Climate change, armed conflicts and humanitarian organizations: defining their role, greening their response – World

By Colin Walch

Humanitarian actors play a critical role in responding to crises related to climate, armed conflict or a combination of both. Their response has an environmental cost. Air travel by humanitarian personnel, for example, is a significant source of carbon emissions and humanitarian logistics remains highly dependent on fossil fuels. As the demand for humanitarian response increases and countries increase their commitments to curb climate change, a question arises: can humanitarian organizations mitigate their environmental impact and remain effective in responding to the consequences of armed conflict and the impacts climatic?

It is possible — and urgent — for the sector to do so, but it requires significant changes in the way humanitarian organizations operate. While being “as local as possible, as international as necessary“Humanitarian action could reduce its environmental impact and put into practice the recommendation of the World Humanitarian Summit for more local humanitarian action. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the central role of local humanitarian action and the feasibility of reduce international travel for humanitarian personnel.

The growing link between climate change and conflict

By definition, humanitarian aid aims to alleviate the suffering of victims of armed conflicts and disasters. Environmental and climate impacts are often seen as a secondary concern to the humanitarian imperative. However, evidence increasingly points to how climate change can have an indirect effect on the outbreak and duration of an armed conflict. Environmental degradation can fuel conflict and aggravate humanitarian crises. For example, farming and herding communities that see their income decline due to climate-related droughts or floods have an increased likelihood of use of violence to secure access to fertile land or turn to rebel groups for an alternative income.

In one increasing number of contextslike Chad, Mali, Niger and South Sudan, climate change and armed conflict are increasingly linked. This interconnection is likely to increase in the near future as the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation increase at an alarming rate. In this context, humanitarians need to increase climate adaptation programs in conflict zones and step up their own environmental mitigation efforts.

At the forefront of adaptations to climate change in conflict zones

There are strong evidence that communities living in conflict-affected countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Armed conflict destroys infrastructure, weakens institutions, hinders access to basic services and erodes social cohesion, all essential elements for people’s resilience and adaptation to climate change. Communities are on a “tightrope of survival” in the face of these aggravated crises.

Thanks to their impartiality, neutrality and proximity to victims, humanitarian organizations have privileged access to conflict zones and are therefore well placed to lead or support climate change adaptation efforts in conflict zones. Supporting existing, impartial conflict resolution mechanisms that address access to land and water can help communities better cope with climate shocks, for example.

In engagement and dialogue with armed groups (state and non-state), humanitarian organizations can highlight international humanitarian law considerations related to the protection of the natural environment. In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) just released an update Guidelines on the protection of the natural environment in times of armed conflict, emphasizing that international humanitarian law can help protect biological diversity and limit environmental degradation during armed conflict. If the protection of civilian populations in armed conflicts must remain the highest priority for humanitarian organisations, the addition of a environmental perspective to their protection dialogue with armed groups should be encouraged as effective management of natural resources is important to restore basic livelihoods.

Greening the humanitarian response

As humanitarian actors deliver aid to people in climate crisis and conflict, they must also reduce their own environmental footprint. And while optimizing humanitarian operations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts is important, it is insufficient on its own. The humanitarian sector must rethink the whole approach to operations in order to have a more coherent and greener humanitarian response.

A more horizontal and local will help humanitarian organizations to pay more attention to the voices of those caught up in the crisis and reduce reliance on international staff with higher environmental footprints. International staff will always be needed, particularly in situations of high mistrust between ethnic groups where they are more easily perceived as neutral and impartial by armed actors, but they can add less value in humanitarian assistance, such as food security, water, sanitation and hygiene. In the context of climate change, it is time to factor in the carbon cost of deploying international staff when determining headcount.

Some aids require less logistics and therefore pollute less. For example, research suggests that unconditional cash transfers are much preferred by people in crisis to “in-kind” distribution. Cash can also be delivered in increasingly affordable, secure and transparent ways. Although cash transfers are not the best option or useful in all conflict situations, they have the advantage of being delivered easily, locally and with a reduced environmental footprint.

Conclusion: extending the Do No Harm concept to environmental protection?

While the environmental footprint of humanitarian aid is arguably smaller than that of many other sectors, taking environmental issues into account is a matter of consistency with the Do no harm principle. Developed as a tool to ensure that humanitarian assistance does not indirectly fuel armed conflict or increase the marginalization of certain groups, the framework remains at the heart of humanitarian assistance — although it does not is not yet applied to environmental considerations. Given the interconnections between climate change, conflict and natural disasters, humanitarian organizations should include environmental protection in the Do No Harm principle. Application of the principle could include carrying out more systematic cost-benefit analysis of the impact of humanitarian operations on the environment.

Most humanitarian organizations are become aware of the need to mitigate their impact on the environment and the climate. They are part of the solution and their crisis relief efforts must be complementary to the long-term mitigation efforts that are needed to curb climate change. The climate crisis is an opportunity to revitalize proposals to improve the organization of humanitarian aid by making it more local and horizontal. Crises are times of change and the humanitarian sector has the capacity to reform itself to be more local, greener and sustainable.