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The waste produced by humanitarians: acting in an exemplary manner
Samantha Brangeon

The humanitarian sector is gradually becoming more aware of the need to take into account the environmental impact of its programmes, as this is a major quality issue. In a context of growing awareness about the need to preserve the planet, and questioning of certain humanitarian practices, NGOs, United Nations agencies and donors are looking more and more at how to integrate environmental considerations into the planning and implementation of their programmes. Though choosing between environmental issues is complex and certain issues are more urgent than others (reducing the carbon footprint of programmes, for example, can be seen as a priority due to the urgent need to tackle climate change), the issue of humanitarian waste is interesting because concrete solutions exist.

The question of waste management in crisis or post-crisis contexts is not often considered to be a priority either by public institutions or by aid organisations. This can be explained, in part, because human needs are often more pressing, particularly immediately after a disaster. It is also because waste management raises complex structural and institutional questions (the long-term stability of collection systems, low levels of tax collection, lack of treatment or landfill facilities, lack of road infrastructure for transportation of waste, etc.).

And yet, poor waste management can have disastrous health-related, environmental and economic consequences: the last major example of this was the cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2011 caused by the poor management of excreta in a UN military base, which caused the death of more than 10 000 people [1]. Refugee camps, whether permanent or temporary, and the humanitarian assistance that accompanies them, often have a direct negative impact on the environment and the livelihoods of host populations [2]

Alongside households, industries and institutions, humanitarian organisations also produce waste in the countries where they are present. Through their programmes and their day-to-day functioning, they generate waste that can be harmful to the environment if it is not managed appropriately: medical waste from medical assistance programmes, used engine oil/car batteries, packaging from non-food item (NFI) distributions, etc.

To what extent are aid organisations aware of this issue? How is waste managed? What are organisations doing to reduce the waste that they produce? In order to answer these questions, Groupe URD carried out a study, in partnership with the CEFREPADE [3], at the end of 2014, to review NGO waste prevention and management practices in Haïti.

[1] https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/haiti/health

[2] Refugee Operations and Environmental Mainstreaming : Key Principles for Decision Making UNHCR 2014 http://www.unhcr.org/3b03b24d4.html

[3] Centre Francophone de Recherche Partenariale sur l’Assainissement, les Déchets et l’Environnement