Humanitarian operations that tread softly on the planet are better for the world

(Cross-posted from TerraCurve.com) Although humanitarian action and relief efforts continue to (often thanklessly) save lives and provide essential aid in the aftermath of natural disasters, conflicts and other crisis – while putting their own participants’ personal safety in grave danger – their actions can result in damage to the environment and subsequently do more harm to those they are trying to help in the first place.

Obviously, their priority is saving lives and ensuring the heath, safety and well-being of communities affected by tragedies. But, wouldn’t it be nice if somehow they were given the proper tools and resources to do so in a matter that was categorically sensitive to the surrounding environments and worked to reduce eco-impact?

That is where UNEP – the United Nations Environment Program – comes in. They have developed a new online resource center to help boost efforts to reduce the environmental impact of humanitarian relief and recovery operations around the world; ensuring that environmental issues are integrated into humanitarian action at every phase of response efforts in order to adequately address environmental needs in emergency and post-emergency situations.

UNEP’s new Resource Center for Mainstreaming Environment into Humanitarian Action is the first online collection of practical information explaining how to integrate environmental considerations into humanitarian action.

While most humanitarian programs and operations intersect in a variety of ways with the environment, from providing shelter and protection to logistics and energy, UNEP leads training, serves as the liaison with clusters and partner organizations regarding environmental issues, provides in-country expertise and facilitates policy and advocacy efforts for members of the international humanitarian community.

Proof in practice

While actions like cutting down trees to provide shelter and firewood and the inadequate management of medical waste to communities that have fallen victim to a disaster or tragedy are absolutely essential to many relief efforts, these actions can also adversely impact the success of recovery activities by putting stress on natural resources and livelihoods, thereby leaving populations vulnerable to future crises.

As one example, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo the size and density of settlements for internally displaced persons has led to severe degradation of wildlife populations, trees and other natural resources in some areas, even encroaching on the Virunga National Park.

Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, emergency food distribution resulted in a big increase in solid and liquid waste, mainly due to packaging. Additionally, the distribution of raw food has increased the need for charcoal, which can lead to the removal of even more trees in a country with an estimated total forest cover of just 2-4%.

Making relief and recovery operations more environmentally-sound will ensure that both human welfare and the environment are protected and conserved in response to a disaster or conflict.
Several best practices have proven that including environmental considerations in humanitarian operations is not only better for the environment but also cost-effective, such as sending supplies by ship rather than by air.

Call to action

UNEP has set up the resource center in response to a clear need from humanitarian organizations for reliable and current information on incorporating environmental considerations into their policy and strategy development, program design and relief activities.

Already, over 150 resources from over 20 organizations are featured on the website, arranged according to sector and environmental issue.

UNEP is also calling for contributions of resources in any language from NGOs, governments, UN agencies, private sector and academic and research institutions, and will continue to work with partner organizations to ensure environmental considerations are effectively integrated in the international humanitarian system.

For more information, or to help make the resource center as useful and relevant as possible for a wide range of humanitarian personnel, contact postconflict@unep.org or visit http://postconflict.unep.ch/humanitarianaction.