Sun-drenched Mauritius, with its breathtaking mountains, pristine beaches and turquoise waters, is a tourist paradise. Located at the tail of the Indian Ocean cyclone belt, the archipelago is also highly vulnerable to adverse impacts of climate change. So much so that the 2018 World Risk Report ranks it 16th among the highest disaster risk countries.
Tourism, which contributed about 24.3 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018 up from 23.8 per cent the previous year, is increasingly being impacted by coral bleaching due to higher sea water temperatures and beach erosion. Some beaches shrank by more than 10 metres over the last decade.
The country’s vulnerability is due to a range of climatic, biological, geological and technological hazards. In recent years, the increasing frequency and intensity of cyclones, torrential rains and flash floods have also threatened people’s livelihoods in the islands.
In March 2013, 11 people were killed by flash floods in Port Louis. The passage of Tropical Cyclone Fantala, with 280 km/hr gusts, threatened the low-lying islands of Agalega and St Brandon.
In March 2017, the passage of Tropical Cyclone Enawo at 250 km/hr gusts in the Southern Indian Ocean region posed a threat to the main island of Mauritius. More recently, in February 2019, Cyclone Gelena with 165 km/hr gusts crossed approximately 50 km southwest of Rodrigues Island leading to flash floods that caused the displacement of 259 people as well as damage to infrastructure, private residences and farms, and severely affected the electricity network.
Mauritius’ disaster risk profile by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery highlights that flooding is the second largest risk after cyclones, causing 20 per cent of the direct economic losses associated with disasters. Most of these costs arise from damage to people’s homes.
But climate change is not the only risk driver. Rapid urbanization on formerly agricultural land has strained the national drainage system and increased the occurrence of flash floods, destruction of housing, infrastructure and crops, and putting the population at risk of vector and water borne diseases.
To improve disaster risk reduction and management, Mauritius developed in 2015 the National Disaster Scheme. The scheme encompasses the whole spectrum of the disaster management cycle, with emphasis on a coordinated multi-agency approach and a greater focus on disaster risk.
According to the latest Voluntary National Review of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, “Mauritius moved from being a low income to an upper middle income economy with the ambition of evolving into a high income country despite its inherent vulnerabilities as a Small Island Developing State devoid of natural resources, subjected to the tyranny of distance, natural disasters and the effects of climate change and highly vulnerable to external shocks and global trends.”
In August 2019, at the request of the Mauritius government, the Capacity for Disaster Reduction Initiative deployed a team of 11 experts to support a multisectoral approach to the archipelago’s efforts to withstand climate change and disaster impacts. The initiative is a global partnership of 20 organizations working towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by developing countries’ capacity to reduce climate and disaster risk.
“Access to sewerage infrastructure and drainage systems are some of the most urgent issues that need to be addressed in order to lower disaster risk, since only about 29 per cent of the population is connected to the sewerage network in the country. Most are connected to septic tanks which overflow during the rainy season. Each flood then increases the risk of diarrhoea and stomach ailments,” says Karin Stibbe a disaster risk specialist deployed for the Joint Environment Unit (JEU) of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) by the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Since 2014, the Mechanism has provided environmental experts like Stibbe over 20 times to the JEU.
“Addressing risk requires collaboration. The communities in Mauritius are committed to disaster-risk reduction and the government has established an environmental police unit as first responder when a disaster occurs, which works closely with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Center. While policies and institutions are in place, there are gaps in coordination which can be minimized through knowledge sharing,” says Stibbe.
Since its inception in 1994, the Joint Environment Unit has mobilized experts and equipment to over 200 emergencies globally, backed by a strong international network of partners. It has continuously worked to address and mitigate the negative environmental impacts of sudden-onset disasters and complex emergencies.
It supports nations in their response to the environmental dimensions of emergencies by training experts who can deploy on UN environmental response missions. It provides humanitarians and environmental experts with tools and guidelines to rapidly assess environmental risks, such as the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool and Disaster Waste Management Guidelines.
UNEP is also a co-founder of the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction, a global alliance of 24 organizations that promotes ecosystem-based solutions to disaster risk reduction. The alliance calls for increased investments in ecosystem restoration and protection, with particular attention to lakes, swamps and peatlands to reduce the impacts of water-related disasters.
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