On 12 May 2008, the Sichuan Province of China was struck by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. The quake affected approximately 70 million people, devastating lives, livelihoods and landscapes. Some 15 million people were evacuated from their homes. As of December 2008, the death toll had reached more than 100,000 people with over 374,643 injured and 17,923 missing.
At the request of the Chinese Government, UNEP was engaged in the post-disaster recovery effort immediately following the quake and became the primary international environmental actor on-the–ground. UNEP was invited to survey the earthquake-affected regions. This mission enabled the UN Country Team in China to more fully comprehend the sheer magnitude of the disaster and how the international community could work together to address the wide-ranging environmental challenges China faced in the recovery period.
One of the most challenging issues related to the management of vast quantities of building rubble generated by the quake, including potential contamination from hazardous materials such as asbestos, hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals. Other areas of immediate concern related to the contamination of soil and water resources, and the disposal of hazardous healthcare waste.
Working closely with national and municipal authorities and the UN Country Team, UNEP led the environmental response effort and remained involved in the post-disaster recovery efforts in China for two years following the quake, until mid-2010. Released in July 2010, UNEP in China: Building Back Better documents the shared learning from UNEP's involvement.
UNEP’s contribution to the recovery in China included:
Coordination and technical support: To respond to the many challenges involved in coordinating the environmental response, UNEP strengthened its office in Beijing with international technical experts in the fields of domestic, industrial and hazardous waste management, including asbestos and hazardous healthcare waste. This enabled UNEP to provide environmental expertise to both the UN Country Team and the relevant Chinese authorities.
Recovery Appeal:The USD 33.5 million “China Appeal for Recovery Support” launched by the UN in July 2008 recognized the critical importance of addressing environmental issues such as water, soil contamination and hazardous waste management, and requested an envelope of close to USD 6 million from the donor community specifically for environmental issues.
Training:At the request of the national government,UNEP facilitated training workshops on post-disaster environmental management for Chinese civil servants, environmental experts, government representatives and international organizations based in Beijing. The first workshop was held in July 2008. The second took place in the earthquake-affected area in December 2008 and focused on the complex issues related to post-crisis waste management, in particular the safe handling of the millions of tons of potentially contaminated building rubble and hazardous healthcare waste. A review of the existing waste management infrastructure was also conducted and UNEP provided advice on the construction of new landfill sites and hazardous waste treatment centres.
Environmental considerations: The UNEP team was able to raise awareness of environmental and ecological considerations within the overall state planning processes for post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction, and to ensure that these considerations were duly included. As part of the 2009-2011 long-term recovery and reconstruction, UNEP actively promoted adopting a low carbon approach in the restoration and reconstruction period, with a view to achieving energy efficiency and a more environmentally friendly economy in the affected area.
UN “China Appeal for Recovery Support”
The Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit monitored the situation from the outset and noted a significant number of secondary environmental risks and impacts stemming for the earthquake, including several toxic chemical spills, possible damage to the structural integrity of several dozen dams, and blocked rivers due to massive landslides, causing "quake lakes". For more information on these findings see the Humanitarian Situation Reports.
For further information on UNEP's work in China please contact Muralee Thummarukudy, Project Coordinator: email@example.com
For information about UNEP’s ongoing work in China, please contact our Beijing office: firstname.lastname@example.org