Next week, UN Environment will host the biennial Environment and Emergencies Forum (EEF) in Nairobi. The EEF seeks to showcase innovations in environmental emergency preparedness and response, and to highlight current efforts on integrating environmental risk in humanitarian action. Although it has been held since 1995, until this year it has never specifically focused on the human health and environmental threats caused by armed conflicts. Wim Zwijnenburg and Doug Weir preview the event and consider some of the main challenges faced by humanitarian practitioners seeking to minimise the risks posed by toxic remnants of war.
Disasters and armed conflicts generate a myriad of complex issues that humanitarian responders have to deal with – often with limited means and capacity. As environmental risks are one part of the challenge faced by first-responders, the rationale behind the EEF, which is organised by UN Environment and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is to bring together practitioners from around the world to discuss new developments with the objective of improving environmental emergency preparedness and response, environmental management, disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action.
Arisha IDP camp in Syria is a prime example of how greater utilisation of environmental data would benefit humanitarian actors. The camp was sited on the hazardous remnants of artisanal oil refineries, readily visible by satellite.
In recent years, the world has witnessed the destructive nature of radical armed groups in the Middle East and North Africa, setting ablaze oil wells and sulphur stocks. Meanwhile in Ukraine, fighting in its heavily industrialised Donbas region has carried it with the ever present threat of a major chemical incident. As environmental assessments often take place only after conflicts have ended, humanitarian responders often have limited knowledge of the potential hazards in their areas of operation. To help begin to address this knowledge gap, this year the nexus between conflict and environment will be one of the three main pillars of the EEF’s programme.
Both PAX and the Toxic Remnants of War Project will be present to share their findings, thoughts and perspectives on the opportunities to improve how humanitarian organisations integrate environmental risk data into their activities. As December’s third meeting of the UN Environment Assembly will address pollution, we will also look ahead to how these perspectives could inform more effective responses at the international and national level.
Ahead of next week’s meeting, we’ve identified five priorities for improving how humanitarian responders integrate conflict-mediated environmental risks into their operations:
Build a profile of the specific environmental health threats for each conflict
Each conflict creates a unique environmental footprint, necessitating a bespoke approach. Nevertheless, there are lessons from past conflicts and disasters that can be utilised to help profile potential risks to health and the environment. At the same time, there will always be the ‘known unknowns’ that are difficult to predict, but where timely monitoring of conflicts can help fill these knowledge gaps. For example, few would have predicted that tens of thousands of artisanal oil refineries would spring up across the Syrian landscape in response to the conflict, posing severe threats to the health of communities and their environment.
Begin collecting more specific data
Access to environmental data, be it through remote sensing with satellites, or from other open sources such as social media, has vastly improved in recent years. This accessibility provides opportunities to monitor ongoing conflicts and the pollution threats they cause. We are now at the stage where new tools should be developed to reinforce and help verify these remote and open sources, the deployment of which could see both humanitarian actors and affected communities engaged in the collection of field data on the toxic remnants of war.
Take early measures to help minimise exposure risks
Although dealing with many forms of conflict pollution requires specialised expertise and capacity, early measures can help minimise their impact on communities until such time as comprehensive assessment and remediation can take place. To help minimise exposure risks, the humanitarian community should develop specific responses, such as awareness-raising and risk education programmes, and make more use of low-cost field kits and data collection methodologies to help identify and record hazard information.
Use environmental data to help bridge the humanitarian-development gap
There are significant opportunities to improve cooperation and data sharing in the period between the end of activities for humanitarian operations and the beginning of the reconstruction and development phase. When shared, data collected in the acute phase of conflicts can help facilitate more effective reconstruction work, make more efficient use of financial resources, staff and capacity, and help prevent replication by informing later post-conflict environmental assessments.
Engage affected communities
The voices and perspectives of those affected by toxic remnants of war should play a greater role in establishing the priorities for response. Their views should be taken into account in assessing the severity of the situation, in particular the socio-economic legacy of environmental harm and the psycho-social consequences of exposure to conflict pollution; neither of which may be accurately quantified in traditional post-conflict assessments.
We are very much looking forward to engaging with practitioners and critically appraising these and other observations during the various sessions at the EEF. The specific session on Conflict and Environmental Responses will take place on Wednesday September 27th between 16.45 and 17.45. If you are unable to attend the EEF, we would welcome reflections on these principles and the wider question of environmental mainstreaming in humanitarian response.
Wim Zwijnenburg is the project leader for humanitarian disarmament at PAX. Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project.