Why Environmental and Humanitarian Action Must Be Linked

Smoking fish in kilns in Ggaba, Uganda. The United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that brick-making kilns were
burning 52,000 trees every year. Credit: Pius Sawa/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 4 2019 (IPS)

Environmental and humanitarian action is often understood as two
different sectors. However, the lack of awareness regarding its
intersections could lead to further long-term devastation.

With the growing number of crises around the world, humanitarian
actors are essential. They are often the first responders during
and after a crisis, providing urgent, life-saving assistance.

However, there is an increasing need for such actors to pay
attention to long-term implications of operations, particularly
with regards to the environment.

“[The environment] is not integrated into humanitarian
programming…while we are very clear that the humanitarian focus
is life-saving assistance, we also understand that this cannot be
done if you are compromising of the lives of future generations or
even the current generation in the long-term,” head of the Joint
Environment Unit (JEU) of the United
Nations Environment 
Programme (UNEP) and the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs
, Emilia Wahlstrom, told IPS.

“Environmental degradation is causing humanitarian crises, and
humanitarian crises are exacerbating areas that are already under a
lot of strain.”

World Agroforestry
Centre’s
head of programme development Cathy Watson echoed
similar sentiments to IPS, stating: “There is a paradigm that in
emergencies you are saving lives and you don’t have time to think
about these other things. The problem with that paradigm is pretty
soon it settles down and then you really have to think about what
sustains their lives and that is usually the natural environment.
So if that’s not taken care of, you can end up having an even
worse situation.”

“Environmental degradation is causing humanitarian crises, and
humanitarian crises are exacerbating areas that are already under a
lot of strain,” she added.

According to a 2014
study
by JEU, Sudan’s humanitarian crisis was closely linked
with deforestation and desertification due to humanitarian
operations.

Such deforestation was caused by the need for firewood for
cooking and dry bricks for construction, and humanitarian
operations exacerbated the problem as there was an unprecedented
demand for construction. 

The UNEP estimated that brick-making kilns were burning 52,000
trees every year.

Such activities reduce soil fertility, decrease water supplies,
and destroy valuable agricultural land, impacting the already
fragile livelihoods of millions affected and displaced by
conflict.

Already, worsening land degradation caused by human activities
as a whole is undermining the well-being of two-fifths of the
world’s population.

According to the U.N.
Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
, 60 percent of all
ecosystem services are degraded. Reduced ecosystem functions makes
regions more prone to extreme weather events such as flood and
landslides as well as further conflict and insecurity.

Approximately 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts in the past
60 years are linked to natural resources.

Most recently, the influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh has
put a strain on environmental resources. According to the U.N. Development
Programme (UNDP)
, over 4,000 acres of hills and forests were
cut down to make temporary shelters, facilities, and cooking fuel
in Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazaar for the 1.5 million refugee
population.

Such deforestation has increased the risk of landslides and
tensions between host and refugee communities are escalating.

However, refugees shouldn’t be to blame, Watson noted.

“Refugees are just doing what they have to do to get by but we
can take a much more ecological approach and really think about how
we’re going to maintain the ecosystems that sustains these
refugees, provide water, provide fertile soil,  and wood to
cook,” she said.

Since the average time a refugee remains displaced can now be up
to 26 years, the need for a more ecological approach is
necessary.

“There’s plenty of time to really build up the environmental
well being of the area so that people can also feel good, live
well, have shade, have fruit, have clean water….you’re not
going to grow food for very long if you cut all the trees down,”
Watson told IPS.

Both Watson and Wahlstrom highlighted the importance for
humanitarian actors to use available guidelines, tools, and
resources ensure their operations aid populations in the
long-term.

For instance, the
Sphere Handbook
, first piloted in 1998, provides minimum
standards for humanitarian response including the need to integrate
environmental impact assessments in all shelter and settlement
planning, restore the ecological value of settlements during and
after use, and opt for sustainable materials and techniques that do
not deplete natural resources.

“We know what to do, everyone knows what to do. But we are not
doing it…the leaders and decision makers should change the way we
do our business,” Wahlstrom said.

Watson made similar comments, stating: “There are so many good
guidelines, but theres not been a lot of enforcement or awareness
of ecological thinking…if you really think about how to manage
the landscape and map it out and work out where you’re going to
get fuel from, what areas must be protected because of water—you
can build areas that are much more resilient and productive.”

While some humanitarian agencies have already begun to address
environmental concerns, Wahlstrom pointed to the need for both
environmental and humanitarian actors to also work together.

“Because of the life-saving mandate and the very urgent
elements of [the humanitarian sector’s] work, environmental
actors and development actors are a bit wary to get involved
because they feel like it is not their place,” she told IPS.

“The planet is burning, and environmental actors—we no
longer have the privilege of sitting in our scientific community
and working on our reports. We have to go out there and we have to
spread the message,” Wahlstrom added.

The Environmental and
Humanitarian Action Network (EHA)
hopes to do just that. Though
it is an informal network, the EHA brings together humanitarian and
environmental experts to share guidance, good practices, and
policies to mitigate the environmental impacts of humanitarian
operations.

“Time is running out. We really cannot afford to not
collaborate…we are stronger together and together we can have a
better response and be better prepared,” Wahlstrom said.

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Why Environmental and Humanitarian Action Must Be Linked

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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Why Environmental and Humanitarian Action Must Be Linked