1. Introduction

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.

Definition of the environment: 'The environment is understood as the physical, chemical andbiological elements and processes that affect disaster-affected and local populations’ lives and livelihoods. It provides the natural resources that sustain individuals and contributes to quality of life. It needs protection and management if essential functions are to be maintained'

Source: The Sphere handbook .

Description of ecosystem services: 'Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being. They support directly or indirectly our survival and quality of life. ecosystem services can be categorized in four main types:

Provisioning services links to products like food, fresh water, and wood.

Regulating services are linked to natural processes like water purification and waste management, pest control and climate regulation.

Habitat services provide space to live for migratory species and maintain the viability of gene-pools.

Cultural services are linked to elements like spiritual enrichment, intellectual development, and aesthetic values.

(Source: Biodiversity Information System for Europe (BISE) http://biodiversity.europa.eu/topics/ecosystem-services)

Strong ecosystems support sustainable development; while degraded ecosystems are often an underlying cause of vulnerability leading to disaster risk and vulnerability to climate change. The sustainability of a society, the health of the ecosystems and resilience are closely interrelated. Disasters, and the response to these, often have serious negative effects on the environment and ecosystems that societies depend upon.

Through for example deforestation, pollution, depletion of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions, emergency response can have a large negative impact on ecosystems and thus on the medium- and long-term resilience and well-being of a society. Degrading ecosystems may expose women to additional risks (e.g. the need to fetch firewood further from home may expose women to violence); environmental issues in emergencies touch therefore also on protection issues.

If emergency response is to support recovery and subsequent development, ecosystems and the services they provide need to be integral to the planning of relief operations.

Integrating environmental issues in emergency response presents a number of opportunities:

  • Limit harm to societies and adopting a more integrated approach to linking relief, recovery (rehabilitation) and development
  • Provide a deeper understanding of communities and society, and the vulnerabilities they face by taking a landscape approach using longer time frames
  • Increase the level of resilience of communities and strengthening and providing new livelihood opportunities while potentially strengthening natural buffers
  • Bring innovative approaches to relief operations that go beyond environmental issues

Increasingly environmental issues are covered by laws and regulations, and donors and the UN cluster coordination system are paying more attention to the environment too. Besides the ethical need to limit harm from destructive emergency response, financial liability issues may start to play in relief operations, and compliance to legal and policy requirements with regard to environmental issues will increasingly become mandatory.

Much can be done to reduce the environmental impact of an intervention during the relief phase. However, to reduce the impact on the environment and strengthen critical ecosystem services during the relief phase steps should be taken before the relief phase (e.g. through adapted policies, capacity building, networking, understanding of the local context and vulnerabilities, and adapting of procedures and standards used).