Conflict, the Environment and Humanitarian Action
May 25, 2016
The Toxic Remnants of War Project & Turkey International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
This week the much anticipated but also disputed World Humanitarian Summit begins in Istanbul. Its aim is to find ways to improve the global system of humanitarian assistance for the challenges posed by conflict, natural disasters, climate change and displacement. Conflict-related environmental damage is a growing cause for concern for humanitarian actors and civil society in war-torn countries.
Special to Environmentalist Against War
Conflict, the Environment and Humanitarian Action:
A Critical Discussion for the World Humanitarian Summit
The Toxic Remnants of War Project
ISTANBUL (May 23, 2016) -- This week the much anticipated but also disputed World Humanitarian Summit begins in Istanbul. Its aim is to find ways to improve the global system of humanitarian assistance for the challenges posed by conflict, natural disasters, climate change and displacement.
However, during the preparations for the summit, questions over how you minimize the environmental footprint of assistance, how you ensure it does no further environmental harm and how you measure and respond to the public health impact environmental risks was largely absent from the debate.
Conflict-related environmental damage is a growing cause for concern for humanitarian actors and civil society in war-torn countries. Recognition of the linkages between armed conflict, the environment and public health is a crucial first step towards a more holistic and inclusive humanitarian response that includes environmental analysis.
This will require political action and a systematic approach to address growing concern over the acute and chronic health risks from the environmental hazards created or exacerbated by conflicts.
A short background on conflict and environment
From the jungles of Vietnam polluted with Agent Orange, to the burning oil fields of Kuwait and Iraq, military conflicts have long-term environmental consequences that can threaten public health in the short-term or for future generations. In industrialized or industrializing countries, the technological environmental risks of conflict can be manifold.
There is a growing recognition of this problem among states, humanitarian relief practitioners and United Nations agencies. Numerous analyses have been made on the environmental impact of conflict by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), for example in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, South Sudan and Gaza. More recently, PAX published a desktop study on the environmental impact and related public health risks from the Syrian conflict.
Yet knowledge of these impacts is yet to lead to improved, structural responses to minimize harm and mainstream the environment into post-conflict analysis and humanitarian action. Even where these impacts can lead to acute or chronic health risks to civilians or a long-term impact on social-economic development and peacebuilding.
Countries neighboring conflict zones also suffer environmental damage from conflicts, for example from the footprint of displacement, which can further exacerbate tensions and create new challenges for host countries. These impacts have been explored by PAX and other organizations in the last few years, which led to the founding of the Toxic Remnant of War Network, a coalition of organizations working on the environment and humanitarian disarmament.
Why the environment should be part of
the World Humanitarian Summit discussion
In early February, the UN Secretary General launched his report, One Humanity, Shared Responsibility, which outlined five 'Core Responsibilities' that the Summit should work on:
1. Global leadership to prevent and end conflict
2. Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity
3. Leave no one behind
4. Change people's lives -- from delivering aid to ending need.
5. Invest in humanity
From global warming, to the protracted conflicts that impact the environment or are fuelled by natural resources, to the large flows of refugees and their environmental drivers and footprints, one would expect that environmental concerns would be more visible in the UN Secretary General's analysis.
Oddly enough, 'environment' is only referred to twice in the context of bringing together relevant stakeholders and actors. However, there are opportunities in the report that should encourage humanitarian actors to ensure that the environment plays a larger role in humanitarian action.
Across the five core responsibilities, there are clear links that could be made with environmental action. These range from environmental peacebuilding, documenting environmental threats to health, risk analysis for long-term investments and the monitoring of compliance with international and national environmental laws.
All these improvements could strengthen humanitarian responses, be it through the swifter identification of acute pollution risks to civilians in conflict zones to more efficient and peace-sustaining reconstruction efforts that will minimise the environmental and related socio-economic legacy of conflicts. This is not a new discussion, for years humanitarian practitioners have been pressing for a greater role for the environment in field programmes. Indeed, as a recent policy paper by the Norwegian Refugee Council put it:
"Everyone seems to know that something needs to be done but no-one really knows what this something is, and then how to action, monitor and control it."
So what is the problem with conflict and environment, and what can be done?
Civilians at risk
The protection of civilians in armed conflict is linked to protecting the environment they depend on. From the air they breathe, to the water they drink, to the soil they till and the urban environments they live in. These can all be affected by conflict.
The wide-scale destruction of built-up areas can leave millions of tons of rubble, often a mixture of cement, asbestos and waste products. Damage to heavy industry, oil facilities and power plants can result in the release of toxic chemicals, polluting soil and drinking water. Damaged military material or sites often leave a toxic footprint, or can be a source of exposure to civilians working on military scrap or children using them as playgrounds.
Indirectly, the collapse of environmental governance can affect waste management, resulting in the piling-up of household, industrial and medical wastes, and can lead to the spread of communicable diseases. These environmental and related public health hazards are often ignored, or their consequences underestimated, which can result in the prolonged exposure of civilians to a range of hazardous substances, in particular vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, children or the elderly.
