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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 12, special issue: Environment

A network to help humanitarian organisations to take environmental issues into account more effectively: why is such a network necessary and what are its objectives?
The Humanitarian Environment Network

Created due to a common need to discuss and improve the integration of environmental considerations into humanitarian action and through the impetus given by Groupe URD and a number of other organisations, the Humanitarian Environment Network currently includes members of several French-speaking organisations like Action Contre la Faim, the French Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, Médecins Sans Frontières Suisse, Solidarités International, Terre des Hommes Lausanne, Triangle Génération Humanitaire, the Joint UNEP / OCHA Environment Unit and Groupe URD. This article is the first time the network has expressed itself publicly. It presents the mission and objectives that the members have fixed for themselves as well as the results of a review of progress made, remaining needs and difficulties encountered. With the foundations now in place, collective learning is underway.

 The creation of the network

The multiple links between the environment and crises

Climate change, pollution, the water crisis, the gradual depletion of fossil fuels, deforestation, conflicts over resources… environmental issues increasingly affect and raise questions for humanitarian actors. First of all, humanitarian operations themselves can have a negative impact on the natural environment due to the production of waste (used oil, medical waste, electronic waste, etc.), increased pressure on natural resources like water and wood in areas where their programmes are conducted, and greenhouse gas emissions due to the international transportation of people and equipment. Due to their activities, organisations are in the front line and able to see and testify about the consequences of environmental degradation which further reduce people’s already weakened resilience. The perspective of the rising price of fuel for vehicles, electrical generators and the cold chain is forcing us to question the dependence of our programmes on this fossil resource which is being depleted in order to avoid energy becoming more and more expensive to the detriment of aid itself. More generally, increasingly scarce natural resources, including metals, indirectly affect the cost of equipment used, raising questions about consumption. Lastly, the incentives to take the environment into consideration are also external due to national regulations of both home countries and countries where operations are carried out, the changing demands of certain donors, increased awareness of both donors and partners, the development of sector-based norms for more environmentally-friendly practices, etc.


The need to move forward collectively on these issues

However, humanitarian organisations are often reticent about integrating an environmental approach at the institutional level. They give several reasons for this. For example, they argue that environmental considerations are not part of their mandate and that the environment is an issue for rich countries. They also have difficulty combining their objectives of efficiency and effectiveness with additional cross-cutting demands like the environment. They feel it is a technical area of expertise, and they sometimes do not know where to start or how to deal with it. Lastly, they do not feel sufficiently prepared to be accountable or to communicate on these issues.

Since 2010, Groupe URD and UNEP/OCHA have facilitated training courses [1] on integrating the environment in the humanitarian sector. These have been an opportunity for actors to discuss these questions and to establish this subject as an integral part of the quality approach that they have been engaged in for numerous years. It was during these training courses which were run in both western and crisis-affected countries (Chad, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and South Africa) that organisations expressed the need to create a discussion group on this subject. Created in April 2012, the network aims to promote the integration of the environment among member organisations and more broadly throughout the humanitarian sector, by encouraging collective learning and healthy emulation via the sharing of experiences and ideas and the search for solutions to shared problems.

[1] The partnership with UNEP has existed since 2010. Beginning in the autumn of 2013, these training courses will be run with the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (JEU).