"Unfortunately, disasters are a growth industry," said Anita Van Breda of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at "Sustaining Natural Resources and Environmental Integrity During Response to Crisis and Conflict," a November 12, 2008, meeting sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program. But the impact of increased disasters on the environment is not a priority for first responders: According to Charles Kelly, an affiliate of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London, their perspective is, "How many lives is it going to save, and how much time is it going to take?" Environmentalists, who tend to think in terms of decades and generations, can find it difficult to communicate effectively with aid workers. "You give a 30-page report and it's not going to be read, and there's going to be no action," said Kelly.
Including Environmental Management in Disaster Relief
"A healthy environment can enhance the capacity of societies to reduce the impact of natural and human-induced disasters," explained Van Breda. For instance, mangrove forests are critical to reducing the devastation wrought by tsunamis and tropical storms. However, the environment in many communities beset by disasters is already unhealthy, due to deforestation, overfishing, conflict, or other problems. In these cases, post-disaster reconstruction should aim to improve upon, not merely restore, pre-disaster environmental conditions.
Environmental issues are closely linked to vulnerability to disasters, said Van Breda. She explained that in the wake of a disaster, relief organizations should avoid rebuilding houses in dangerous areas like floodplains; destroying local forests for new construction; introducing new technologies that could overexploit declining resources; or instigating human-wildlife conflict by establishing human settlements in wildlife habitats.
Since 2005, in an effort to improve the success and environmental sustainability of humanitarian relief efforts, WWF has worked with the American Red Cross (ARC) and its partners to improve livelihoods, water and sanitation, shelter, and disaster preparedness in Southeast Asia. "The environment and humanitarian issues are integrated…and we need to learn how to work together more successfully," said Van Breda, who made the following recommendations:
- The beginning of a relief effort is the best time to get environmental issues on the table;
- Instead of rushing to respond, we must take the time to plan sustainable projects;
- Environmental and humanitarian professionals need to build strong working relationships before a disaster happens; and
- To mainstream environmental issues into humanitarian relief, both bottom-up and top-down efforts are necessary.
Obstacles to Integrating Environmental Issues Into Post-Disaster Assistance
If post-conflict environmental assistance is not carried out carefully, it can actually lead to renewed conflict. For instance, said Kelly, an NGO helped Sudanese refugees in Chad plant trees, not knowing that the local inhabitants viewed planting trees as claiming ownership of the land. Several people were killed in the ensuing conflict between the refugees and the neighboring tribe.
Kelly emphasized that environmental issues cannot be solved without competent governance. In Haiti, which was recently battered by three hurricanes and a tropical storm, UN troops maintain a tenuous peace. The Haitian government has said that the environment is one of its three priorities for post-hurricane reconstruction, but it lacks the capacity and legitimacy to address the highly contentious issue of land tenure.
Kelly reminded the audience that information is only beneficial if it is used by those in power or on the ground. The UN Environment Programme's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch researched and developed a post-conflict environmental assessment for Liberia that Kelly praised for its wealth of detail and use of cutting-edge technologies. Yet the report was too long to be useful to politicians or aid workers, he argued. "If I'm an emergency manager, 60 [recommendations] is a number that is 59 too big," said Kelly. "If you come in with too much, they won't focus on it."
Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar.