Issue 27 - Article 13

Including the environment in humanitarian assistance

July 13, 2004
Charles Kelly, Benfield Hazard Research Centre, University College London

The idea of considering the environment as part of humanitarian assistance might seem illogical. The midst of a humanitarian crisis may not look like the best time to start trying to hug trees; trying to combine environmental action with humanitarian aid could jeopardise both. Still, not considering the environment during a humanitarian crisis risks a number of significant negative outcomes. The environment is a major contributing factor to the origins of most humanitarian crises. Failing to consider the links between the crisis and the environment means that humanitarian aid will be based on an incomplete and incorrect understanding of the crisis. A likely result is that the aid will do less good than intended, or could actually contribute to the worsening or prolonging of the crisis.

Humanitarian relief can itself lead to negative impacts on the environment. The concentration of Kosovo refugees in Kukes in Albania, for example, exceeded local waste-handling capacities. As a result, refuse tips overflowed and raw sewage was dumped into stream courses. These waste problems were exacerbated by the provision of relief supplies in excessive packaging and the distribution of disposable sanitary items. At the same time, humanitarian assistance can improve environmental conditions. Following urban fighting, for example, an intervention using food for work in a clean-up campaign can be an effective way of improving the local environment, as well as getting food to the needy.

This article provides a brief progress-to-date summary of the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters project. The project has developed and field tested a structured process to identify and prioritise linkages between disasters and the environment which need to be considered for effective relief and short-term recovery.

Contrasting normal and rapid environmental impact assessments

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is intended to identify disaster-related impacts on the environment before they occur, so that they can be mitigated or avoided. Normal EIA procedures are not, however, always appropriate for humanitarian crises.

Normal EIA procedures should be used when a crisis has been under way for some time (beyond six months), or where a change in status is gradual, as in the case of the slow implementation of a peace agreement. From this perspective, doing (and periodically updating) an EIA for a protracted humanitarian crisis such as the conflict in Sri Lanka is feasible. Similarly, the slow transition to peace in Sudan provides more than enough time to develop, execute and use the results of strategic and programmatic environmental impact assessments as input into planning and managing the post-conflict transition process.

A normal EIA will not work in a quick-onset crisis such a war, or when a crisis goes through a rapid transition. For example, the normal EIA process would not produce useful results until long after the relief phase following a cyclone, or when a change in government leads to dramatic and rapid changes in the social and economic order. At these crisis points, salient environmental issues need to be identified and provided as input into plans and operations in a matter of days, not months or years (the output horizon for a normal EIA).

Screen Shot 2012-10-18 at 4.11.47 PM

An EIA process which can work in a crisis needs to meet a number of criteria. It needs to:

  1. Produce results quickly. These results need to be updatable with minimal effort.
  2. Be usable by non-specialists. Specialists are important to the assessment and response process, but rarely is the right specialist available at the right time in the early stages of a crisis. The assessment should not wait for the specialists.
  3. Not require quantitative data. In the initial phases of many humanitarian crises, quantitative data is scarce or unreliable. A quantitative-based process risks producing bad results due to bad data, or being stalled when critical data is not available.
  4. Be linked directly to crisis response. While the identification of medium- to long-term issues is important, the process results must be related to the immediacy of crisis if they are to feed into plans and operations.
  5. Incorporate participatory input as and when available.
  6. Be integratable into other assessment tools and processes. Environment is a cross-cutting issue. The assessment process needs to link into and be part of other sectoral assessment processes so that environmental results do not exist in isolation.

Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters

Over the past four years, the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London and CARE International have collaborated to develop and test a process to rapidly conduct environmental impact assessments in disasters and other crisis situations. The Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters (REA) project has just completed a first phase of activities.

The REA process is designed to provide the non-specialist with the means to rapidly identify salient environmental issues. It uses a subjective process which incorporates organisational (e.g. NGO, local government) and community perspectives on the most important environmental issues related to the crisis. The REA process is designed for use in the first 120 days after the crisis, after which routine EIA procedures should be possible.

