7. Environment and Disasters

The survival and well-being of all societies and communities depend on services provided by ecosystems. In most communities in developing countries, livelihoods depend (directly) on strong and healthy ecosystem services (e.g. access to water for households, crops, energy generation; access to affordable food, energy sources and construction materials). In areas where livelihoods are marginal, especially women depend upon ecosystem services for small-scale vegetable production and foraging, for firewood collection and for accessible water supplies.

1.1 Definition of the environment

Relief operations need to integrate a sustainability approach as soon as is feasible. Environmental issues and risk (e.g. DRR, CCA and resilience thinking) naturally fit into this sustainability approach.

The assessment is the foundation to developing an approach with regard to environmental issues. Ensure an appropriate assessment of the disaster, as well as the impact of the response (victims and aid workers) on the ecosystem services that the affected society, communities and individuals depend upon, and the vulnerabilities of these services. What impact do response approaches and the way the affected communities and individuals react have on ecosystems? What are legal and policy constraints?

In the initial phase of relief, saving lives will be the priority, and only a very basic assessment with regard to the environment and ecosystems services will be possible. Throughout the relief phase, the depth and width of the understanding of environmental issues needs to be enlarged. The environmental assessment needs to be more of an iterative process than a one-off activity, and further into the recovery phase should move from preventing secondary disasters and new risks, towards ensuring longer term impacts are avoided, including through legislation.


  • Has the disaster had an impact on ecosystem services?
  • What are the ecosystem services that the population depends upon and which of these have low capacity and/ or resilience?
  • Are there issues and/ or dynamics around the way the affected population (and if relevant receiving society) are organised or react that could affect ecosystem services?
  • Are there issues and/ or dynamics around emergency response that could affect ecosystem services?
  • Who are the major stakeholders (governmental, private sector, non-governmental organisations, research institutes) that support or undermine local ecosystem services?
  • What are laws and regulations with regard to the environment that need to be followed?
  • What are donor or organisational policies and procedures with regard to the environment?
  • Are there particular environmental issues in the area affected that need to be considered (e.g. environmentally unique sites)?

Adapted from: UNHCR; CARE 2009. FRAME Toolkit: Framework for Assessing, Monitoring and Evaluating the environment in refugee-related operations.http://www.unhcr.org/protection/environment/4a97d1039/frame-toolkit-framework-assessing-monitoring-evaluating-environment-refugee.html

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 2015. Approach to Green Response – unpublished document  

  • Conduct a Rapid Environmental Assessment (REA).
  • Recognise environmental issues as part of sustainability and resilience.
  • Consider environmental issues as an approach that links relief to recovery and development.
  • Involve communities and women in REAs.
  • Designate an environmental focal point/ advocate in the emergency management team and include financial and technical resources for assessment and implementation. Seconding a person or team from an environmental NGO may be an option.
  • Communicate the results of the REA, monitoring and evaluation to relevant stakeholders.
  • Adopt standards in operations and procurement to minimise environmental impact.
  • Ensure all involved in the response are aware of, and comply with, these standards.
  • Identify potentially negative impacts on the environment of relief operations and plan for limiting these impacts.
  • Consider activities that support and/ or strengthen ecosystems.
  • Involve local and international environmental NGOs, research institutes and government and private sector stakeholders to address and limit the environmental impact of the disaster and relief.
  • Include environmental issues in advocacy activities.
  • Monitor environmental issues in the dynamic response context.
  • Remain flexible around the integration of environmental issues in relief actions.
  • Evaluate operations on environmental impact.
  • Calculate the carbon footprint of emergency operations, and where possible, include them in funding requirements and offset carbon production.

3.1 Case study: Sri Lanka

  • Don’t ignore negative impacts that relief actions may bring to ecosystem services communities depend upon. It is often impossible or very challenging to undo damage done.
  • Decisions taken at the beginning of relief operations have a large impact on how response will be organised. Problems may get ‘locked in’ early in response. Don’t ignore the environment in the beginning of the response phase.
  • Don’t ignore potential synergies with livelihoods, resilience/ DRR/ CCA, protection and gender that incorporating environmental issues into programming may bring.
  • Don’t ignore that societal harm brought by CARE in a relief operation may expose CARE to negative perception by society, donors and other stakeholders and financial liabilities

Basic rapid environmental assessments are designed to be undertaken by non-specialists. However, there may be specific cases where environmental issues are particularly sensitive or complex, and which require a specialist in environmental assessment. CARE is working directly with a range of partner organisations who can help identify consultants with this experience and skills. It is also important to ensure that appropriately qualified sector specialists are used in programmes such as water and sanitation, so that interventions are technically appropriate and meet standards, and avoid causing negative environmental implications.

Advice and expertise can be accessed by contacting the CARE NL Integrated Risk Management coordinator, who can also connect the CO with experts in partner organisations.

CARE recognises that disaster-environment linkages play a key role in the success of relief and recovery operations. As a signatory to the Sphere Minimum Standards, CARE has made a commitment to integrate environmental issues into relief activities.

CARE has also committed to develop and use tools to assist in addressing the environment in emergency response. For example, CARE is involved in developing environmental aspects of the UN cluster coordination structure-specifically in shelter, camp coordination, water and sanitation, and logistics.

CARE has been involved in the development of the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters tool for USAID (Annex 35.7), and the Framework for Assessing, Monitoring and Evaluating the Environment in Refugee-related Operations tool kit for UNHCR (Annex 35.6).

CARE has been closely involved in work to improve the linkage between environmental issues and humanitarian response globally. For example, CARE’s review of relief operations for Rwandan refugees in Tanzania was key to identifying a number of critical lessons learned on environmental issues for UNHCR. CARE has been working with UNHCR on a package of tools to assess and manage the impact of refugees and other displaced populations on the environment. CARE has collaborated with Benfield Hazard Research Centre, University College London, to develop a Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters process. (Both are available at http://www.unhrc.org/). CARE also collaborated with other NGOs and the UN to develop an impact assessment tool for emergency shelter (available at http://www.unhrc.org/). Following the 2004 tsunami in South-East Asia and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, CARE worked with environmental NGOs to highlight environmental aspects of those disasters, and incorporate environmental expertise into relief and recovery operations.

CARE Nederland is currently working on Integrated Risk Management, which means focusing on Disaster Risk Reduction (Chapter 9.4) while incorporating Climate Change Adaptation, and  Ecosystems Management.  One of the flagship programs of CARE Nederland is the Partners for Resilience programme, which runs in 6 countries. This programme has brought forward several tools and guidance documents to link disasters, environment and climate change. For further information please contact CARE Nederland via wbokdam@carenederland.org



Mainstreaming the environment into humanitarian action - Resource Centre

Green Recovery & Reconstruction Toolkit (GRRT)

A training toolkit with reference materials for humanitarian aid.

Disaster Waste Recovery (DWR)

The goal of DWR is to provide timely solid waste management and environmental protection support to communities affected by emergencies. Working with key stakeholders, this support varies from advice and training to actual implementation of projects.

World Conservation Union (IUCN)

IUCN is not a disaster relief or humanitarian assistance organisation, but can play an important role in addressing environmental impacts. In particular, IUCN can support efforts to rehabilitate affected areas.