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Using humanitarian standards to protect both people and the environment: Sphere releases new thematic sheet

Energy and waste management are vital issues for the humanitarian sector to address in the near future, says Amanda George. Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN


Sphere recently published a new resource that offers hands-on guidance to practitioners looking to consider environmental issues in their humanitarian programmes. It is the first in a series of thematic sheets that will discuss some of the core issues in humanitarian response and the Sphere Handbook’s relevance to them.

To understand what a thematic sheet is and discuss environmental issues for humanitarians more broadly, Sphere talked to the author, Amanda George. A humanitarian professional with extensive experience in environmental and sustainability issues and climate change adaptation, she was directly involved in drafting the Sphere Handbook as a thematic expert, engaged through Swedish Red Cross. She is currently an international Environment in Humanitarian Action consultant.


The 2018 Sphere Handbook includes plenty of guidance on respecting and protecting the environment when running a humanitarian operation. Why is the topic so relevant, and why does it deserve so much attention in the handbook?

I think the humanitarian community is waking up to the fact that the environment and people are ultimately one and the same thing. As human beings, we rely on the environment: we need clean air and clean water for our survival. While the life-saving imperative will always come first in our priorities as humanitarians, I think it is also our responsibility to try and minimise our environmental impact and, where possible, proactively protect and restore the environment.

Nowadays, we are witnessing more and more protracted humanitarian crises. A refugee settlement lasts on average for 26 years, and yet humanitarians tend to think in very short planning cycles, partially because it’s very difficult to get long-term funding. If you’re going to support a refugee settlement for that many years, you have to think about the operation’s environmental impact. People living there, particularly in rural contexts, will rely on that environment for their survival for a very long time.

You authored the first of Sphere’s thematic sheets. What exactly is a thematic sheet?

A thematic sheet is a short guide that compiles references to a particular topic in the Sphere Handbook and delves a little deeper into it. This might simply be to discuss a theme in more detail, or because it deserves more attention that it was given in the handbook.

It is very important not to think of the environment as a standalone issue, but rather as something that cuts across all technical areas of humanitarian work. A thematic sheet does precisely that, allowing us to look more holistically at the topic.

How is the thematic sheet going to be helpful to humanitarian workers?

I think this thematic sheet is a good place to start for all those practitioners who would like to take the environment into account throughout their work. For example, the sheet takes a practical approach by looking at the humanitarian programme cycle. For each programme phase, it suggests some key actions to minimise the operation’s environmental impact and to make humanitarian programming more sustainable and accountable.

How do humanitarian operations pose a threat to the environment?

I recently visited a humanitarian project aiming to create more permanent shelters for a large displaced population. The agency was planning to purchase brick kiln ovens to fire bricks for houses while also doubling as a livelihood activity for the disaster affected population. This sounds reasonable; however, you may not know that it takes around 20 trees to produce five small houses worth of burnt bricks. This operation was taking place in a context where deforestation was already a critical issue, dramatically affecting water quality and worsening the flooding. This shows how important it is to think about the environmental impact when planning and implementing a humanitarian response.

Are there other topics related to the environment that would deserve their own thematic sheet?

The environment is a very broad topic, so there would certainly be a couple more issues to deal with in detail. Energy is one, and waste management another. They both tend to fall through the cracks because they touch upon different issues and are not the responsibility of one particular sector.

Looking at the next five to ten years, what are the most pressing environmental challenges the humanitarian sector will face?

I think a major challenge will revolve, again, around energy and waste management. The are some great initiatives promoting clean energy, but the humanitarian sector is not yet dealing with these issues systematically enough. For instance, relying on biomass for fuel is often the primary driver of deforestation, particularly if there are also pressures from a demand for construction materials, and these pressures are not looked at and mitigated in a coordinated way.

In the future, I think donors will become more demanding as to the environmental friendliness of humanitarian operations. I’m already seeing more and more agencies developing environmental policies and reflecting on how to implement them. I believe Sphere will play a key role in this process too. As part of the next revision, it would be great to develop a new standard on the environment that is not tied to one particular chapter, but rather applies across them all.