The REA process involves a series of 11 steps designed to focus attention on salient environmental issues (see Figure 1). These steps are not a lock-step process, and can be accomplished in a different order as conditions allow.

The Organisational and Community Assessments, though significantly different in operation, both move from general information about possible linkages between the crisis and the environment (The Context Statement) to relief-specific considerations (e.g. Unmet Needs) to the impact of relief assistance as well as local coping strategies (Negative Environmental Consequences of Relief Activities). The Organisational Assessment uses narrative and a set of tables covering a broad range of potential environmental issues to identify those disaster-related environmental issues which are important from the perspective of the organisation(s) providing humanitarian assistance.

The Community Assessment uses a set of questions to identify disaster-related environmental issues of concern to communities directly and indirectly affected by a crisis. Information to answer the questions can be collected through a variety of means, including detailed field surveys, key informants or from other assessment reports. The process of collecting community data for the REA can be integrated into other field assessments (e.g., a food security assessment) to save cost, time and effort.

Issues identified in the organisational and community assessments are then consolidated and prioritised in the Consolidation and Analysis module, with the resulting actions then screened again for potential negative environmental impacts.

It is not necessary, but is recommended, to do both the Organisational and Community Assessments at the same time. If conditions mean that only the Organisational Assessment can be done initially, the Community Assessment should be completed as soon as information from communities becomes available. Alternatively, the Community Assessment could be done first, with a later integration of the Organization Assessment results in a revision of the Consolidation and Analysis process. The intent of the REA is not to create a lock-step process, but to provide a set of procedures which can be used as needed and as appropriate in disasters and crisis.

A separate but linked process is used to identify the ‘greenness’ (sustainability) of assistance provided in response to the crisis. This screening process, involving a checklist of eight questions, can be used at the design, review or procurement stages of a project, to minimise the immediate and long-term negative impacts of assistance.

Although it is possible to do the greenness procurement review during a disaster (e.g., as part of the development of emergency procurement plans), it is more effective to integrate the process into standard emergency procurement policies and plans. Some humanitarian assistance organisations have green procurement policies and procedures, but this is the exception rather than the norm. The general lack of sustainable procurement policies on the part of humanitarian organisations suggests that the humanitarian assistance community has not fully understood that the assistance they provide can have negative environmental impacts and adversely affect the very people they are trying to help.

Screen Shot 2012-10-18 at 4.12.17 PM

Lessons learned in using the REA

The REA has been field tested in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Indonesia during or shortly after crises events in these countries. Five REA training events have been held, in Europe, Central America, India, North America and Australia. The field tests and training events have identified a number of changes to improve the REA process. Key among the points learned were that:

  • There is considerable resistance to doing yet another crisis assessment.
  • Although the assessment process was designed to be simple and easy to use, some aspects can become complicated if the process is not fully understood. The REA was initially written in English, and it can be hard for those who do not have a good grasp of the English language. It has been translated into Spanish, and additional translations are planned.
  • Despite these difficulties, the process does produce usable results, and these lead to improvements in the environmental and other aspects of humanitarian operations.
  • Initially, the REA process and Sphere indicators were closely linked. However, it was found that knowledge of Sphere was not universal. It became necessary to decouple the REA from Sphere, although this linkage can be easily re-established by users familiar with Sphere. (The environment is a cross-cutting issue in Sphere. The REA is a way of considering the environment in the Sphere-mandated assessment process).
  • Community input is critical. This can be said for any assessment, but the broad scope of environmental impacts and the close link between environmental and humanitarian conditions in many communities makes identifying community concerns vital to a successful assessment of environmental impact.
  • Individuals who are currently or who have been involved in field-level operations seem to find it easier to understand and use the REA than people with less hands-on experience in rapid crisis assessment.
  • There is a tendency to make the REA process more complicated than was intended in the design. This seems to come from users (both in the field tests and in training) trying to extract maximum output from the process. Unfortunately, this tendency makes the assessment process more demanding and time-consuming, which increases complaints that the process is too long and complicated.
  • Use and review of the REA have led to a number of suggestions for improving and expanding crisis and post-crisis environmental impact assessment. One is to develop a quantitative data-driven assessment tool to fill the gap between a rapid assessment in the first weeks of a crisis, and when EIA results would be available. Another suggestion is to develop REA versions which are localised to specific countries or regions. These REAs would be simpler to use and more directly linked to local environmental issues and responses than the generic REA developed under the project.

