Every day humanitarian aid workers help millions of people around the world, regardless of who they are and where they are.
World Humanitarian Day, marked on 19 August, offers the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations an opportunity to celebrate the daily work of humanitarian responders worldwide and recognize their dedication to helping others, no matter how hard it may be. World Humanitarian Day also gives us pause to reflect on how to continue improving the humanitarian response to natural and man-made disasters and complex emergencies.
Among the many challenges facing humanitarian responders, environmental issues directly affect core operations.
Hazardous chemicals pose acute threats to human life and pose long-term risks to human health. Damage to natural resources and ecosystems such as forests, pasture, soil, wetlands and coral reefs also have a devastating effect on livelihoods, as people are forced to switch to less sustainable and more environmentally damaging livelihoods. Sometimes, access to scarce resources can heighten tension and lead to conflict.
Yet with expert knowledge and support, humanitarian workers are well placed to address these issues and create a better environment for the people that they serve as well as for themselves.
Ten years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 19 August as World Humanitarian Day. On the occasion of this celebration, here are ten things humanitarian actors can do to safeguard the environment and improve lives while undertaking the noble work of relief and recovery operations.
1. Hazardous substances: Identify all sources of acute risk (such as chemical spills from damaged infrastructure) as early as possible. Emergency assistance can be facilitated through rapid assessments and advice. Access should be restricted until the site is clean or the risk reduced.
2. Emergency waste management: Plan the location of emergency waste disposal sites with local authorities to avoid contamination of water sources and agricultural land, disease vectors and odours. Do not burn waste without a proper risk assessment, especially in the case of plastics. Healthcare and other forms of hazardous waste should be disposed of using appropriate methods, such as steam sterilization (autoclaves), for example.
3. Water use: To determine sustainable levels of water use, an early assessment of the presence, quality, quantity and recharge rate of groundwater sources should be done. Monitor groundwater extraction to ensure that the natural recharge rate is not exceeded. Raise awareness of the importance of water conservation.
4. Sanitation: Take care to locate latrines downstream of wells, at least 30m from groundwater sources and at least 1.5m above the water table. Fitting pit latrines with concrete slabs eliminates the need for secondary wooden slabs or supporting beams and facilitates cleaning. Consider the up- and down-stream impacts of water use and sanitation, as well as its cumulative impact on watersheds.
5. Energy consumption: The use of wood or charcoal for domestic energy by displaced people has a major impact on the environment and livelihoods. Promote energy saving measures, such as fuel-efficient stoves and cooking techniques, and fast-cooking foods. Consider using cleaner energy sources, such as gas and photovoltaic power.
6. Refugee / internally displaced people’s camps: If possible, keep camp populations below 20,000 and locate camp sites at least 15km from ecologically sensitive areas and neighbouring camps. Consider controlled harvesting sites or mud brick construction to avoid deforestation. Promote the three R’s of waste management in camps: Reduce, Re-use and Recycle.
7. Transport: Well-maintained vehicles and eco-friendly driving reduce air pollution and fuel consumption. Where possible, choose cleaner fuels and fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicles to minimize carbon emissions. Waste oil should be stored in plastic drums and properly disposed of or taken back to its source.
8. Green procurement: Smart procurement decisions are a simple way to reduce the environmental impact of humanitarian operations. Choose goods with the minimum possible packaging, especially containers that can be reused or recycled. Source materials from local or national markets to minimize travel miles and carbon emissions and always opt for recycled materials. Select suppliers with certified safe and sustainable production practices, especially for forest products, water supply, metals and plastics.
9. Standards, tools and guidelines: Standards, tools and guidance documents are available to assist humanitarian responders in managing environmental impacts and risks. In the absence of other guidance, the Sphere standards should be applied.
10. UN assistance: Humanitarian operations can be assisted on environmental issues by the Joint UN Environment & Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Environment Unit (during the emergency phase) and UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch (during the early recovery phase).
Learn more about UN Environment’s work the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.