It is time for aid to go green
The need for humanitarian actors to take the environment into account
Humanitarian action always takes place in an environment that has been weakened and often in one that has been stretched beyond its capacity for resilience, that is, beyond its capacity to recover and develop normally after serious disruption. This can be the result of a chronic problem which takes place in a “hot spot” such as a desert or an overpopulated or highly industrialised zone. The threat of disaster is ever present in these areas and particular care is needed in dealing with them. It can also be the result of the same factors that have caused the humanitarian crisis. In addition to its direct and visible impact, a natural or technological disaster can have a large number of indirect consequences, such as the pollution of drinking water by floodwater which has gone through a chemical factory. War can have particularly serious and varied impacts on the environment. In combat zones, buildings and spaces are destroyed. Entire zones can be covered in mines, polluted with defoliants or irradiated with depleted uranium… The victims of a disaster can also develop predatory behaviour with regard to the environment. Collective and long term interest disappears from view when faced with the question of survival – resources are exploited intensively to be consumed or sold.
This is the kind of context in which humanitarian action takes place. Due to the pressure to bring relief urgently and the need to respond to vital needs, operations are designed without taking their long term consequences into account. It never appears to be the right time to implement environmental protection measures, especially as analysing risks and providing technical responses is not simple: environmental impacts are often diffuse, multifaceted and displaced in time and space.
Humanitarian operations also have a major environmental impact due to the logistical means that they deploy: air transportation, truck fleets, warehouses, office equipment and expats who sometimes live in fragile ecosystems for a number of years. Every programme implemented uses resources and produces pollution. Food aid and medical aid can cause pollution such as packaging, construction materials and hospital waste. Economic and agricultural recovery programmes can lead to the deterioration of natural resources by, for example, over-equipping fishermen which leads to overfishing or by introducing exogenous species which bring new diseases. Refugee or IDP camps are a well-known source of environmental deterioration. Grouping beneficiaries together makes the provision of aid easier, but this weighs heavily on the environment. Environmental resources such as water, timber, wildlife and edible plants are consumed in an unsustainable way and a considerable quantity of waste is generated, polluting soils and water tables. Demand for timber is particularly high as a construction material for shelters, a source of fuel for cooking and heating and as a source of revenue through the production and sale of charcoal. The establishment of a camp is often accompanied by massive deforestation, the most infamous example of this being the Virunga national park following the arrival of half a million refugees from Rwanda in DRC in 1994. Also, though they are initially intended to be temporary, camps often become established in the long term.
Integrating the environment into the design and implementation of humanitarian programmes prevents these negative impacts and improves the quality of aid delivered. It allows the mid- to long-term effects of the crisis to be anticipated (resource depletion, soil erosion, etc.) and therefore to reduce the risk of unsuitable programmes or of delayed implementation and thus extra costs (e.g. rebuilding fishing activities when the destruction of the mangrove means that the fish are not reproducing). It allows indirect victims of the crisis caused by the deterioration of the environment to be included in the number of beneficiaries (reduced means of subsistence, toxicity of sites, etc.). It contributes to disaster prevention and preparedness, which should be part of programmes, by identifying environmental risks.
Preserving the environment during the provision of aid favours the resolution of crises by conserving an area where reconstruction and economic activity can take place. In the end, the damage done to the environment compromises the lives and future of those who survive the crisis. To rebuild their lives they need an environment that is reasonably unpolluted and which is rich in natural resources and biodiversity; in short, one that is capable of providing well-being and means of subsistence.
In addition, preserving the environment contributes to the prevention of conflicts. The deterioration of ecosystems leads to conflict over access to resources. In contrast, environmental governance can help to instigate initial dialogue between parties to a conflict (e.g. the Israel-Palestine Joint Water Committee).
Finally, taking environmental limits into account gives the example of a sustainable model. Managing resources sensibly and providing aid using sustainable materials, systems and behaviour (giving priority to what is local, natural, renewable, biodegradable…) favours sustainable reconstruction, or if need be, development. In contrast, not respecting the environment promotes bad habits regarding the management of resources, which is already under threat because of the crisis.