07 Oct 2020

Lieu: Online | Webex & Facebook

Organisation: Geneva Environment Network

A webinar on the recent environmental emergencies organized within the framework of the Geneva Environment Network, took place on Wednesday, 7 October 2020.

About this session

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

  1. Environmental risks of the Beirut explosion
  2. Environmental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

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.

A Q&A session followed the presentations.



Director, UNEP Crisis Management Branch


Associate Expert, UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit


Operations Manager, UNEP Crisis Management Branch


Welcome and Introduction | Gary LEWIS

UNEP Crisis Management Branch is based in Geneva and work very closely with OCHA. 

Climate change and nature loss will be the defying challenge of the century 

Today, we will share two presentations on the Lebanon response and on the Covid response. We will see what UNEP is doing to respond to them in collaboration of governments and other UN agencies. Indeed, there is a need of making sure that the UN response itself is well coordinated.  

Beirut Explosion | Margherita FANCHIOTTI

Margherita 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. 

Some workers of the UNDAC team were deployed in the 48h after the blast, other took more time because of the tests of Covid-19.  

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: 

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


  1. What was the air quality in Beirut at the time studied? What were the results? 
  2. What lessons can other ports learn from Beirut explosion?

    Answer by Margherita: 
    There was a sharp increase in air pollution immediately after the event, but it came back to the pre-levels in few hours after. There is still concern for the toxic dust. 
    The event was a clear reminder of the need to invest in prevention. There is an ongoing investigation, but it seems that a large amount of ammonium was stored for quite some time and it is possibly link to an abandoned cargo. There is a number of different dimensions: port safety, marine security, chemical regulation, corruption issues…

  3. Plessey Mathews: What is the definition of displaced that has been used to count the 300,000? 
  4. Where was the debris form the explosion disposed?
  5. Christian Sakour (Trinidad and Tobago): Does environmental justice have any application in the management of the aftermath, since the explosion was a result of negligence? 
  6. Hala Razian: Given the political upheaval and perception of a failed government, what national bodies have you coordinated with in the absence of government leadership? How have you managed to overcome this challenge?

    Answer by Margherita:
    The number of people was calculated upon an estimation on the number of people that have been forced to leave their homes and people that have been hosted by their families in the area of the port, the area surrounding the port and throughout the rest of the city as buildings lost their windows.
    Concerning the disposal sites for waste, the disaster management plan is under development and is lead by the Minister of the environment. Some temporary disposal sits have been identified: the main one is a waste sorting facility that has been impacted also by the blast but there is still a large area that can be used temporary. Some of the waste will have to be exported under the Basel Convention and other will be redirect to temporary site within the city. This relates to the differentiation between hazardous and non-hazardous waste to make sure that it is treated accordingly.
    The collapse of the government occurred after the event, they have put in place a national coordination structure that is different than the usual emergency coordination structure that is defined by the Lebanese legislation. In this case it’s the Lebanese arm forces that were placed in charge of emergency response. For environmental issues, UNEP/OCHA regional office has a liaison with the Ministry of the environment in Lebanon. They have been engaged in the response efforts since the beginning although they were not part of the official coordination structure. 
    About the negligence, there is ongoing investigation and the response of UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit was primarily to assess and address the impact of the event rather than looking at the causes of the event itself. 

  7. Shymon Tenkunel: Is there any possibility of un-exploded ammonium nitrate thrown over the area as a result of explosion which in the future can harm? 
  8. Bendi Bendi: What is the main root cause for the explosion of ammonium nitrate suddenly after it had been stored for so many years? 
  9. May Thet Mwe Oo: How long will the chemical contamination remain in the neighborhood and to what extend? 
  10. Miguel (Madrid): Have the potential impacts on the water ecosystem been assessed? 
  11. Amaljeev Krishnan: Does the explosion affect ozone layer in any way? When the explosion in Beirut took place, radioactive elements were released. Are there any long-term impacts of such on the surrounding areas and the environment? 
  12. Bindia Gupta: Any studies about the impacts on marine ecosystems?

    Answer by Margherita:
    For the question on the cause of the explosion and the potential residual risk of the ammonium nitrate, there are some reports on what has possibly happened and there is an ongoing investigation on the causes. According to some reports, it seems that the substance had been stored there for quite some time, 6 years and it originated from an abandoned cargo, the explosion was caused by some maintenance work. But we will only know the situation after the investigation. In terms of the residual risk of ammonium nitrate, they didn’t know what was stored at the port before the blast. The site was isolated and all the safety precaution were taken during the response operation. The question on how long the contamination can remain is not solve but there is an ongoing long-term work on that by the WHO. 
    Concerning water contamination, they have some primary results specially from the port because one of the concerns was that some boats had sank because of the explosion and they needed to know if they contained oil. To some extent, an analysis has been performed at the port and no major concerns arose, but there hasn’t been a full water or soil contamination study.
    In terms of the level of radioactivity. IAEA is working on that. 

