GLOBAL: When volcanic ash gets in your way

JOHANNESBURG, 26 April 2010 (IRIN) - Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano - unlike Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, the 20th century's second largest eruption - will not contribute to climate change; on the contrary, by grounding flights over Europe for almost a week it helped saved thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Eyjafjallajökull's volcanic ash has left behind a trail of derailed humanitarian aid missions, delayed handovers and cancelled workshops. "But the world did not come to a crashing end!" said Tom Sharman, ActionAid International's climate justice coordinator. "It has got me thinking of proposing that it might be a good idea to observe a 'No-fly day'!"

Aircraft are responsible for up to four percent of the annual global harmful carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels near the earth's surface, according to the US government's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

When Mount Pinatubo erupted it killed 800 people and displaced several hundred thousand, and released an estimated 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide and ash, causing erratic weather that amounted to short-term climate change, according to researchers.

"The major parameter that characterizes the ability of a particular volcanic eruption to affect the climate is the amount of SO2 [sulphur dioxide] injected in the stratosphere," said Georgiy Stenchikov, Professor of Environmental Science at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, one of the researchers who led research into Pinatubo's impact on climate.

The SO2 is converted into sulphate aerosol - droplets of highly concentrated sulphuric acid - which has a "long lifetime and reflects solar radiation". Reduced solar radiation lowers temperatures and changes atmospheric circulation patterns, but the "Icelandic eruption emitted 5,000 times less SO2 than Pinatubo, so there will be no detectable climate effect", Stenchikov said.

Although Eyjafjallajökull's eruption was small compared to others in the past, it caused enough chaos to leave many thousands of travellers stranded, the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) said in a statement. The plumes of volcanic ash scuppered many trips, missions and assignments by aid agencies that will take weeks to sort out.

Being stranded costs money

However, if you are an aid worker employed by the UN or a government and are stranded in a European city with a high daily subsistence allowance (DSA), or per diem - Latin for "per day", often used to mean daily expenses or reimbursements - you might be grateful to those plumes, despite the inconvenience.

The DSA in Europe can be as high as US$400 a day. Michel Tonneau, chief of the Movement Management division of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) acknowledged that mounting costs on account of high DSAs was a concern in such situations.

Unlike the UN and government agencies, most NGOs reimburse claims rather than hand out a daily subsistence allowance and expect their employees to be conscientious about saving money, aid workers said.

When unforeseen circumstances leave aid workers stuck in a place with a high per diem, they are usually asked to move to cheaper hotels or even bunk in with national staff, said Tonneau. ActionAid's Tom Sharman said the head of their Cambodian office was stuck in London and found relatives to stay with.

Norbert Allale of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) was to fly from West Africa to the Haitian capital, Port-Au-Prince, to take charge as the Relief Coordinator of the organization's Haiti Earthquake Operation.

"[His] flight was cancelled, he still doesn't know when he can get started - as you can imagine, quite a workload is awaiting him," said his colleague, Pablo Suarez.

ActionAid's Sharman was due at the four-day World People's Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia on 19 April, but he not only missed the opportunity to interact with other NGOs after the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, he was also meant to bring funds to cover the daily expenses other ActionAid participants.

"The other participants fortunately made it but were stuck without any money!" He found someone in Bolivia to help the participants with their costs, but was still trying to work out how to reimburse the benefactor.

Greener options

The tremendous backlogs will persist for some time, and grounded flights are forcing NGOs to use greener options, like teleconferences. IFRC's Marie-Jose Vervest was to have helped other NGO partners develop a community-based climate change adaptation project, to be implemented in Mali, West Africa.

She provided her input via teleconferencing, but her colleague, Suarez, commented: "Of course, technology misbehaves, and so we will need to spend extra time coordinating with Malian colleagues to finalize our proposal."

Sharman said, "In most of the countries we work in, the technology is not good enough for video-conferencing or teleconferencing, but that is the way to go - we hope it gets better and we will not need to fly!"

Erwin van 't Land, the Paris-based International Communications Coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical NGO, had a sobering thought amid the chaos: "Obviously, should there be a major new emergency it may be more complex than normally to bring staff and supplies to the victims in a timely manner."

An early warning system and preparedness plan for volcanic risk would be a good idea the UN ISDR suggested, and called for closer interaction between decision-makers and the scientific community.

Volcanologists are to meet from 31 May to 4 June in Tenerife, capital of the Canary Islands, to discuss the effect of volcanoes on megacities, and volcanic crisis management.