ESB’s Engagement with Environment in Humanitarian Action

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.

Simulation Exercises – reality check

OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch works to support the capacity of Governments and organizations to better prepare and respond to humanitarian crises. Every year, the Branch trains hundreds of experts and coordinates major emergency simulations to improve response to natural disasters and complex emergencies.

Why are we conducting simulation exercises? Continue reading “Simulation Exercises – reality check”

Are we ready to respond?

Over 30 countries roll out new approach to emergency preparedness

When a crisis hits, speed is of the essence. Quickly getting aid to people hit by a natural disaster or caught up in fighting can save lives and prevent a bad situation from spiralling into a full-blown emergency. Clean water helps prevent disease outbreaks; tarpaulins shield displaced families from blistering heat or bitterly cold winds; food assistance protects hungry people from malnutrition and starvation.

Continue reading “Are we ready to respond?”

Faster and Simpler Customs Processing in Emergencies

Credit: WFP/Anthony Chase Lim

In major humanitarian crises, whether natural disasters or complex emergencies, many relief goods are delayed in customs. Sometimes they are only released after months, and other times they may never reach the affected population. This is because customs authorities are often not adequately prepared to process a large amount of relief items that arrive in the country within a very short period of time. For instance, after Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines in November 2013, the country’s Bureau of Customs reported that the volume of cargo flights and ships was ten times larger than under normal circumstances. But a new initiative might help to handle the influx of relief items in an emergency.

Credit: OCHA SmugMug

Already 35 years ago, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) developed an Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) for paperless customs management in order to assist customs administrations across the world to reform and modernize their procedures. The software is now used in more than 95 countries and helps customs officials to process incoming goods faster and more efficiently based on international norms and procedures, as defined in the Model Customs Facilitation Agreement. However, the ASYCUDA system was not designed to directly facilitate customs processing in humanitarian crises.

Credit: UNHCR/A.Zabarah

By building on the success of ASYCUDA, and the fact that this system has already been established in many disaster and crisis-prone countries, OCHA and UNCTAD jointly explored how to upgrade the system in order to facilitate the processing of international relief in humanitarian emergencies. The collaboration resulted in the development of an additional module for the software, called Automated System for Customs Relief Emergency Consignments (ASYREC). After the development of the software prototype is finalised and tested in 2016, the new module will be integrated into the existing systems in those countries that already use ASYCUDA in subsequent years in order to automate the prioritisation and rapid processing of humanitarian relief consignments in humanitarian emergencies.

Credit: OCHA SmugMug

In major disasters and humanitarian emergencies, the ASYREC module will be activated by the affected country in case there is a need for international assistance, or when special customs facilitation measures need to be put into place in an ongoing emergency.

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Credit: OCHA SmugMug

The new system will bring several advantages:

  • Relief consignments can be clearly indicated as “humanitarian relief” by sending agencies or donors, so that they can easily be recognized and prioritized by customs authorities;
  • Identified priority needs can be entered and recognized in the system during the disaster, to allow more rapid processing of those items by customs authorities;
  • In preparation for potential unforeseen emergencies, customs authorities can enter trustworthy humanitarian donors into the system, with the result that shipments from these agencies are processed with priority in a “green lane” in an emergency situation/context;
  • Different types of humanitarian relief items can be associated with national customs law by the affected country (e.g. exemption from import tax), enabling completely automated processing and release of these goods by customs authorities without delays;
  • This can also contribute to a more accurate overview of incoming relief for humanitarian response planning national authorities and international actors such as the Logistics Cluster in close cooperation with customs authorities.

Rolling out the new system

The development of the ASYREC software prototype has been completed in 2015 and is ready for testing and roll-out. In the course of 2016, UNCTAD and OCHA will select pilot countries to test the system and identify needs for improvement. Procedures and guidelines will be developed and tested in simulation exercises to ensure that national authorities and shipping agencies are comfortable with the system and are ready to use the module.

The project is managed in close cooperation between UNCTAD, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and OCHA in the Focus Task Force on “Improving the efficiency of dispatch of humanitarian assistance and customs processing”, established in 2015 under  the auspices of the Consultative Group for Emergency Preparedness and Response. The Focus Task Force will report on the progress of ASYREC at the next annual Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week, which will take place from 6 to 10 February 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland.

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Credit: OCHA SmugMug


OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch at the World Humanitarian Summit

Credit: OCHA/ Charlotte Cans

At the beginning of 2016, 125 million people required humanitarian assistance. Over the last 20 years, earthquakes, floods, droughts, typhoons and other natural hazards have claimed over a million lives. On average, 218 million people, mostly in developing countries, are affected by natural disasters every year. Some 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict or violence in recent years, the highest level since World War II; half of them are children. The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and plunge us into an era of wars without limits.

