Humanitarian Issues: Tackling environmental emergencies in slums

14 February, 2012
2008, Mathare slum, Kenya: Fires in high density urban settings pose particular humanitarian challenges to emergency responders. Credit: IRIN
2008, Mathare slum, Kenya: Fires in high density urban settings pose particular humanitarian challenges to emergency responders. Credit: IRIN

In September 2011, a fuel explosion and fire in the Mukuru-Sinai slums of Nairobi, Kenya, killed more than 100 people and left another 100 with serious burns.

The UN rushed a Rapid Environmental Emergency Assessment team to the scene, comprising experts from a Joint Environmental Unit run by OCHA and the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The team determined that the fire was not caused by a pipeline explosion, as initially reported, but by an industrial accident at a nearby petrol-storage facility. The accident caused a large amount of petrol to enter a nearby storm-water drainage system.

While there was no immediate threat to the drinking water supply, the team found clear evidence of uncontrolled industrial waste being released into the drainage system and the surrounding Ngong River. The team also said there was significant potential for similar accidents in the future.

Around the world, a growing number of people are making their homes in informal settlements that have limited sanitation, poor housing and inadequate infrastructure.

These communities are particularly vulnerable to emergencies. Their homes are often built in environmentally vulnerable areas, such as hillsides or floodplains, or encroach on industrial sites and electric lines or near dispersed sewage. A lack of building codes increases the risk that houses will collapse.

The people living in these slums usually lack the means to move to less dangerous areas. Their savings are low and they cannot afford insurance. They also tend to lack access to legal representation and protection. Poor infrastructure and poor mapping make it difficult for rescue workers to reach these people during a disaster.

This is why the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), to be held 20-22 June 2012 in Brazil, aims to push preparedness, prevention and response to humanitarian and environmental emergencies up the international agenda.

Creating better risk assessment and hazard identification tools can help prevent and prepare for disasters. The Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level (APELL) programme - developed by UNEP and other partners - is providing information to communities to help them understand risks. It is also helping national and local authorities to create contingency plans.

APELL is being implemented in over 30 countries and 75 communities around the world. One example of APELL in action is in Barranquilla, Colombia, where the fire brigade, civil defense, Red Cross and local health services have engaged in emergency drills in nearby chemical plants.

If APELL is accepted in Kenya, it would provide tools to help decision makers and technical personnel create awareness. It would also help to prepare a coordinated response plan involving Government, industry and the local community.

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