as one to environmental emergencies for over 25 years, coupled UNEP’s technical expertise with OCHA’s humanitarian coordination mandate.

JEU also emphasizes the outreach and partnership with member states, private sector, academia and civil societies to ensure rapid response to urgent issues and emergencies.

The JEU also actively responds to climate change and other pressing environmental risks and challenges.

Environmental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

Muralee THUMMARUKUDY, Operations Manager, UNEP Crisis Management Branch

COVID-19 has been a huge crisis of our time in our generation for the last six months. Now 27 million cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in the world with more than 800 thousand died.

Although the COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis followed by economic, labour, education disruption, it poses several environmental challenges and opportunities to national and local authorities at different stages, ranging from crisis management to recovery starting from March.

There are multiple environmental linkages between COVID-19 and environment:

  • Ecosystems and zoonotic diseases – 75% of diseases are transmitted from animals to human;
  • Healthcare and infectious waste management – produced in massive numbers as hospitals are overwhelmed by patients, even in countries with plenty medical resources;
  • Routine waste management and sanitation services in urban settings – fear of contamination causes waste management has been paused;
  • Impact of humanitarian action – due to lockdown and travel restrictions, hundreds of thousands deployed to the field had to return or could not be deployed to the field;
  • Management of biosphere reserves and national parks – poaching might increase;
  • Negative impacts on climate change action
  • Impacts on environmental standards and sustainable development efforts – environmental standards will be lower since the priorities will be placed on economic recovery.

UNEP’s initial strategy in April comprises four building blocks:

  1. The medical & humanitarian emergency phase
  2. A transformational change for nature and people
  3. Investing to build back better
  4. Modernizing global environmental governance

UNEP has taken five key actions to respond to environmental challenges of COVID-19:

  1. Increase awareness about the environmental linkages – environmental challenges are not as obvious and immediate as economic challenges;
  2. Provide guidance on best practices – guide countries on dealing with the challenges;
  3. Provide real-time support to Member States – established a help desk with in-house expertise to provide support;
  4. Support COVID19 related needs assessments: The World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated COVID-linked needs assessment and UNEP contributed to the environmental aspect of it
  5. Engage in recovery planning – to ensure that environmental aspect is included in the recovery plan

What has been completed this far by UNEP:

  1. A series of nine guidance notes on waste management, initially as awareness raising campaign. This is UNEP approach in partnership with other UN agencies, such as WHO, UNIDO, and UNICEF.
  2. Global and Regional Webinar series: the first one was a success and exceeded the capacity. For Asia Pacific regional webinar, it specifically emphasized on the issue of waste picking, which affects most women, children and vulnerable groups. Three webinars in total have been delivered so far. CMB sees tremendous demand for webinars from member states.
  3. Provide real-time high quality technical advice to member states.
  4. Supporting UN peacekeeping missions in 15 countries.

Countries are experiencing only the first wave of the pandemic. UNEP is planning to continue 1) Information dissemination, increasing awareness, and building capacity in Africa, Latin America and Caribbean, Middle East, Country specific, in local languages. 2) Assessment in Philippines, Mauritius, Ecuador, Azerbaijan, Cape Verde, El Salvador; 3) Technical Assistance and other support in Afghanistan, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan.


Andrew Morton from UNEP: could you provide more details about the interim solutions to infrastructure issue with lack of equipment and the disruption to the global supply chain?

Muralee: This is a major challenge. Many countries facing COVID-19 need to deal with waste management and the overwhelming phase has passed. A number of countries where CMB is operating, such as fragile states, do not have the system of dealing with waste management to begin with. CMB is helping with local solutions.

In the past months, the global supply chain began to operate back as normal. In the coming months, CMB will be able to recalibrate and provide better solutions. Those countries also need resources distributed in majorly health care, education and employment to a better health waste management system.

Pieter VERMAERKE (Permanent Mission of Belgium): how does the expertise from WHO and UNEP come together?

Muralee: The COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis and WHO has been leading tackling the issue. UNEP and WHO have an internal working group to work on health waste management issues. WHO leads UN agencies responses and has experts to prepare for the public health emergencies. In India, UNEP has been working on a daily basis with WHO India offices and ministries. Other agencies, such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in India, has ongoing projects working with hospitals and providing solutions. UNICEF as well. We are working as a One UN system around the globe at both coordination and operation level.