The world is at a critical juncture.

ASG Kang visits Malakal
Credit: OCHA/ Guiomar Pau Sole

This is why, for the first time in the 70-year history of the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), which will be held on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul, Turkey. Mr. Ban has put forward an Agenda for Humanity, calling on global leaders to stand up for our common humanity and reduce human suffering.

Secretary-General visits IDP camp in Kitchanga, North Kivu, DRC.
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

As WHS preparations have entered the final planning stages, OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch (ESB) has mobilized 12 staff members to support the WHS Secretariat in New York and Geneva. In Istanbul, ESB will engage through four key themes.

  1. Preparedness and Response to Natural Disasters

One of the most important Summit events for the Emergency Services Branch (ESB) will be the High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable on “Natural Disasters and Climate Change: Managing Risks and Crises Differently”, which will build on global agreements in 2015 to commit to a more collective approach to reducing and managing risks, increasing investments in preparedness and building community resilience as a critical first line of response, with the full and effective participation of women, reinforcing national and local systems, and agreeing clear responsibilities, triggers and guaranteed finance for early action. Several ESB sections are engaged with Member States and stakeholders to shape and influence their statements and commitments related to preparedness, humanitarian civil-military coordination and the implementation of relevant WHS outcomes through the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week framework.

Together with the World Health Organization’s Emergency Medical Team Unit, ESB will host a side event on “Qualified Response by Certified International Teams”. In a world in which disaster response is becoming more complex, the INSARAG Network and Emergency Medical Teams, particularly their classification systems, provide a commendable standard-setting model for the entire humanitarian community.Through such processes, organizations with mutual interests can improve their professional standards and deliver a more appropriate and effective assistance to an affected country and its population. By uniting around common methodology and common standards, the predictability of the response and the interoperability between emergency responders is also dramatically increased.

  1. Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination (UN-CMCoord)

ESB will also host a Side Event on behalf of the multi-stakeholder UN-CMCoord Consultative Group with focus on “Developing Common Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination Standards”. The session will build on the outcomes of the two-year WHS UN-CMCoord roadmap events. A ‘zero draft’ of the Standards paper will be prepared in advance of the Summit in Istanbul, and a final draft will be presented at the UN-CMCoord Consultative Group annual meeting during the Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week in February 2017.

UN-CMCoord ‘model commitments’ ask Member States and Organizations to re-commit to the proper and coherent use, and the effective coordination of foreign military assets in humanitarian action; endorse common humanitarian civil-military standards for deploying, employing, receiving, integrating and coordinating foreign military assets in natural disasters; and institutionalize dedicated platforms for information sharing and civil-military interaction to create a common situational awareness of the requirements of people in need.

  1. Gender and Age

The Gender Standby Capacity Project, in coordination with the United Nations Population Fund, is identifying a champion to announce changes in the IASC Gender Marker, which is set to become the Gender & Age Marker as of June 2016. The adaptation of the marker will be discussed at the Special Session on Empowering Youth. Organizations specialized in Youth matters and Youth experts have welcomed the adaptation of the Marker to include age, which is seen as an opportunity to bring attention to the specific needs, priorities and capacities of adolescent girls and boys as well as young women and men.

  1. Environment

The Emergency Services Branch calls upon the humanitarian community to commit to better address the environmental aspects of their actions, as well to consider underlying environmental drivers of humanitarian crisis. To find sustainable solutions and comply with humanitarian standards, the environment needs to be considered in two ways: as a component that needs to be protected and conserved because livelihoods depend on it, as well as a risk factor that should be mitigated to prevent unnecessary and avoidable loss of lives.

Credit: UN Photo/ Mark Garten

Last year the world demonstrated that it is possible to come together and tackle global challenges- we agreed a new framework for disaster risk reduction (Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, March) and development financing (Addis Ababa Action Agenda, July), adopted the historic Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, September) and reached a landmark climate agreement (Paris Agreement, December). In Istanbul, we must harness this momentum to deliver meaningful action so that no one is left behind.

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?

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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!

The Four Benefits of Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week

1. Network Effects

The more people use a service, the more valuable the service. Example: the more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner.

Built around the networks constituting the Consultative Group for Emergency Preparedness and Response, the second Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week (HNPW) began on 1 February with the objectives of exchanging expertise, and working deeply on the specifics of a range of issues.

Continue reading “The Four Benefits of Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week”