Humanitarian action: the urgency of adapting to climate change.

©Solidarités International 

The news is punctuated by the announcement of increasingly alarming reports, figures and events, all stemming from climate change. The increase of 2 to 7 degrees by 2100 according to the IPCC, galloping demographics and pressure on resources will inevitably impact the work of humanitarians. Last December in Madrid, COP25 was held under the slogan “Time for Action”: the need for action is no longer to be proven. While the slowness of international institutions and governments to enter this time for action is denounced, changes are taking place at other levels.

The humanitarian sector is directly and doubly concerned by the climate emergency. Firstly, because the need for humanitarian assistance will undeniably increase. Extreme weather events and the increase in the number of climate-displaced persons, with a forecast of 250 million people in 2050, all in a context of demographic explosion, suggest that emergency situations will increase. Similarly, the 40% deficit in water resources predicted for 20301, the disruption of rainfall systems and the infiltration of the subsoil by pollution make water, a primary and vital resource, a humanitarian issue. 2019 is already seen as a year of humanitarian emergency aggravated by climate change, as witnessed by the brutal floods in the Far North of Cameroon and DRC, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and droughts in Southern Africa. By 2020, according to UN estimates, humanitarian assistance needs will reach the €26.1 billion mark.


“Do no harm” or the ethical imperative of taking the environment into account in humanitarian action.

While witnessing the direct consequences of climate change, humanitarian aid can also generate pollution. In 2015, a Groupe URD study shows that the 125 NGOs present in Port-au-Prince produced 90 tonnes of domestic waste per day. However, each stage of humanitarian action is designed according to the leitmotiv “do no harm”. In order to avoid any gap between its principles and practices, NGOs are striving to integrate the “environment” component into the design of aid projects and programmes. The emergency and the environment have sometimes been opposed to each other, thus presenting them as an irreconcilable duo. Indeed, the emergency and the humanitarian imperative took precedence over efforts to reduce environmental impact. However, environmental degradation reduces the resilience of assisted populations and exposes them to further harm.

Innovations, theoretical and practical tools

References to environmental protection have multiplied in codes of conduct. The 1995 ICRC code of conduct refers to particular attention to environmental concerns in the design of relief programmes (Article 8).  In 2015, the Basic Humanitarian Standard of Quality and Accountability warns of the negative effects of an intervention on the environment and calls for the rational use of natural resources (Commitments 3 and 9). References are multiplying and becoming more precise, with the Sphere Handbook of 2018 advocating the integration of environmental considerations at every stage of the project cycle. This involves, among other things, implementing environmental assessments, using sustainable materials and energy, and deepening cooperation with environmental professionals.

The creation of practical tools and focus groups demonstrate the sector’s dynamism and willingness to act quickly. At the international level and under the impetus of the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, tools such as EHA Connect, Environmental Emergencies Center, with the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) are being initiated. In France, it is the URD group that coordinates the reflections, and which, from 2012, will create with NGOs, the Humanitarian Environment Network (Réseau Environnement Humanitaire – RHEH).


Climatic disturbances and natural disasters are on the increase, but their nature is still uncertain. In the face of this complex equation, there is a united call for greater flexibility in financing mechanisms. The possibility of a rapid reallocation of funds would allow for greater fluidity between emergency and development and allow the application of the triple nexus. In this sense, innovations in terms of financing exist: the Crisis Modifier and Forecast-Based financing are two examples. In turn, the Start Network is an alternative financing system that has made the bet on anticipation and speed. In place since 2014, local organisations can act as a whistle-blower and thus trigger financing in a short period of time. Solidarités International used this method during the floods in Cameroon in October 2019.

©Solidarités International, RCA, 2019.

From theory to practice: some examples of operationalization.

NGO after NGO, initiatives are emerging. Active on the subject, the NGO Humanity & Inclusion (HI) has established an environmental agenda, revised its tools (methodological guides, purchasing procedures, training) and integrated new criteria that guarantee environmental preservation by paying particular attention to the quantity of water and energy used, for example. In turn, Médecins Sans Frontières has introduced tools for evaluating and monitoring energy and water consumption. Efforts are also focused on reducing plastic waste. For example, Action contre la Faim replaces plastic with paper in its “cholera kits” and the WFP promotes the reuse of containers. Within the programs related to food security, Solidarités International promotes sustainable fishing and agricultural practices during training sessions. The equipment used is respectful of ecosystems and organic fertilizers are preferred to chemicals. Likewise, local purchasing is favoured over imports: it stimulates the local economy, local production and reduces transport costs. The treatment of faecal sludge with the creation of the OCTOPUS platform and the use of solar pumping, particularly in Yemen, are two illustrations of efforts to find solutions to environmental concerns.

Faced with the urgency, certain concepts and tools are currently struggling to be operationalized without tainting the speed and efficiency of responses. The pooling of resources, reflection on technological dependence and efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are areas to be prioritized and strengthened in order to achieve environmental objectives and thus improve the impact of humanitarian aid.

Par Alicia Piveteau.

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