The massive volcanic eruption off the coast of Tonga on 15 January produced a blast hundreds of times the strength of the Hiroshima nuclear explosion, according to NASA.
The volcano and subsequent tsunami - which reached the United States, Peru, New Zealand and Japan - reinforced a Tongan proverb, ‘Motu ka na’e navei,’ or “always be prepared for a disaster.” The eruption has led experts to question how they can better manage the environmental impact of natural disasters.
“The effects of the eruption are a reminder of the need for more and urgent investment in ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and climate action to reduce the human and financial toll of natural disasters,” said Muralee Thummarukudy, Acting Head of the Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Global Support Branch at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Sound environmental management, climate change impacts and disaster responses are closely interlinked and require a more systematic and comprehensive approach to disaster risk management,” he added.
Human and planetary cost of disasters
At least three people died in Tonga, and over 80 per cent of the population was impacted by the disaster. The toxic ash caused by the eruption, which reached several South Pacific countries aside from Tonga, has multiple environmental impacts. This ash can contribute to acid rain and acid gas, affecting groundwater, drinking water, the food chain (including fishing livelihoods) and ecosystems.
This is not an isolated incident. A 2020 report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) shows that, between 2019 and 2000, there were 7,348 major recorded disaster events claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people (many, on more than one occasion) and resulting in approximately US$2.97 trillion in global economic losses.
UNEP and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) established the Joint Environment Unit (JEU) in 1994 to respond to environmental emergencies. The JEU coordinates international efforts and mobilizes partners to support countries that have requested assistance. In doing so, the JEU offers a range of services to address the links between the environment and emergencies.
2021 La Soufriere volcanic eruptions
“The JEU has experience in responding to similar emergencies, most recently in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Barbados, where it responded to La Soufriere volcanic eruptions back in April and May 2021,” said Margherita Fanchiotti, the JEU’s Focal Point for Response.
During the emergency, the JEU deployed experts to Saint Vincent, where the volcano is located, and to Barbados, which was impacted by the ashfall. The team included environmental specialists with expertise in volcanology, ash management, environmental pollution (air, soil and water), ecology (with a focus on marine ecosystems) and green response. The JEU also helped with liaison and logistical support.
Over a three week period, the team conducted rapid environmental assessments while advising national authorities on volcano and lahar (mud or debris flow) monitoring as well as on ash clean-up and disposal.
“Some of the key environmental issues that emerged there, and which are likely to be most relevant for Tonga and Fiji too, included air quality - considered moderately unsafe according to WHO guidelines - ash management and related water and soil contamination, sanitation issues in shelters, the excessive use of plastics and amount of waste generated by relief efforts,” said Fanchiotti. “Others were the adverse impacts on agriculture, livestock, marine ecosystems and ecotourism, with implications for food security and livelihoods.”
UNEP’s Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level (APELL) Handbook (second edition) help to motivate and empower local leaders to prepare for emergencies more effectively and build resilience.
“The handbook helps communities prevent loss of life, damage to health, well-being and livelihoods, minimize property damage and protect the environment,” said Thummarukudy. “It is applicable regardless of the nature of the environmental emergency. Whether it is an industrial accident, a disaster or a combination of events, such as might occur following an earthquake, volcanic eruption or tsunami disaster after the Tonga volcanic eruption.”
As the leading global environmental authority that sets the environmental agenda, UNEP continues to work to address natural hazards, disasters, industrial accidents and human-induced crises in some of the most vulnerable communities in the world. UNEP’s work has supported countries including Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.