In 2005, following the creation of the cluster system, environment was designated as a ‘cross-cutting issue’ by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). With environment now at the top of the international agenda, there is a growing realization that the environmental impact of disasters needs to be integrated into humanitarian response. In the past few months, the international community was repeatedly alerted about severe droughts affecting sub-Saharan African countries and resulting in a severe famine situation that affects four countries – South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and north eastern Nigeria. In those famine affected areas, 80% of the local population rely on agriculture for their livelihood, which is severely affected by drought. From the deforestation around the Benaco camps in Tanzania following the 1994 Rwanda genocide, to the failing waste treatment standards that contributed to the largest cholera outbreak in recent history in Haiti (2010), environmental degradation following disasters or conflicts and humanitarian crises are tightly linked.

OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch (ESB) actively responds to environmental challenges before, during and after disasters through its partnership with UN Environment and with the help of an ever growing network of partners and environmental experts.

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Realistic water emergency exercise in Timisoara, Romania in March 2017. Credit: APELL

Environmental expertise for emergency response

Assessment and coordination are ESB’s core mandates in emergency response missions. In order to be able to respond to environmental emergencies and the environmental elements of a humanitarian crisis, ESB draws on the unique partnership between OCHA and UN Environment. This partnership was formalized in 1994, at the request of Member States, with the creation of a UN Environment / OCHA Joint Unit (JEU). Until now, this partnership has undertaken 188 missions to 90 countries, providing technical expertise on topics ranging from groundwater depletion and forest fires to dam breaks and chemical accidents.

ESB’s Field Coordination and Support Section (FCSS) and the JEU work with international, national and local actors and environmental experts when environmental emergencies occur. The Environmental Experts roster is managed through the Virtual OSOCC, an online platform for disaster responders hosted by ESB’s Activation and Coordination Support Unit (ACSU). The roster is configured to be simultaneously co-alerted with the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams, to ensure a more efficient and coordinated mobilization of response teams. Recently, an environmental expert in hydrology joined the UNDAC team on a mission to Peru following the massive floods that hit several regions in the country.

Readiness and local response capacity

Through specific trainings and the development of tools and guidelines (such as the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool and the Environmental Emergencies Guidelines), ESB builds the capacity of local, national, regional as well as international actors to prepare and respond to environmental disasters. The environmental expertise of ESB is also a fundamental contributor to field exercises. Recently, the JEU provided injects related to hazardous substance and disaster waste management for European Commission -hosted exercises in Romania, Austria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

ESB also facilitates the integration of environmental issues into response activities, for example, through the appointment of Environmental Field Advisors (EFA) through the OCHA Stand-By Partnership Programme, managed by ESB’s Surge Capacity Section (SCS). This surge capacity function can be requested by the OCHA country office in situations where additional environmental expertise is required in the humanitarian response. An EFA recently returned from a 6 month mission to Jordan, where he liaised with the government and local agencies to mainstream environment into response and recovery planning. The EFA conducted trainings for government partners and sector coordinators, and screened the environmental impacts of several projects to be implemented in the region.

Partnerships to advocate for better integration of environmental factors into humanitarian action

ESB works with partners to make sure environmental considerations, including climate risk, is addressed in humanitarian programmes. For instance, ESB works with USAID, UNHCR, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) and WWF as part of a joint initiative which aims to support better coordination between humanitarian and environmental actors and improve access and use of environmental data. On this topic, and as part of its advocacy work, the initiative organized an IASC -hosted round table on 7 June 2017 on the topic Coordinated Assessments for Environment in Humanitarian Action. The initiative itself was born out of Focus Task Force discussions which took place at the 2016 Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week, OCHA Geneva’s flagship event, organized annually by ESB.

Every two years, ESB, in cooperation with UN Environment organizes the Environment and Emergencies Forum. This event brings together more than 100 practitioners from around the world to showcase innovations in environmental emergency preparedness and response, and to highlight current efforts on integrating environmental risk in humanitarian action. The next Environment and Emergencies Forum will be held in Nairobi, Kenya from 26-28 September 2017. 

ESB coordinates the Environment and Humanitarian Action Network, which, every two months, brings together some 50 practitioners from both environmental and humanitarian organizations as well as donors working to promote environmentally responsible humanitarian programming.

The topic of Environment and Humanitarian Action has recently gained significant traction at a global level. As such, the Environment Management Group – the UN coordination body on environment and human settlements – initiated a series of Nexus Dialogues in April 2017, to address the environmental component of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, in which OCHA was represented by ESB. As part of this first dialogue, the theme of Environment and Humanitarian Action received particular attention. As a follow-up, a separate dialogue dedicated to the issue will be organized towards the end of 2017.