  13. Nahla Elrafei (Mission of Egypt in Geneva): Is there a technical assistance program planned for Lebanon in this regard? 
  14. Anaya KhambodHow can the UN help to prevent another Beirut disaster? 
  15. Alice Chatelet: Advocating for taking into consideration environmental concerns is challenging in humanitarian crisis, when “everything is a priority”. How was the situation in Beirut?

    Answer by Margherita:
    All that relate to prevention relates to the mandate of UNDRR (formely UNISDR). Next week, on 13 October it will be the international day for disaster risk reduction. UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit released a publication with UNDRR on man-made and technological disasters that specifically address the issue of prevention of emergencies and human-induced hazards.
    It was the first deployment under covid-19 and the fact that it happened under covid-19 probably contributed to reduce losses of human lives: many of the buildings that were mainly government or environmental agencies buildings in the area near of the explosion site had few people in because it happened in the evening and because of lockdown measures. The fact that everyone was wearing mask had collateral benefits.
    Lakhsmi S: I would like to put forth a suggestion to show our gesture of concern and respect to environment. We all have come across news and videos during the lockdown time where we saw environment bouncing back to normality in the absence of pollution caused by humans. Can’t we have an international day where we all will observe one day tribute to environment by minimal use of private vehicles, one day shutdown for all companies…

    Answer by Gary Lewis:
    We have a lot of international days related to the environment for example, we have Earth Day where we are supposed for one hour a year to turn off everything and still it is not really done. Here, we are talking about disaster that are directly man-made in reality what is coming down to us: stress disasters and chock disasters are going to result from the way we have been treating the planet. Climate change is a main issue and we consider it as a threat multiplier. We better do as much as we can to adapt and mitigate to climate change. The lesson of covid-19 is that it is a planetary nature and is one of the challenges that are going to come to us and in that context it is essential that member states find common cause, no just to come with agreements like the Paris Agreement but also to start to act. As citizens we can also act: consume less, plant trees, vote… Unless we change our consumption pattern, challenges are going to keep coming with climate change.  


Covid-19 has been a huge crisis of our time in our generation for the last months. On 11th of march the WHO declared it a global pandemic. Now 35 million cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in the world with more than 1 million people died. 

Although the COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis followed by economic, labor, 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. 

The economies are down globally. This economic impact has an effect on labor, on the 3.2 billion of people employed in this planet, half of the people were impacted. 300 million jobs were lost. Education has been disrupted. This health emergency has various impacts notably on the environment.  

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. 

Covid-19 can be turned around to an opportunity. Every country is announcing fiscal stimulus. There is an opportunity to use this fiscal stimulus to green the economy. Green jobs can be part of the solution. 1 million dollars invested in the oil and gas industry would produce 7 jobs. 1 million dollars invested in solar industry would produce 16 jobs and in renewable energy in general, 22 jobs.  

The United Nations has developed a number of guidance and are supporting a large number of countries.  


  1. Kezia K. Devis: Do you think that covid-19 have anything to do with the present environmental conditions? Are there any environmental factors which can cure or worsen Covid-19?  
  2. Olubankole O.D. Omokivie: What advise and strategies would you suggest for developing countries, in the light of limited resources coupled with covid-19, in order to develop a robust sustainable post covid-19 waste management systems? 

    Answer by Muralee

    The studies on the origins of the virus are not yet conclusive but we know that is a zoonic disease. Environmental and habitat destruction is what is causing closer and closer interactions between humans and animals and the chance for transmission is higher.
    On the question on whether environmental improvement could help covid-19, the only direct impact is between air pollution on the spread of the illness. It is now proven that the disease will not have a predetermine outcome in all country. The chances of someone having a severe illness and someone dying of it depend on preexisting conditions. The environmental improvement of decreasing air pollution could lead to less impact. 
    On the waste management system question, every country in the world is coming out with stimulus package and in some countries it will take the form of a cash for labor system. If we are able to capture some of this funding to build infrastructure for health management and green jobs segments, then we are channeling this crisis into an opportunity. 

  3. Adira Hari: With the challenges to the environment during this covid time, do you think that people are going to live in a eco-friendly way after covid? 
  4. How can we educate students from school level about the importance conservation and preservation in an effective and practical way apart from academic purpose?

    Answer by Muralee: one lesson we learned from covid-19 is that individuals, societies and countries are able to do extraordinary things and make great sacrifices to their lifestyle and freedom, if they know that they face a crisis that is imminent. Currently, people will not agree to do that to reduce carbon emissions. It is now time for us – people active in the environmental domain – to translate the challenges we are facing and bringing them down to the people and say that climate change is no less that an existential crisis compared to covid-19. 

Conclusion by Gary Lewis

We are facing an existential crisis on this planet and it is up to all of us to respond. What is required is that, us and our leaders, think and plan in terms of what is coming down the road. We need to have an anticipatory thinking and have the responsibility to prepare for the issues that are coming. In a way we are all leaders so we can all act.  


The event was live on facebook.