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The damage caused by the tsunami resulting from the earthquake of 26 December 2004 off the coast of Sumatra has resulted in untold structural damage in addition to the massive loss of life. Many of the badly hit communities are technologically sophisticated; running international tourist operations, commercial agricultural plantations, fisheries and possibly industrial operations.

It is probable that among the structures destroyed or damaged there will be stores or operational units where hazardous materials such as pesticides and other highly toxic chemicals were kept or used. It is also probable that containers with hazardous materials will have been washed away, damaged or dislocated. As a consequence hazardous materials will have leaked into the environment and will be in situations where they pose a serious risk of further contamination. Many pesticides in particular are classed as marine pollutants and their potential impact on the environment is impossible to estimate.

There are many urgent tasks that need to be undertaken in the region to mitigate existing health and environmental risks to the affected communities and to start the process of rehabilitation. The location, safeguarding and, where necessary, safe removal and disposal of these hazardous materials and associated contamination should be added to the list of urgent tasks. If no timely and appropriate action is taken on the issue of hazardous materials, the impact due to exposure to these chemicals on the most affected communities will hamper the fragile recovery process.

Agricultural pesticides or industrial chemicals leaking into the sea will harm marine life and may result in human consumption of contaminated food; hazardous chemicals left leaking into the ground on dry land may quickly contaminate drinking water sources; containers of hazardous materials left unmanaged may result in direct exposure of unwitting people who handle them in the course of clean-up work or simply handle them because they do not know what they are; the emptying of drums containing hazardous materials to allow use of the contaminated container will clearly impact on public health.

FAO Unique Experience FAO/AGPP, through its experience in managing obsolete pesticides, is possibly in a unique position with regard to practical management of hazardous waste in developing countries. It can:
  • Assess risks and determine appropriate mitigation action;
  • Train local staff to identify, assess risks and safely handle hazardous chemicals;
  • Procure appropriate equipment for handling and containment of hazardous materials;
  • Organize containment and transportation of hazardous chemicals to safe locations;
  • Organize safe disposal of hazardous chemicals in compliance with international regulations and best practice;
Every effort must be made to prevent additional harm coming to affected communities from exposure to hazardous materials. It is therefore imperative that appropriately trained teams are mobilized as quickly as possible to mitigate and prevent these risks.

We propose:
  • To establish a hot-line to provide rapid advice on how to deal with hazardous materials found in cleanup operations in the stricken region;
  • To train trainers from each affected country in a field-based training programme lasting 2-3 weeks;
  • To source protective equipment, emergency equipment, containers and tools that can serve as a working stock in dealing with hazardous waste for each country in the region;
  • To help in planning and supervision of hazardous waste clean-up activities where the need is identified;
  • To guide the process of contracting external operators that may be needed for the removal and destruction of hazardous wastes.

 contact: tsunami@fao.org © FAO, 2005