Yugratna SRIVASTAVA (UNMGCY): 1) how children are directly impacted by the COVID-19 environmental challenges and can UNEP provide support for children and youth? 2) How UNEP is working with other agencies to provide guidance on some other issues such as human rights, related to COVID-19?

Muralee: In one aspect, children are involved in large numbers across the world in the waste picking industry. COVID-19 made them “untouchable” and made them lose their jobs without supporting system. Many migrants are not even benefiting from national support and subsidies. UNEP will get in touch with the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (UNMGCY).

Environmental risks of the Beirut explosion

Margherita FANCHIOTTI, Associate Expert, UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

Margherita returned from Beirut last week and she was deployed to Beirut immediately after the explosion happened on 4 August.

The exact cause of the explosion is still under investigation. According to the Government of Lebanon, it was the result of the emission of nearly 3,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate.

It is a catastrophic environmental and humanitarian emergency bringing devastating impact to the immense pressure of COVID-19, which comes on top of the economic crisis gripping the country and of the impact of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon.

Overall, over 180 lost lives, more than 6,500 people injured, and around 300,000 people displaced.

This accident is a wake-up call of the catastrophic consequences of environmental emergencies and prevention can save lives.

International community responded rapidly and dispatched support to the crisis. OCHA has country office in Lebanon, and Margherita was deployed through the UNDAC system of OCHA for emergency response from early stage of the crisis.

Lebanese Red Cross and other active national NGOs have been engaged since the first day of explosion.

Coordination is one of the OCHA’s key functions. This is one of the reasons why Margherita was deployed there and was mandated to develop a coordination structure for international response to ensure that the capacities and capabilities come together in a synchronized way to maximize the end results.

According to the coordination structure, UN Resident Coordinator (RC) and Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) are at the top leading of the humanitarian country team and environmental agencies. The Emergency Operation Cell (EOC) was established and chaired by OCHA, comprised of Lebanese Red Cross, other NGOs and key actors. The Environmental Emergency Cell as a sub-cell of EOC was where UNEP played a key role leading environmental agencies on responses to the blast.

Margherita’s role was leveraging environmental expertise across international teams in support of national efforts.

The three immediate environmental concerns arising from the blast are:

  1. Air pollution from toxic gases released during the explosion;
  2. Other hazardous chemical substances at the port;
  3. Disaster waste management.

To respond to these concerns, OCHA has produced following key information products to show key findings on the issues:

  1. Map of ammonium nitrate toxic gas exposure distance to human health;
  2. Map of hazardous materials found at the Beirut Port;
  3. Development of disaster waste management plan.

All environment-related follow-up on the environmental risks identified during the immediate response phase that JEU has to mitigate are covered under:

  • Flash Appeal on pollution and public health implications
    • 0-3 months; 565 M USD, of which 85.7 M USD for health sector (16.5 percent have been funded so far)
  • Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment on rehabilitation of damaged waste management infrastructure, jointly produced by UN, EU and the World Bank
    • 0-12 months; 2.8 B USD, of which 77.5 M USD for environment
  • EU allocations on disaster waste management plan
    • 15 M EUR – secured

Regarding lessons learnt from this blast, the global community need to learn how not to repeat the same mistake. Also, effective coordination can meaningfully contribute to the emergency response to make sure no one is left behind.

Oil spill in Mauritius

Charlotta BENEDEK, Head, UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

On 25 July 2020, the bulk carrier vessel, MV Wakashio, ran aground off the coast of Mauritius carrying nearly 4,200 metric tons of fuel. Causes are unclear yet.

With hindsight, on 6 August 2020, the Republic of Mauritius requested for international assistance. OCHA received the request the same day.

The MV Wakashio contained approximately 4000 tons of fuel oil, 207 tons of diesel and 90 tons of lubricant oil on board.

By 11 August, it was estimates that 1,000 – 2,000 tons of fuel oil had leaked from a breached tank and drifted into the surrounding lagoon, including areas of mangrove.

On 15 August, the ship broke into two parts but most of the oil onboard was recovered.

The oil spill is considered the worst in the history of Mauritius, endangering marine life, ecosystem, food security, economy, health and the tourism, on top of COVID-19.

JEU’s work

On 7 August, one day after receiving the request on 6 August, JEU in collaboration with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) identified and mobilized an oil spill expert.

