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Mainstreaming the environment into Humanitarian Action
Tom Delrue and Renard Sexton

A failure to address environmental risks and insufficient inclusion of environmental considerations in relief operations can undermine the relief process, causing additional loss of life, displacement, aid dependency and increased vulnerability. Although this relationship has been documented in case-studies, and is commonly acknowledged by humanitarian practitioners in the field, there remain many opportunities lost and risks ignored in the environmental sector throughout the humanitarian phase. This article focuses on the opportunities to respond to this gap and on the activities UNEP wants to undertake with partners in the humanitarian community.

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 Introduction

Disasters and conflicts often impact the environment in ways that threaten human life, health, livelihoods and security. Whether through direct damage to land, water or air, or through coping strategies that indirectly stress scarce natural resources, environmental impacts in the aftermath of crises can threaten the success of recovery activities by leaving populations with degraded natural resources and vulnerable to future events.

At the same time, the relief and recovery operations that follow disasters and conflicts can sometimes cause as much environmental damage as the crises they were designed to respond to. Indeed, unsustainable and degrading techniques used in the humanitarian phase can leave disaster and conflict prone regions on path-dependent trajectories that continue to overexploit natural resources and the environment. At the same time, the basic operation of a large humanitarian presence, which is designed for rapid and intense operations, all too often leaves behind a trail of polluting waste, concentrated resource overuse and heavy, unsustainable urbanization.

A failure to address these risks and insufficient inclusion of environmental considerations in relief operations can undermine the relief process, causing additional loss of life, displacement, aid dependency and increased vulnerability. Although this relationship has been documented in case-studies, and is commonly acknowledged by humanitarian practitioners in the field, there remain many opportunities lost and risk ignored in the environmental sector throughout the humanitarian phase.

Therefore, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in its capacity as the focal point for environment within the humanitarian coordination system, is working with partners in the UN, NGO and donor communities to seize the current momentum to better mainstream the environment in humanitarian action. UNEP has stepped up its efforts to improve awareness and incorporation of environmental issues within humanitarian operations. The aim of this initiative is to minimize the possible negative environmental impacts of these operations to ensure they do no harm with regard to longer-term vulnerability and development. Cooperation with all the stakeholders involved is key to the success of this effort, resulting in the close cooperation of humanitarian and early recovery actors, authorities, donors, and affected people on environmental concerns.