Two other aspects of the REA which have emerged in testing and training are worth noting. First, the REA takes a very broad look at the crisis situation. This contrasts with most other impact assessment tools used in a crisis, which are sector-specific. It can, however, be difficult to integrate the REA into sector-specific assessments. This integration process, which is important in reducing the workload and cost involved, needs further attention.

Second, the REA is one of the few assessment tools which explicitly considers the perspectives of the humanitarian response organisation and the crisis victim (community) separately in framing issues and actions. Because information on survivor views may not be immediately available or representative, plans for immediate response are necessarily based on a variety of formal and informal assessments. These inputs are filtered by the perceptions which the humanitarian assistance providers bring to the crisis. The organisational module of the REA forces users to recognise the role that these perceptions play in shaping the response, as well as raising issues which may not initially be considered. Integrating the issues important to organisations with issues identified by those directly affected by a crisis leads to a convergence of purpose for relief and recovery plans and activities. This improves the impact and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance.


The REA offers significant advantages in broadening our understanding of the links between the environment and crises, and bringing together the perceptions of assistance providers and of those experiencing the crisis. Both these outcomes improve the planning and execution of humanitarian assistance.

The REA continues to evolve. It is a generic approach and is most effective when adapted to specific contexts. These contexts can include conditions found in a specific country or region, or specific types of disaster. Adaptations to the REA are likely to be developed by users in a bottom-up process, rather than through centralised design. In parallel, the REA needs to be integrated into other assessment tools to make it easier to do, and because critical linkages between the environment and crises exist in all humanitarian assistance sectors.

A second phase of the REA project began in March 2004. This will focus on three areas:

  • Training, including training of field staff and REA trainers.
  • Disseminating and perfecting the REA process.
  • Support for use of the REA in large-scale disasters.

These efforts are expected to increase awareness, use and adaptation of the REA process.

There was no purpose-built way to systematically consider environmental issues in humanitarian crises when the project started four years ago. This has now changed. With the existence of a tested REA process, the years ahead should see a greater integration of environmental issues into humanitarian assistance, and the increased effectiveness of this assistance.

Charles Kelly is an Affiliate at the Benfield Hazard Research Centre, University College London. He can be reached at

Further details of the REA project, including Guidelines for Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment, background information and training materials developed by InterWorks with project funding, can be found at A CD containing a beta version of an eLearning (self-study) module on the REA is available on request.

Useful websites

USAID Africa Bureau Environmental Assessment Capacity Building Program (ENCAP):

Food Aid Management (resource and procedure documents on environmental impact assessments):

The International Association for Impact Assessment:

The UN Environment Programme:

UNHCR’s pages on the environment and refugees:

Other resources

Environmental Documentation Manual (Washington DC: USAID Environmental Working Group, Food Aid Management, January 1999).

Environmentally-friendlier Procurement Guidelines (Geneva: UNHCR, 1997). Guidelines For Environmental Assessment Following Chemical Emergencies, Bishop, Joseph Bishop, Guidelines For Environmental Assessment Following Chemical Emergencies (Geneva: UNEP/OCHA Environmental Unit, 1999).

Richard Black, Refugees, Environment and Development (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998).


Comments are available for logged in members only.