27 Sep 2017 Story Ecosystems

Placing the environment at the heart of humanitarian response

From mass migration to war, natural disasters to catastrophic industrial accidents, the environment lies at the very heart of some of the most complex and pressing humanitarian issues of our time.

With more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people forced to flee their homes as result of armed conflict, and the world facing a growing number of weather-related disasters, never has it been more important to pay tribute to the aid workers risking their lives in humanitarian service, and to rally support for people affected by crisis.

Understanding the role the environment plays in humanitarian crisis is critical to reversing the upward trend in the number of people affected by disaster.

“The environment can be both the silent victim and the driver of conflict and disaster. It is the foundation on which peace, stability and well-being are all developed. To care for the environment is to care for humanity,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

Not only do conflicts and disasters destroy ecosystems, devastating the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, but the environment can also trigger widespread catastrophe. Climate change can drive mass migration; battles over natural resources can plunge countries into prolonged war; and a fragile environment can increase the risk and severity of natural disasters.

We know the impact that a changing climate and a damaged global environment is having on our lives. The evidence is already here. Since 2000, an average of 341 climate-related disasters (mainly floods and storms) were recorded each year, up 44 percent from the 1994-2000 average and well over twice the level between 1980 and 1989.

In another alarming statistic, since 2008, on average 26.4 million people million have been forced from their homes each year as a result of disasters brought on by natural hazards, a rate that is equivalent to one person every second.

Economic losses from this extreme weather amount to trillions of dollars over the last two decades. But the human cost is much worse. Between 1995 and 2015, weather-related disasters killed 606,000 people and left 1 billion injured or homeless. These disasters are often beyond our control, but climate change is aggravating the problem.

Environmental degradation is fueling wars and wars are fuelling environmental degradation.

Times of war can result in rapid environmental degradation as people struggle to survive in any way they can, environmental management systems break down and fighting damages critical ecosystems as well as water, agricultural and sanitation infrastructure. This often carries devastating consequences for people’s health, livelihoods and security.

In Afghanistan, following decades of war, some parts of the country have suffered up to 95 per cent deforestation; in Gaza, the 2008-9 conflict caused an estimated $34 million in damage to its water infrastructure; in Haiti in 2010 and again and in Nepal in 2015, earthquakes caused large-scale challenges for waste and sanitation.

Equally, as ecosystems become less productive and supportive to human populations, this will often prompt migration, which can prompt conflict. War, droughts, floods or other extreme weather events become extremely difficult to handle. It is a vicious cycle.

Then there are environmental disasters well within our control. Each year millions die prematurely because of environmental factors, such as air pollution and unclean water. In the Middle East, where that number is in the hundreds of thousands, that’s more than die annually from the current fighting in the region.

Providing relief services, building resilience, and fixing communities and societies broken by war and disaster, is incredibly challenging and important.

From 26-28 September, UN Environment together with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is hosting the Environment and Emergencies Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The forum brings together practitioners working in various spheres of emergency and humanitarian response to help bring the dimensions of environmental emergencies to the forefront of humanitarian action.

Pollution is the theme of the 2017 United Nations Environment Assembly, which is meeting in Nairobi from 4 to 6 December. Sign the pledge and help us #BeatPollution around the world. Together, we can clean up the planet.