From 11 August, the expert joined the team in Nairobi working in support of the government and in close collaboration with the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) and NGO partners.

The coordination structure in Beirut is a typical UNDAC one. Within JEU, its international coordination structure and process follows 1) receiving request, 2) identifying needs and demands on virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) and communicating with partners; 3) selecting the expert and deploying the expertise.

The UN response comprises the JEU/IMO expert, two disaster response coordination colleagues from OCHA regional offices, legal expert from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), IOM’s displacement expert and UNRC’s mission support.

There were a number of bilateral deployments from the governments and agencies, such as Japan, India, WFO, WHO, etc.

The three major tasks for the team were:

  1. To provide fact-based, impartial and neutral understanding of the oil spill in support of the Government. The expert facilitated several technical meetings to understand the nature of the spill, the risks, the clean-up strategies, different stages of the pollution, to make sure the national authorities were aware of the situation.
  2. To facilitate daily coordination meetings with the clean-up companies, acted as an advisor to the Police Commissioner in charge of the overall response on behalf of the Government of Mauritius. EOC was also set up near the oil spill site to bring all efforts together with the national coordination system to develop maps, provide internet connections, organize meetings. JEU provides the space to ensure timely coordination and communication and allocate the support when necessary.
  3. To support crisis communication. During emergency response, information flows up and down, and it’s important to make sure communications and information comes together and flows to the targeted audience through situation reports. The expert also facilitated media field visits.

Even with the expert returning to Geneva, the team will continue supporting the recovery operation and wreck removal, shoreline clean-up, and technical support on assessments.

Moving forward after the emergency response phase, the medium or long-term continuation will focus on technical assistance from UN agencies and other governments and agencies. UNEP is contacting colleagues in Nairobi for Nairobi Convention to see how to incorporate the projects into the long-term recovery plan and assessment. Emergency preparedness and response planning and the contingency plan under RC are ongoing.

JEU is continuously following up with counterparts and colleagues on the ground to provide support as much as they can.


Eriko NAKANISHI (Permament Mission of Janap): In terms of response to Beirut/Mauritius, are there other work going on other than the UNEP/OCHA coordination structure, and longer-term response plan?

Bart BROER (Permament Mission of Netherlands): On Yemen FSO Safer, given the political nature of the situation, can UNEP/OCHA provide more updates on their engagement on contingency plan measures for the potential explosion? Also are there any conflict-sensitive suggestions to provide?

Muralee: The long-term impacts of Beirut and Mauritius are linked to maritime shipping port operations. In light of what happened, we are looking at the standard operation procedures. In Beirut, for example, it’s highly possible that hundreds of other ports have confiscated chemicals stored for a long time. At national level, a number of countries have paid due diligence to standardize the operation. A more standard operation procedures on how to deal with cargos with no specific ownership is expected to come out in the future. In terms of the oil spill, the industry is well-regulated. Any new incident needs to be discussed in detail with IMO to check if anything is missing from their operating procedures. This is of UNEP, IMO and some member states’ interest to share lessons learnt in due course.

On Yemen FSO Safer, UNEP has been engaged for almost one year on the issue. UNEP, IMO, the Government of the UK, the USA, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, OCHA, UNOPS, and the company operating the ship came together in Yemen and discussed how to deal with the emergency, should it happen.

At the same time, UNEP and all partner agencies are looking for additional resources to strengthen the capacity of the region to deal with the challenges and potential risks of explosion.


Gary Lewis & Bruno Pozzi

Key reflections of the event:

  1. Quick deployment and mobilization is key in response to emergencies. The team also supported UN coordination under the UN reform framework. For Beirut and Mauritius, the UN were able to demonstrate their team’s work supported coordination response in two cases.
  2. The work can’t be achieved without funding and resources.
  3. We should expect more of such crises and disasters to happen in the future. Global warming and resource scarcity will severely impact human’s life in the future. Adaptation and resilience building is essential and the work needs to be strengthened.

Today we only had the chance to talk about one of the four pillars of CMB’s work. Other work also covers early warning and prevention, recovery, and stabilization.

If there is an interest from member states in creating a group of friends on environmental security, CMB will be happy to support.

Any crisis, either induced by human or nature, has deep negative impact on SDGs which humanity only has 10 years left to achieve.