Why Environmental and Humanitarian Action Must Be Linked

Smoking fish in kilns in Ggaba, Uganda. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that brick-making kilns were burning 52,000 trees every year. Credit: Pius Sawa/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 4 2019 – Environmental and humanitarian action is often understood as two different sectors. However, the lack of awareness regarding its intersections could lead to further long-term devastation.

With the growing number of crises around the world, humanitarian actors are essential. They are often the first responders during and after a crisis, providing urgent, life-saving assistance.

However, there is an increasing need for such actors to pay attention to long-term implications of operations, particularly with regards to the environment.

“[The environment] is not integrated into humanitarian programming…while we are very clear that the humanitarian focus is life-saving assistance, we also understand that this cannot be done if you are compromising of the lives of future generations or even the current generation in the long-term,” head of the Joint Environment Unit (JEU) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Emilia Wahlstrom, told IPS.

“Environmental degradation is causing humanitarian crises, and humanitarian crises are exacerbating areas that are already under a lot of strain.”

World Agroforestry Centre’s head of programme development Cathy Watson echoed similar sentiments to IPS, stating: “There is a paradigm that in emergencies you are saving lives and you don’t have time to think about these other things. The problem with that paradigm is pretty soon it settles down and then you really have to think about what sustains their lives and that is usually the natural environment. So if that’s not taken care of, you can end up having an even worse situation.”

“Environmental degradation is causing humanitarian crises, and humanitarian crises are exacerbating areas that are already under a lot of strain,” she added.

According to a 2014 study by JEU, Sudan’s humanitarian crisis was closely linked with deforestation and desertification due to humanitarian operations.

Such deforestation was caused by the need for firewood for cooking and dry bricks for construction, and humanitarian operations exacerbated the problem as there was an unprecedented demand for construction. 

The UNEP estimated that brick-making kilns were burning 52,000 trees every year.

Such activities reduce soil fertility, decrease water supplies, and destroy valuable agricultural land, impacting the already fragile livelihoods of millions affected and displaced by conflict.

Already, worsening land degradation caused by human activities as a whole is undermining the well-being of two-fifths of the world’s population.

According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 60 percent of all ecosystem services are degraded. Reduced ecosystem functions makes regions more prone to extreme weather events such as flood and landslides as well as further conflict and insecurity.

Approximately 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts in the past 60 years are linked to natural resources.

Most recently, the influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh has put a strain on environmental resources. According to the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), over 4,000 acres of hills and forests were cut down to make temporary shelters, facilities, and cooking fuel in Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazaar for the 1.5 million refugee population.

Such deforestation has increased the risk of landslides and tensions between host and refugee communities are escalating.

However, refugees shouldn’t be to blame, Watson noted.

“Refugees are just doing what they have to do to get by but we can take a much more ecological approach and really think about how we’re going to maintain the ecosystems that sustains these refugees, provide water, provide fertile soil,  and wood to cook,” she said.

Since the average time a refugee remains displaced can now be up to 26 years, the need for a more ecological approach is necessary.

“There’s plenty of time to really build up the environmental well being of the area so that people can also feel good, live well, have shade, have fruit, have clean water….you’re not going to grow food for very long if you cut all the trees down,” Watson told IPS.

Both Watson and Wahlstrom highlighted the importance for humanitarian actors to use available guidelines, tools, and resources ensure their operations aid populations in the long-term.

For instance, the Sphere Handbook, first piloted in 1998, provides minimum standards for humanitarian response including the need to integrate environmental impact assessments in all shelter and settlement planning, restore the ecological value of settlements during and after use, and opt for sustainable materials and techniques that do not deplete natural resources.

“We know what to do, everyone knows what to do. But we are not doing it…the leaders and decision makers should change the way we do our business,” Wahlstrom said.

Watson made similar comments, stating: “There are so many good guidelines, but theres not been a lot of enforcement or awareness of ecological thinking…if you really think about how to manage the landscape and map it out and work out where you’re going to get fuel from, what areas must be protected because of water—you can build areas that are much more resilient and productive.”

While some humanitarian agencies have already begun to address environmental concerns, Wahlstrom pointed to the need for both environmental and humanitarian actors to also work together.

“Because of the life-saving mandate and the very urgent elements of [the humanitarian sector’s] work, environmental actors and development actors are a bit wary to get involved because they feel like it is not their place,” she told IPS.

“The planet is burning, and environmental actors—we no longer have the privilege of sitting in our scientific community and working on our reports. We have to go out there and we have to spread the message,” Wahlstrom added.

The Environmental and Humanitarian Action Network (EHA) hopes to do just that. Though it is an informal network, the EHA brings together humanitarian and environmental experts to share guidance, good practices, and policies to mitigate the environmental impacts of humanitarian operations.

“Time is running out. We really cannot afford to not collaborate…we are stronger together and together we can have a better response and be better prepared,” Wahlstrom said.

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