Shaping the future of aid effectiveness by mainstreaming environmental sustainability

June 23, 2014
Mandy George
Example of positive water management in camps, Jamam, South Sudan

Environment. While for many this word may conjure visions of household recycling or polar bears, the reality is that people rely on the environment for everything. At the most fundamental level, for our lives. No one can live for long without clean air, clean water and food. Many of us also depend on the environment for livelihoods, particularly in developing countries where, according to the World Bank, a quarter of total wealth comes from natural capital.[1] For example, in India alone, some 50 million people are directly dependent on forests for their survival. The environment is a humanitarian issue and this will only become more apparent in the future.

The environment – defined in the humanitarian context as the physical, chemical and biological elements and processes that affect disaster-affected and local populations’ lives and livelihoods[2] – gives us life and also has the potential to sweep it away – through storms, floods, earthquakes or extreme weather, conflict linked to natural resources and the increasingly evident negative impacts of climate change. In times of crisis, the precarious relationship between humans and the environment becomes even more acute as people fight for survival in contexts where livelihoods have been destroyed, where disease is rife, where mass displacement has taken place and where fundamental natural resources such as water are in short supply.

Humanitarian operations responding to these crises, have the potential to impact negatively on the environment and therefore also on affected populations. The list of instances where this has occurred is long, including the destruction of livelihoods and deforestation as a result of brick production for humanitarian operations in Darfur[3]; dried up wells due to over-drilling for water by humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan[4]; ruined livelihoods from an over-provision of fishing boats and consequent fishing stock depletion in post-Tsunami Sri Lanka[5] and; failure to meet waste treatment standards leading to environmental contamination in Haiti and the largest outbreak of cholera in recent history[6]. By failing to take environmental issues into consideration, humanitarian operations can undermine their very purpose: to save lives and preserve and restore livelihoods.

Environmental factors are also central to an anticipatory risk-management approach to humanitarian aid, particularly in view of emerging global trends like climate change, water and resource scarcity and environmental degradation – threats cited by humanitarian experts as the most important issues that will increase vulnerability in the future[7]. Evidence shows that the compound effect of these, plus other challenges such as rapid population growth and unplanned urbanization, will increasingly be a major factor amplifying the risk and complexity of humanitarian crises in the future and have the potential to overwhelm the capacity of the humanitarian system to respond if left unaddressed.

However despite this obvious and fundamental link between the environment and humanitarian action little is systematically done to integrate environmental considerations into humanitarian preparedness and response. This failure costs lives, livelihoods and money. What should be done to address this failure?

This is the subject of the recent study commissioned by the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Environment Programme. Environment and Humanitarian Action: increasing effectiveness, sustainability, and accountability[8] found that despite some important advances over the last two decades, there is a still a critical lack of systematic mainstreaming of environmental considerations in humanitarian preparedness and response. This has negative impacts on aid effectiveness and undermines the life-saving prerogative of humanitarian action. There is an urgent need to address this at global system, field and donor policy levels as part of a transformational shift towards increasing the quality of preparedness and response through ensuring that humanitarian action does not further exacerbate underlying causes of crises and taking concrete steps towards alleviating them and setting a path towards sustainable recovery.

Recommendations of the study are presented at three levels. Firstly, the lack of system-wide accountability and responsibility. The fact that environment is everybody’s responsibility, while at the same time nobody is being held accountable, has resulted in the “tragedy of the commons”[9] of the humanitarian sector. Humanitarian partners have to date failed to operationalise environment as a cross-cutting issue within the global humanitarian architecture and no agency has the mandate to enforce the principles of environmental mainstreaming. This should be urgently addressed, with responsibility assigned and integrated into practical mechanisms such as job descriptions and performance evaluations and backed up and advocated for by senior management and leaders, both within the UN system and among other humanitarian actors. There is also a need for humanitarian organisations, with support from donors, to increase the political commitment and human and financial resources dedicated to environment.

Second, in order to effectively mainstream environment at system and field levels, the study paves the way towards translating the concept of environmental mainstreaming into clearly defined actions, both at the policy and field level. A two-tier method is proposed: at the systematic level, integrating environment into existing tools and processes, for example in phases of the Inter Agency Standing Committee’s Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC)[10], and, simultaneously, at the field level, providing country and context specific technical support at key stages to facilitate an understanding of the environmental context and propose practical solutions. Fundamental to this field level approach will be the detailed analysis of the most at risk countries to demonstrate how to practically integrate environmental concerns at the country level, actively engaging all concerned humanitarian partners, national actors and affected communities.

Finally, good environmental donorship is a required and fundamental component of future fit humanitarian action. Donors have a unique opportunity to lead by example and ensure that the environment is an integral part of their decision-making processes in allocating humanitarian funding. However, the study identifies a chronic lack of funding for environment in humanitarian action. To remedy this, a series of recommendations are proposed to donors including developing an environmental mainstreaming policy for humanitarian aid; analysing all proposals for funding from an environmental perspective, making the consideration of environmental impacts explicit in their decisions, therefore driving practitioners to include these impact statements in funding proposals; and committing to longer term funding, which will enable more robust programme implementation, monitoring and learning. Following these recommendations will lead to greater aid effectiveness and assist in the required shift towards a more anticipatory model of humanitarian response.

This study comes at a time when the humanitarian system is at an important junction. As the world prepares for a new post-2015 development framework and a successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction and heads towards the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, this is a unique opportunity to reshape the humanitarian system away from a response-focused business as usual model. The future of humanitarian action will depend on how increasing crisis risk is managed, affected by the convergence of new global trends, many of which are environmental. Environmental sustainability must be at the core of a transformational shift towards an increasingly anticipatory humanitarian response model. This is a humanitarian responsibility, not a choice.

Download the study “Environment and Humanitarian Action: increasing effectiveness, sustainability, and accountability

The study is being launched at an ECOSOC side event panel discussion in New York on 23rd June 2014.

Mandy George is a consultant at the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

This is an article in HPN’s Online Exchange. To read other Exchange articles, please visit

[1] Where is the Wealth of Nations? Measuring Capital for the 21st Century, World Bank, 2006

[2] Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, 2011

[3] Destitution, distortion and deforestation: the impact of conflict on the timber and woodfuel trade in Darfur. UNEP, Geneva, 2008

[4] Weinthal, E, Troell, J and Nakayama, M, 2014, Water and Post-conflict Peace Building, Routledge

[5] Alexander, R. 2006. Tsunami – Build Back Better: Mantra Aside, An Aid Gone Wrong Story? Bangalore: Development Consultancy Group

[6] Cravioto A, Lanata CF, Lantagne DS, Nair GB. Final report of the independent panel of experts on the cholera outbreak in Haiti, September 2011

[7] Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow – Managing the Risk of Humanitarian Crises, OCHA, 2014

[8] Environment and Humanitarian Action: increasing effectiveness, sustainability, and accountability, Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, 2014

[9] An economics theory published by Garrett Hardin in 1968 in the journal Science, according to which individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting some common resource.

[10] A coordinated series of actions undertaken to help prepared for, manage, and deliver humanitarian response:


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