Environment In Humanitarian Action: Why It Matters?

When you think of humanitarian action, do you ever reflect on the environment? You surely see humanitarian relief as saving lives, alleviating suffering, providing aid and maintaining dignity. But is there also room for considering the environment? Or should it simply be left for development actors to worry about?

Guatemala (11)
Credits: Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (JEU)

Throughout history, humanitarian relief has assisted vulnerable communities around the world. Unfortunately, there are also cases where humanitarian operations have led to significant and long-lasting negative impacts on the environment. Considering the extent to which the people we serve are dependent on natural resources, protecting and preserving these resources even while we are saving lives, is critical. The environment will always be intrinsically linked to the local context. Managing it well is a key entry point for engaging with affected communities. Addressing environmental impacts of humanitarian action is a way for humanitarians to support a locally led response and to encourage the move from relief to development, in line with the recommendations of the Secretary-General in the recently launched Agenda for Humanity.

Credits: JEU

Did you ever think about the amount of energy needed to sustain a dignified life within a refugee or IDP camp? Or wonder where this energy is coming from? When as many as 27 trees are needed to produce just one clamp of bricks, it is obvious that shelter and the need for fuel wood is contributing to deforestation, environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Have you, similarly, considered the management of waste? Organizations in the developed world are keen to collect their used vehicle oil, recycle electronic waste, and refrain from dumping wastewater in the lakes we live by. Yet, strangely enough, we seem to forget the basic legal and ethical rules of environmental management when operating in a country with weak environmental regulations, no enforcement by local authorities and no properly managed dumpsites or hazardous waste collection points.

Credits: JEU

So what can be done? The good news is that there are a number of organizations that see this lack of environmental stewardship, and are working to make a difference. Together these various organizations and actors can exchange information, establish databases and collaborate on initiatives aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of disasters and conflicts. The Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (JEU), embedded in OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch in Geneva, is a unique mechanism within the United Nations that mobilizes and coordinates emergency assistance for environmental incidents and humanitarian crises with significant environmental impact, such as the Syria Crisis. In January 2016, UNHCR and the JEU jointly organized a coordination workshop aiming to identify, assess and mitigate environmental consequences of this crisis. In Syria, UNHCR with the support of IKEA has set-up a solar energy farm that will be connected to the national electricity grid, ensuring that the current demand for energy is addressed through a long-term sustainable development solution.

The JEU also acts as a strong advocate of preparedness actions and mainstreaming environment into humanitarian action. At its biennial Environmental Emergencies Forum in 2015, the JEU, together with the Green Cross International, awarded environmental heroes with the Green Star Awards. In the “Environment and Humanitarian Action” category the award was given to Women’s Refugee Commission for putting cooking fuel on the humanitarian agenda through its Safe Access to Fuel and Energy Initiative (SAFE). This video provides a good overview of the challenges related to the provision of access to clean energy, heating and cooking solutions in humanitarian settings. The Moving Energy Initiative is yet another example of a project that aims to change the way that energy needed for heating/cooling, cooking, lighting and electrification is delivered to displaced people.  According to their recent report “Heat, Light and Power for Refugees: Saving Lives, Reducing Costs”, in 2014 household energy use among forcibly displaced people amounted to around 3.5 million tons of oil, an equivalent of an estimated cost of $2.1 billion.

Credits: JEU

For humanitarian actors recognizing the problem, but not having sufficient technical capacity to address environmental concerns, help is available. A number of humanitarian agencies have internal environmental teams, or can deploy environmental experts as part of stand-by agreements. For example, an Environmental Field Advisor (EFA) can be mobilized through Stand-By Partnership Programme, located within OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch, to support efficient and sustainable humanitarian action. EFAs analyse the humanitarian crisis from an environmental and climate risk perspective and work to ensure that environmental aspects are integrated throughout the Humanitarian Programme Cycle, in adherence with humanitarian standards and applicable legislation. In a recent interview, Mr. Urs Bloesch, who has participated in over 15 environmental missions to emergency situations, explains how EFAs support an effective humanitarian response.

Being such a critical element to the efficiency of humanitarian action, it is essential to consider environment from the very onset of a humanitarian response. Environmental issues such as damage to industrial sites and proper disaster waste management are especially relevant in the first few weeks of a sudden-onset disaster. United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team members are trained on the use of the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool (FEAT). This flagship JEU tool is used by first responders to identify risks caused by industry and infrastructure to humans, life support functions and ecosystems and to recognize acute issues for which additional technical expertise needs to be mobilized.

Increasingly, it is the role of every one of us to act in an environmentally responsible manner within our personal and professional life. Considering what the potential negative impact of our actions could be is a good first step. As humanitarians it is our duty to do no harm and to ask questions. What is it that the people we work for really need? How can we support them not only in the short-term, but also in the long run? Can we make a promise to not leave behind a mess for someone else to clean up? We should do our best to learn from our mistakes and to share our lessons beyond our own organizations. We can also make the commitment to educate ourselves, for example by taking the Online Learning Course on the integration of environmental issues into humanitarian action available on the Environmental Emergencies Centre (EEC).

Good luck, and do share your thoughts and advice on the EEC Discussion Forum!

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