Environment and Humanitarian Action: Increasing Effectiveness, Sustainability and Accountability (Version 1)

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Executive Summary

Destruction of livelihoods and deforestation as a result of brick production for humanitarian operations in Darfur. Dried up wells due to over-drilling for water by humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan. Ruined livelihoods from an over-provision of fishing boats and consequent fishing stock depletion in post-Tsunami Sri Lanka. Failure to meet waste treatment standards leading to environmental contamination in Haiti and the largest outbreak of cholera in recent history. These examples illustrate how humanitarian or peacekeeping actors, by failing to take environmental issues into consideration, undermine their purpose: to save lives and preserve and restore human livelihoods.

Ensuring that environmental considerations are taken into account at the earliest possible moment of humanitarian action can make a difference – for people and the environment.

Environmental stewardship during humanitarian action reduces conflict drivers and increases resilience. To be effective, however, what is needed is for the environment to be systematically integrated into humanitarian programmes and operations: this is a humanitarian responsibility, not a choice. Timely planning, identifying key needs and issues, together with cross-sectoral integration of environmental issues before and during humanitarian action can help make that difference.

This study commissioned by the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, and with the financial support of the Government of Finland, is the first stage of a larger project that seeks to examine the current state of integration of environmental considerations in humanitarian operations and to recommend collective action to improve the effectiveness, accountability, and sustainability of humanitarian action. It examines some of the achievements to date and proposes—based on extensive consultations – how the future agenda might be defined.

This study comes at a time when questions are being asked about the effectiveness of humanitarian response, particularly in relation to sudden onset emergencies.
Emergencies are times when life-saving priorities come to the fore. However, the many links between this fundamental objective and the environment are all too often overlooked or postponed until emergency needs have first been addressed. Sometimes this can be too late: for example, damage done by people cutting trees to cook their food, or a lowered water table due to over-extraction has had serious implications on the very people the humanitarian response is designed to support.

Through this study, lessons and experiences of what has and has not worked to integrate the environment in humanitarian operations are considered, building a case to support timely and consistent mainstreaming of environmental considerations during humanitarian action. Specific entry points are suggested, including within the Humanitarian Programme Cycle, primarily in the preparedness and assessment phases. Failure to integrate at such times will have negative impacts, causing environmental degradation and destruction, and ultimately worsening the survival and recovery prospects for the victims of conflict and disasters.

Donors have a critical role to play if a change is to happen. As this study shows, attention to environmental mainstreaming in humanitarian strategies varies greatly between donors. Moreover, there is no systematic correlation between the inclusion of environmental considerations in donor policies, the existence of environmental funding criteria and effective mainstreaming of the environment in programmes which they fund. The environment is never used as a restrictive criterion for gaining access to funding, leaving vagueness in how this is addressed relation to specific contexts and the level of emergency.

Based on a review of studies, evaluations and consultations with government, donors, UN agency staff, non-governmental organisations, field practitioners and technical specialists, the findings in this study represent a solid body of evidence for a need for change. A “business as usual” approach to planning and managing the environment in humanitarian action is no longer acceptable. Such change, however, needs to happen in a holistic manner, both at the systemic and policy level as well as on the ground. This requires learning from past experiences, firm commitments to affected communities and greater accountability.

Conclusions and recommendations are focused at the humanitarian system, including clusters and the donor community. Emphasis is given to a number of the overarching initiatives of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, including the Humanitarian Programme Cycle. It is also emphasised that this level of decisionmaking is one of the main vehicles through which accountability can and should be pursued in the humanitarian response.

There is a need to make humanitarian action fit for the future, anticipating risks and challenges such as increased vulnerability due to climate change.

This requires a fundamental shift towards a model of humanitarian action that not only strengthens the response to crisis, but also learns and adapts in order to anticipate crises, act before they become disasters and prevent their recurrence. Better attention to environmental stewardship, with its multiple and inextricable linkages with human livelihoods, is central to this.


Key conclusions of the study can be summarised into four categories: system-wide accountability and responsibility; mainstreaming environment at system and field level; advocacy and evidence; and funding environment in humanitarian action. Conclusions and their respective recommendations are summarised here.


Environment is still not systematically taken into account in global humanitarian action, despite being critical for effective, sustainable and accountable humanitarian response.


1 . The UN, IASC, OCHA, humanitarian organisations and donors should address the lack of leadership and accountability for environment during humanitarian action as part of the Transformative Agenda and ensure that environment is taken into consideration in a timely consistent and routine manner in all operations and at all levels.

2 . OCHA and UNEP, with support from donors, should increase the political commitment and human and financial resources dedicated to environment in humanitarian action.


Mainstreaming the environment is an approach that is critical for and should contribute to a long-term vision of effective, principled and sustainable humanitarian action. It needs to be translated into clearly defined actions to achieve this vision, both at policy and field level.


3 . Develop a detailed proposal for action including a full analysis of at least five priority countries that actively engages all concerned humanitarian partners. . Existing mechanisms to promote environmental mainstreaming should be better analysed, their impacts documented, approaches adapted and strengthened and sustainability ensured.

5 . Environment should be mainstreamed within every stage of the Humanitarian Programme Cycle.


There is a need for more understanding and strong evidence-base within the humanitarian system of the crucial benefits of mainstreaming environment in humanitarian action.


6 . Document detailed case studies built on field and management perspectives to provide evidence of what has and has not worked effectively in addressing environmental issues in humanitarian response.

7 . Adopt and execute strong advocacy strategies targeted at humanitarian practitioners ensuring a broad-scale approach to, and understanding of, mainstreaming environment.


There is a chronic lack of funding for environment in humanitarian action.


8 . Donors should develop an environmental mainstreaming policy for humanitarian aid.

9 . Donors should integrate environmental mainstreaming while analysing programme proposals.

10 . Donors should make the consideration of environmental impacts explicit in their decisions, therefore driving practitioners to include these impact statements in funding proposals.

11 . Donors should commit to longer-term funding.

12 . Donors should strengthen knowledge of programme officers and operational partners at desk and country levels and establish a technical support helpdesk.

If the above recommendations are put into action, the aim is that by 2020, environmental considerations are factored into humanitarian action in preparedness and emergency response – in a timely, consistent and accountable manner – in at least ten priority countries, resulting in more effective, accountable and sustainable support to people in need of humanitarian assistance.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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