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

Integrating an environmental approach into humanitarian action – progress so far
Ashley Lynn Bevensee & Kumari Rita Dhakal

Due to the complex and urgent nature of humanitarian action, environmental issues are often neglected during the initial response. What mechanisms, policies and tools are available today and what actions need to be taken to integrate environmental issues? How do available tools and guidance get applied practically during a disaster?


The complexity of humanitarian response and the urgency to provide basic assistance such as food, shelter and water to those affected often results in a lack of consideration for environmental issues. This lack of consideration can lead to severe environmental degradation and depletion of vital natural resources that sustain lives and livelihoods. The increase in number and duration of protracted crises has exacerbated poor natural resource management and environmental damage and made them more apparent.

The effectiveness of humanitarian relief fundamentally depends on the quality and availability of natural resources and yet the humanitarian sector often neglects environmental issues, whether they are driven by anthropogenic action or climate events. Taking the environment into consideration can help protect lives, livelihoods and future generations.

This article explores the extent to which environmental issues are considered in humanitarian action through various mechanisms, policies and mandates. Solutions are recommended to address challenges in reducing potential negative impacts of humanitarian assistance and to better advocate for sustainable recovery. The Bopha Typhoon that struck Mindanao in the Philippines in 2012 is a good example of how environmental issues can be effectively addressed in relief and recovery.

The environment is the sum of all external conditions affecting the life, development and survival of an organism: the physical conditions that affect natural resources (climate, geology, hazards) and the ecosystem services that sustain them (e.g. carbon, nutrient and hydrological cycles) [1]. An environmental emergency is defined as a sudden-onset disaster or accident resulting from natural, technological or human-induced factors, or a combination of these, that causes or threatens to cause severe environmental damage as well as harm to human health and/or livelihoods [2]. Some examples of environmental emergencies include earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, chemical spills and secondary consequences from conflict.


BOX: Environment

[1] UNEP, From conflict to peacebuilding: the role of natural resources and the environment, 2009.

[2] UNEP Governing Council, 13 November 2002.