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Disaster relief efforts impact environment

A tsunami survivor in a new housing complex in Seenigama, Sri Lanka

(Keystone Archive)

Swiss aid, disaster relief and environment experts have held talks in Bern to discuss ways of ensuring that future reconstruction efforts do more good than harm.

The specialists were in agreement that the poorly co-ordinated and careless response in Sri Lanka to the 2004 tsunami inflicted more damage than the tidal wave itself.

"Haphazard clearing of mangroves, mining of sand dunes and inappropriate dumping of debris, [caused] water contamination and blocked drainage canals," pointed out the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) in a sobering report.

Erika Placella, a project analyst from Swiss Solidarity - the fund-raising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation - admitted on Thursday that some Swiss non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were part of the problem.

They had received money from the foundation to build housing for tsunami victims that was set up on ground lacking proper drainage. The houses now stand in water.

Placella told swissinfo that NGOs only receive money for reconstruction projects from the fundraiser if they meet stringent standards, including environmental criteria, but this, she admitted, could be loosely interpreted.

The Bern meeting broke new ground after aid experts publicly acknowledged the need to take environmental issues into account from the very moment disaster strikes, be it a tsunami, earthquake or hurricane, if recovery is to be sustainable.

"What we are now realising is that we should do more for the environment in the early recovery phase," explained Alain Pasche, an environmental and industrial safety consultant to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and its Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA).

"And we have to do it in the right sequence, using the right tools with the right mechanism for handover" to aid agencies once emergency relief efforts are complete, he added.

Costly

The experts acknowledged that donors are rarely willing to fund environmental programmes on their own, such as reforestation efforts. But the tsunami and more frequent extreme weather events had made governments take note that ignoring the environment often comes at the cost of human life.

Simon Rietbergen, an ecosystem management specialist at the IUCN, said it was the job of organisations like his own to make states aware of the environmental impact on humans.

At the same time, he added, environmentalists had to learn how to adapt to crisis situations.

"The Sri Lankan government comes to you and says it wants to find 300 sites where it can settle more than 600 people in each site and it has to be done in three weeks time," he told swissinfo. "We said we didn't know how to do that.

"In the environment movement, a lot of us are scientists, and we like to be thorough but the name of the game in disaster management and disaster response is cutting corners intelligently, and not being slow."

He said by using maps detailing protected areas such as wetlands and showing elephant migratory routes, his agency could show the Sri Lankan government which of its proposed sites to settle people displaced by the tsunami were suitable.

This would spare sensitive areas, and in the case of the elephants, avoid conflict with the large animals that can do untold damage to houses and crops.

Swiss Solidarity

Swiss Solidarity is the fund-raising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation and other media. The money is given to 32 organisations for ...

Education

Pasche warned that greater efforts were also needed to educate authorities in the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters about the necessity of better preparation.

"We can help governments set up the right mechanisms so they can respond to environmental threats and disasters. This is new for many countries," he explained.

"A government has to learn how to structure its environment ministry for rapid response because this ministry is not considered a potential responder or useful partner during a crisis.

"So we have to train fire fighters, police and the army to use the ministry's resources such as its laboratories, impact assessment capabilities and data bases."

Placella said the tsunami provided at least a wakeup call for donors. Previously, she said, "the environmental awareness was lacking."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

In brief

In a recent report, the World Bank said "choices made immediately following a disaster - regarding shelter, resettlement, debris clearance, distribution of relief, and the like - affect the later choices for longer-term solutions and vulnerability reduction and can have severe consequences for the ability of the poor to recover".

The organisation said for example, the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 caused an estimated $5 billion in damage, which it said was roughly equivalent to the total development assistance for the preceding three years.

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