Natural and environmental disasters can occur anywhere, and they cannot always be prevented. In the aftermath, it is essential to assess the consequences as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. That is why the Netherlands has developed the Environmental Assessment Unit.

Dutch expertise deployable all over the world

Natural and environmental disasters can occur anywhere and cannot always be prevented. In the aftermath of a disaster, assessing the consequences as quickly and as thoroughly as possible is essential. That is why the Netherlands has developed the Environmental Assessment Unit (EAU). Since the EAU came into force on 1 September 2008, it has been deployed to several countries in different configurations. This mobile capacity can be used for emergency response to disasters involving hazardous substances. The activated unit may consist of one specialist with primary aim of making an inventory of potential hazards and or risks. The unit may also consist of a team with three or more specialists bringing sampling and analytical equipment to perform on-site measurements. The EAU is mainly deployed in countries lacking the specialist knowledge or capacity to deal with environmental disasters.

What is the EAU?

The EAU is a small, flexible team that can be deployed quickly anywhere in the world. The team and its equipment are highly mobile. Supported by the Back Office of the Dutch Environmental Incident Service, the EAU is trained to quickly and comprehensively assess the potential effects of released hazardous substances on public health and the environment. As the EAU is mainly used to assess the medium- and long-term effects, it will usually be deployed in the aftermath of a disaster. With the EAU, the Netherlands contributes to disaster relief worldwide.

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 Watch the video:  Environmental Assessment Unit

Main activities

The EAU provides support during and after environmental disasters. A dedicated team provides screening services to characterise chemical or environmental threats, and advice where needed. 
The team collects data to assess the risks. This can be based on readily available on-site information, either collated and provided by an EAU expert or provided by local authorities or other (local) response experts and organisations. In the absence of on-site information, an (extended) EAU field team can be deployed and generate the required data (sampling, quick measurements and first interpretation of results on-site).

The EAU is supported by a Back Office, which is part of the Environmental Incident Service (Dutch abbreviation MOD)  and available 24/7. The MOD has close connections with the Dutch National Crisis Expert Team for environment and drinking water. This team brings together the expertise of eight governmental and or knowledge institutes, ensuring a broad range of expertise in the field of public health and the environment. The support may range from assistance in performing model calculations of dispersion of compounds in air, water and soil to risk assessments (human health and the environment)) and subsequent advice on (safety) measures. As such, the team can identify many chemical substances in polluted material and advise on the nature of the pollution and the threat it poses.

The experts

In case of deployment, the EAU may consist of a core team or a single expert:

Team

An EAU core team comprises three members: a field team leader, a sampling expert and an analytical chemist. If necessary, specialists in other fields can be added. At the moment, 10 RIVM staff members have been trained for deployment in a core team. During their training course, staff members are taught to work under challenging circumstances and work as a team under the UN flag.

Single expert

More often, a single environmental expert is asked to be part of an EU or UN United Nations  (United Nations ) team to assess the potential risks.  This environmental specialist must have a vast general knowledge of the different fields of environmental and public health to identify possible risks and activate the necessary specific expertise in the extensive Back Office available via the National Environmental Incident Service. The deployed expert has had similar training as the experts in the core team.

The EU and UN are expected to call on the services of an EAU team twice a year on average.

The equipment

To ensure maximum flexibility, the equipment consists of modules packed in crates for transport. The equipment is perfectly tailored to the situations the team may encounter and includes the latest technology for taking samples and performing environmental measurements and analyses. Of course, communication and navigation means as satellite telephones and GPS are standard equipment.

How is the EAU organised?

The EAU is a joint initiative of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (I&W) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I&W is internationally renowned for its expertise on environmental safety. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs specialises in emergency aid and its humanitarian aid funds can be called on to provide assistance or specific expertise anywhere in the world. The close partnership between the two ministries has now acquired a national and international profile through the EAU.

The two ministries entered into a partnership in response to international demand for specific environmental expertise in the wake of disasters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a co-initiator of this project because of the role it plays in deciding whether to commit Dutch resources and expertise in countries hit by disasters. The decision of whether to deploy the EAU rests with the two ministries jointly. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) is responsible for managing and deploying  the EAU.

The EAU is not self-sufficient as it depends on external partners for sleeping accommodations, food, electricity, etc. Within the European Civil Protection framework, the EAU is therefore classified as an “other response capacity” instead of a self-relying “module”. More information about European Disaster Risk Management is available on the EU website.

How to request for assistance?

The Environmental Assessment Unit will be deployed only at the request of the UN or other international organisations, as for example the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, wishing to make use of the expertise it provides. Countries themselves may also ask the Netherlands for help directly. Taking into account the size of the disaster, the damage and the need for assistance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will decide whether an EAU mission is needed. I&W will then assess whether the operation is feasible. In a disaster area where a UN humanitarian relief operation is already underway, the EAU will generally work under the auspices of the UN.

Certification

To be able to be deployed at the request of the EU, emergency response capacities have to apply for certification before they can be registered in the Common Emergency Communication and Information System (CECIS) as “other capacity”  and become part of the European Civil Protection Pool (ECPP). The EAU obtained certification in 2018 and is currently in the process of recertification, which is anticipated to be finalised in 2024. Participation in a full-scale international exercise is required for recertification.  To this end, the EAU took part in FORMATEX23, in September 2023.