Towards a framework for environment in humanitarian action

It is becoming clearer than ever that humanitarian and environmental goals go hand in hand.

To protect lives and livelihoods requires good environmental stewardship to increase the ability of communities to withstand even the worst shocks brought about by both natural and manmade disasters and reduce some of the drivers of conflict.

It also requires humanitarian action that promotes environmental considerations and contributes to effective disaster and environmental management.

Integrating the environment in humanitarian action while prioritising the life-saving imperative of humanitarian response will continue to be one of the most important challenges for those tasked with responding to the world’s crises with donors already beginning to recognize the value of a more integrated approach.

With that in mind, the Coordination of Assessments for Environment in Humanitarian Action (the Joint Initiative) invited more than 40 experts from humanitarian and environmental NGOs, UN organisations, academic institutions, donor institutions and development agencies to Washington DC to brainstorm ways of strengthening coordination between the humanitarian and conservation communities. The breakdown of participants was 60 percent environmental actors and 40 percent humanitarians, given that many humanitarian colleagues were deployed to ongoing responses across the Caribbean in the wake of hurricanes which have affected large parts of the region.

Building on the inputs of a stakeholder workshop with largely humanitarian actors in Geneva in August, the gathering in Washington on October 25 and 26 explored opportunities for working together to improve the use of environmental data in humanitarian programming.

Participants also provided extensive feedback on the content and structure of the Joint Initiative’s Framework for environment in humanitarian action, currently under development, which sets out entry points for environmental assessments, existing data sharing tools as well as gaps and opportunities.

The Initiative’s original focus was to update the Rapid Environment Assessment (REA) but the scope expanded to include a Framework following the realization that no one tool could address all existing needs at different levels across the disaster response and recovery timeline.

As such participants at the workshop were asked to share their experience of using environmental assessments or working in the cross-section of environment and humanitarian fields across four distinct stages - during preparedness; immediately after a disaster; at national coordination/UN cluster level; and at operational level.

Information sharing presentations were made by experts from The Nature Conservancy,, Conservation International, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the World Food Programme (WFP) the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), KoBo Toolbox (a free open-source tool for mobile data collection), Georgetown University, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Wetlands International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Following two fruitful days of insightful and extensive discussions and presentations, a series of  key recommendations emerged providing the basis for the next steps.

These included updating the Framework to include recovery and DRR more robustly, signposting entry points for environmental actors within the humanitarian programme cycle, capturing existing learning from organizations working in the cross section of environment in humanitarian action, and the continued collaboration with stakeholders.

Highlighting the need to help environmental actors navigate the humanitarian system, Judy Oglethorpe, Senior Director, Multilateral Program Development at WWF US, said she would have benefitted from the guidance the Initiative intends to produce on this subject before undertaking a rapid environmental assessment and promoting environmentally sound practices in other sectors after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

“It was the first time we had been exposed to the UN cluster system and it was a steep learning curve. Had we known about the intricacies of the humanitarian system prior to the earthquake, it would have made our task much easier,” she said.

The workshop also agreed to establish working groups to capitalize on the momentum behind the Initiative and that the first set of working groups would focus on the Environment in Humanitarian Action Framework, Information Management and the technical content of an updated assessment approach.

“Saving lives and livelihoods while protecting the environment is our common goal and motivation. To do this well we must work to build bridges of knowledge, expertise and collaboration between both the humanitarian and environmental communities,” said Mandy George, Team Leader for the Coordination of Assessments for Environment in Humanitarian Action Joint Initiative.