The Aftermath of Natural Disasters: Waste Management

The amount of natural disasters in recent times have been eye opening. Not long ago hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean island chain, leaving Puerto Rico in a state of emergency, in addition to inflicting great damage to Miami. Furthermore, Mexico recently experienced a 7.1 earthquake collapsing several buildings in Mexico City and creating an abundance of debris. The amount of natural disasters in recent times has left me with a question; where does all the disaster waste go?

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than 30 million cubic meters of debris was dumped into local landfills (BBC, 2017). It was apparent that the knowledge of disaster waste management was not sufficient at the time, as the local landfills were overflowed. This emphasises the importance of a structured waste management system following a natural disaster. However, this may be easier said than done, given the availability of resources in the inflicted counties.

Following a natural disaster, conditions may vary depending on the resources available in the country. Countries with sufficient resources such as the United States will have debris clearance supervised by the government following a natural disaster, (Bjerregaard et al, 2017), whereas countries with scarce resources will depend on the assistance from the UN or other non-government organisations. Countries with insufficient resources have a higher chance of entering a state of chaos as a result of a natural disaster (such as Puerto Rico as a consequence of hurricane Irma) thus promoting “quick fix” solutions which are not sustainable. “Quick fix” solutions are beneficial for quickly removing disaster waste in order to accommodate for transport of goods and wounded, however it has a negative impact on the environmental and long term public health, as toxic waste and debris will not be appropriately handled. “You can’t just tip debris into a hole”, (Bjerregaard, 2017).

This raises a new question; how can a post disaster waste management system be implemented in countries lacking resources? In order to implement a system, waste must be seen as an asset for those in need of work, and not a liability to be quickly eliminated. A solution would be for non-government organisations to pay locals to correctly remove debris with supervision from experts, not only creating a source of income in for those affected by disaster, but ensuring waste is correctly handled in a sustainable fashion. The key is collaboration with locals, resource providers and experts.

In order for post disaster waste to be correctly managed in resource lacking countries and not have environmental and public health repercussion, collaboration needs to be implemented. There needs to a provider of resources, expertise, and labour. Furthermore, technology must be utilized for data sharing, thus allowing crucial information to be spread in early stages.

Click here for more information on natural and man-made disaster waste.

Tor-Elesh Albrigtsen

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