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In the wake of La Soufrière’s eruption, OCHA-UNEP deploy team of environmental experts to the Eastern Caribbean

29 Apr 2021


© Bajanpro/UN Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean

By Anthony Prassoulis, Information & Advocacy Unit, OCHA ROLAC

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano in early April has brought a new wave of humanitarian, socioeconomic and environmental repercussions crashing down on Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, stretching national response capacities and threatening to set back development by decades.

Preliminary assessments estimate that the eruption could cost the country the equivalent of 50 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), with losses in agriculture and housing combined with damages to infrastructure projected to be about US$300 million. In the areas closest to La Soufrière, all vegetable crops have been completely decimated, while 90 per cent of tree crops and 80 per cent of root crops have been lost, which will surely have a lasting impact on livelihoods and food security.

Since 9 April, La Soufrière’s more than 30 explosive eruptions have also affected neighbouring Eastern Caribbean islands, such as Barbados, where volcanic ash blanketed the entire country. As La Soufrière is expected to remain active for months, it is likely that Barbados will continue to be affected by ash deposits that could damage infrastructure and homes due to the acidity and abrasiveness of fresh ash.

Plumes of ash billow on the island of Saint Vincent the Grenadines from La Soufrière volcano, which started erupting on 9 April. © Navin Pato Patterson

In Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the socioecological scars left by more than 100 million m3 of ash fall and the devastation wrought by pyroclastic density currents will plague community infrastructure, ecosystems and livelihoods for years to come. In the aftermath of the eruption, the clean-up and management of ash will be crucial in order to avert potential socioecological risks that could threaten public health, food chains and local economies down the road.

At the request of the Government, OCHA and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have deployed a joint assessment team to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines composed of environmental experts to bolster national response efforts through the provision of specialized environmental assistance.

The OCHA-UNEP mission is focused on assessing pressing environmental health risks, including air quality, ash contamination of water and soil, as well as sanitation in shelters. According to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, air quality on the island is considered moderately unsafe, making it one of the most pressing issues to address. The team will assess pressing environmental health and other hazard risks in order to identify priority areas for intervention and develop technical recommendations for national authorities on how to best manage the environmental fallout of the disaster and the response, as well as the recovery process.

The Government has identified ash and debris cleanup as a priority response action to help kick-start recovery and rehabilitation efforts. As such, the OCHA-UNEP mission is working closely with regional institutions and humanitarian partners to support national authorities with the recommendations for environmentally conscious ash removal and waste management. The Government estimates that the nationwide clean-up effort could cost as much as $30 million.

With the rainy season on the horizon, a prompt clean-up in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is critical to mitigate the risk of lahar flows as loose volcanic material and debris mix with increased precipitation and swollen rivers. These highly destructive, almost concrete-like flows could intensify in the coming months, racing down the flanks of La Soufrière and burying virtually everything in their path.

© Bajanpro/UN Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean

The OCHA-UNEP Joint Environment Unit (JEU) has also deployed a satellite team to Barbados who will join national damage, loss and needs assessment efforts as requested by the government. Since Barbados is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, the mission will prioritise the assessment of land and water resources amid concerns of volcanic ash contamination. Both Barbados and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have shown a lot of commitment to addressing the environmental dimensions of emergencies and were already members of the Regional Environment and Emergency Preparedness Network, with Barbados a founder member.

The JEU mission in the Eastern Caribbean is a vital component of the wider humanitarian response and recovery efforts being led by national governments. Mainstreaming the environment in humanitarian and recovery activities will be critical to mitigate public health risks and facilitate a resilient and sustainable recovery in these Eastern Caribbean countries, which are heavily dependent on the natural environment for economic growth and development. Given the environmental wounds left by the eruption, these small island developing States are now even more vulnerable to subsequent natural hazard-induced disasters, a grave concern with the looming hurricane season just around the corner.

For more than 25 years, the JEU has strategically combined OCHA’s humanitarian coordination capacities and networks with UNEP’s environmental expertise to support Governments’ response to the complex, multidimensional environmental consequences of humanitarian emergencies, mobilizing more than 200 missions across nearly 100 countries since its establishment in 1994.