The ecological footprint of humanitarian aid

What environmental responsibility does the humanitarian sector have? Ins and outs, the internal magazine of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Holland, recently started a debate in the run up to the new climate treaty scheduled for late 2015. The official stance of MSF is that the organization respects established environmental law and other regulations wherever it works. Some staff argue that, as a humanitarian actor, that policy does not suffice and that it’s possible to reduce the negative ecological impact of aid without compromising assistance to beneficiaries. It has even been argued that MSF Holland, in addition to its emergency support desk, should have a sustainability desk to formulate policies for processing waste, curb emissions and promote the use of eco-friendly materials.
As my working for the humanitarian sector is aided by skills accumulated in the environmental sector, I was pleasantly surprised by the initiative to discuss this complex matter, and by the huge attention it received from MSF staff all over the world. My personal opinion is that reviewing MSF Holland’s footprint is a responsible way to determine the rate with which our humanitarian NGO is depleting natural resources that we share with others. But there’s another important reason why we should care, expertly described in the 2012 report on Climate Change as a Driver of Humanitarian Crises and Response, published by the Feinstein International Center.
As a measure for the amount of greenhouse gases MSF creates, its carbon footprint has a direct link with humanitarian crises and response in the (near) future. Global warming will change the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (major flooding events in the megadeltas of Asia and Africa, for instance). A closely related effect is the increase in societal vulnerabilities: displacement, reduced food security, impacted livelihoods and water shortages, to name just a few from the report. Harder to predict, but very probable, are shifting demographics (rapid urbanization and migration). The sustainability desk proposed by MSF staff should therefore play a role not just in curbing MSF’s footprint, but in developing humanitarian response strategies to deal with increased levels of crisis, and at a higher frequency. The 2015 climate treaty will hopefully boost awareness of the necessity of environmental action by MSF and other humanitarian actors.
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