Humanitarians struggle to address environment: ‘It’s nice but it’s not crucial’

Food being prepared over a three stone fire in a refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson


With growing stress on natural resources, emergency workers have begun to examine their interventions. Environmental mismanagement can be fatal. Focusing on approaches that are built on the Sustainable Development Goals and with the assistance of organizations, like the UN and World Agroforestry, help is at hand.

A large contingent of humanitarians recently voted that ‘mainstreaming climate change into humanitarian action’ is one of the most pressing tasks they face. But many of the 2200 crisis experts at the annual Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week in Geneva also expressed uncertainty over how to respond. Or even if addressing the environment is their role.

There are signs that this may change. A UN environmental strategy is under way that will apply to the humanitarian sector; and the Global Compact on Refugees puts new emphasis on the environment. But for now, humanitarianism and the environment suffer a disconnect.

At a side meeting on ‘Integrating Environmental Data into Humanitarian Action’, 33 out of 35 people said ‘No’ when asked, ‘Do environmental and humanitarian actors collaborate enough?’

Why this is the case is unclear. But some veterans put it partly down to the self-image and perception of emergency workers, who see their role as preserving life.

‘When you are lifesaving, the environment is absolutely not top of the agenda,’ said Susan Hodgkins, global head of Humanitarian Supply Chain for Save the Children. ‘It’s just not in the mindset of any first responder. You think: I don’t have to worry about that stuff.’

A refugee plants a seedling. Environmental programs are often low priority in crises. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Risk of ridicule and lack of understanding may also contribute to the side-lining of the environment.

‘If you raise the issue of the environment, people can say, “Oh, she’s a tree hugger,”’ she said. ‘Yet there are many simple things you can do. Why not try solar instead of diesel when you work in a country which has sun 365 days of the year?’

Still, disregard of the environment is a fact. And Emilia Wahlstrom is at the sharp of end of it.

‘People are like, “It’s nice but it’s not crucial,”’ said Wahlstrom, who is head of the Joint Environment Unit, a partnership between UN Environment and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. ‘I’ve had very senior-level UN officials ask me, “What’s the worst that can happen?”’

Simply put, the worst that can happen is disaster, such as when agencies and NGOs encouraged the planting of Prosopis juliflora, a Central American shrub, in East Africa in the 1980s with the well-intentioned aim of providing fuelwood in a time of desperate drought. It turned out to be an intensely aggressive invasive species for the region. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land critical for the livelihoods of pastoralists as well as the survival of wildlife have been lost to its thorny thickets.

‘If we do not get it right in the beginning, it costs more in the long term,’ said Andrea Dekrout, a biologist from New Zealand who is now the head of Environment at the UN refugee body, UNHCR.

Environmental efforts in UN humanitarian agencies are desperately under-resourced. Dekrout’s office has just 15 staff globally to address environmental issues surrounding the 68.5 million forcibly displaced people officially of concern to UNHCR.

Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh is one of the crises: 800,000 people live on 16 square kilometres; elephants, their forest destroyed by the camp’s need for firewood, frequently come through; children have been trampled to death.

Dekrout, however, is fundamentally optimistic about what she sees as an emerging ‘more positive and inclusive approach to environmental stewardship under some of the most complex conditions’.

The task is vast. The meeting heard that 60 containers of e-waste from peacekeeping missions need safe disposal, burning diesel consumes at least 5% of humanitarian budgets, and more emergency shelters need to be sourced from low-carbon emission construction materials.

In heartfelt discussions, theories were advanced for the humanitarian–environment gap. Chatham House’s Oli Brown felt it had to do with ‘two different worlds moving at two different speeds. But if environmental needs are not met, human needs are not met’.

A refugee shows shea nuts harvested from the wild. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

‘I don’t think people don’t get it,’ said a British NGO worker who preferred not to be named. ‘It’s just that it’s new. Environment is just one of those things that got added on and nobody knows what to do with it. How do you do it alongside of protection?’

Sadu Ousman from Chad’s Ministry of Environment contrasted the acceptance of gender as an issue in humanitarian circles to the neglect of environment.

‘Gender we have to do it. But nobody is defending the environment. The system has forgotten it,’ said Ousman.

Swiss botanist Urs Bloesch noted that, ‘Displaced people depend on a sound environment. Humanitarians should understand there’s no choice. We have to consider the environment.’

Fortunately, no one fell into the meme of blaming refugees for destruction.

‘To make a better life, they have to cut trees and make charcoal,’ continued Ousman. ‘But we need humanitarian actors to help reforest the sites. There is a big impact on the people that live there. When I was a child, the hot season was 35–37 degrees centigrade. Now it is over 40.’

Lalisa Duguma from World Agroforestry described work in Uganda where, with humanitarian groups, his organization is doing just that.

‘We don’t just count the trees that we plant. We count what happens afterwards, what the impacts are and how they help to transform those landscapes. We want to bring back the local ecology and give people the chance to build resilient and healthy livelihoods.’

Newly arrived refugees walk to the reception centre in Bidi, northwest Uganda. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Finally, Wahlstrom presented the Environment and Humanitarian Action Network. EHAN synthesizes best practice and has just launched the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool.  NEAT is designed to help crisis workers implementing interventions, such as managing camps’ water and sanitation, to quickly identify environmental concerns.

‘The tool helps answer the basic question: if these are the things I want to do, what are the impacts?’ said Wahlstrom.  ‘These are traffic lights. It does not assess the whole disaster context but with this tool people can call for support.’

It is a good start. Humanitarians would do well to join EHAN. Recommending a network might sound trivial in a world of climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse. But it offers a community and solid first steps to closing mental gaps that humanitarians might have.


Humanitarians can also think more about the role trees in crises as bulwarks of resilience, given their role in flood prevention, groundwater recharge and agricultural livelihoods and in providing fuel, food, fodder, shelter, shade and refuge for biodiversity.

Agroforestry can help mitigate disasters such as storms, landslides and floods: a post-typhoon sign from the Philippines. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

As for environmentalists, many more need to step into the humanitarian fray: 201.5 million people in the world need humanitarian protection and support and all depend on the environment. Rebuilding lives and livelihoods does not need to cost us the environment, quite the contrary as World Agroforestry’s Lalisa Duguma reported, when environmental organizations support humanitarian relief.


World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of scientific and development excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Knowledge produced by ICRAF enables governments, development agencies and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at multiple scales. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.'

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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