Protecting civilians and the environment they live in
PAX believes that the protection of civilians must have an environmental component. This starts with recognizing the toxic environmental consequences of conflict and the need to address these within humanitarian action. States and international organizations should call for action and initiate a process of tackling these concerns.
Traditionally, environmental concerns are low on the list of priorities for post-conflict assessment and reconstruction. Yet, greater consideration of the environmental impact of military activities during their planning and execution, as well as increased mainstreaming of the environment in humanitarian operations, could help reduce the environmental legacy and civilian health consequences of conflicts. Humanitarian impacts go beyond the visible consequences of conflict, and require a holistic approach, making relief and response work more effective and sustainable.
Addressing the health consequences of conflict-related environmental damage requires bold political action and strong humanitarian commitments. The following recommendations for humanitarian actors, international organisations and governments would begin to address these concerns
1. Recognise the environmental and related humanitarian impact of armed conflict
Direct humanitarian needs are a top priority in conflict, yet there needs to be international recognition that the environment in which people live and work also suffers from conflict. This can impact health, well-being and long-term recovery plans, prolong or sustain conflicts and hinder peace building efforts and the international community acknowledge these forms of harm.
2. Establish structural monitoring to ensure early identification of environmental risks
Knowing where health risks might occur requires the timely identification of potential pollution hotspots. This information is crucial to inform direct response programs by local partners or existing government structures or, in the aftermath of the conflict, to speed-up assistance and remediation. A systematic and inclusive monitoring system is needed to identify environmental risks in conflicts as they unfold. This requires capacity and expertise and is increasingly feasible through open-source intelligence and remote-sensing.
3. Strengthen cooperation between humanitarian and environmental actors
At times, recording and responding to environmental risks has been under-prioritized in humanitarian operations. However, resources are now readily available to help identify potential impacts, improve response mechanisms and to encourage data sharing. Increase information sharing between UN clusters, as well as among humanitarian organizations, could contribute towards better information collection.
4. Integrate the environment into recovery plans
Environmental recovery should be more effectively integrated into the post-conflict reconstruction plans, such as data collection on the location of environmental hotspots, contingency plans for dealing with hazardous waste and community-level risk awareness about potential environmental hazards. The private and industrial sectors and other relevant civil society actors are key stakeholders in the recovery process.
5. Improve environmental response and preparedness
Learning from the environmental impact of past conflicts can inform the design of faster and more efficient response mechanisms for affected States and humanitarian organizations. Such approaches can include mainstreaming the environment into humanitarian action or providing a help-desk where organizations in need of expertise can seek technical support or information.
Wim Zwijnenburg is the project leader for humanitarian disarmament at PAX, a Dutch peace organization and works on conflict and environment related issues in the Middle East. @wammezz @Paxforpeace
The Toxic Remnants of War Network is a civil society network working to reduce the humanitarian and environmental impact of pollution from conflict and military activities.
Toxic Remnants of War Project
Bridge 5 Mill, 22a Beswick Street
Turkey's Statement Regarding the Humanitarian Summit in İstanbul
Arife Köse / ICAN -- Turkey
The UN Humanitarian Summit was held in Istanbul yesterday and today. As ICAN Turkey we made a statement about the summit and we paid attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and we warned the governments that there are situations in which humanitarian response is impossible and nuclear weapons are one of them. Here is an English version of the statement.
Turkey's Statement Regarding the Humanitarian Summit in İstanbul
ICAN Turkey International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
While the UN Humanitarian Summit is gathering in Istanbul ICAN Turkey calls the world to focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons!
(May 24, 2016) -- While the leaders of the world has gathered in Istanbul in order to discuss the humanitarian intervention in case of a crisis ICAN Turkey calls the leaders of the world to start the negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons because as a matter of fact in case of any use of a nuclear weapon accidentally or intentionally there will be no chance for any humanitarian intervention.
The United Nations Humanitarian Summit has gathered in Istanbul on May 23-24, 2016. In this first Humanitarian Summit the leaders of the world are expected to discuss the issue of humanitarian response in case of a crisis.
Nowadays, while the regional and global conflicts tend to increase and intensify, one of the biggest threats to the humanity is the nuclear weapons. These weapons cause mass killings, environmental catastrophes, and consequences which effect generations.
Today in the world there are nine nuclear weapons states (Russia, USA, Britain, France, China, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, India) which possess almost 15,000 nuclear weapons. USA and Russia have 1,800 nuclear weapons, which are ready to use in a minute.
Most of them are stronger than the ones used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Also there are umbrella states that have US nuclear weapons on their territories under NATO agreement. One of them is Turkey. In İncirlik Military Base in Adana there are 60-90 nuclear bombs under NATO agreement.
Only one nuclear warhead can cause killing of millions of people in case that it is exploded on a large city. Additionally, the data given by scientists shows that there is no possibility of humanitarian response to any nuclear weapon use. Because, in case of a nuclear weapon use, most of the hospitals will be demolished and there will be no medical personnel to take care of people because of radiation and heat.
Humanitarian response, particularly in case of a crisis, is one of the most important issue of today. But there are situations [in which] any kind of intervention is impossible and the leaders of the world and the global public must be aware of this fact. And one of them is any case of nuclear weapon explosion.
We, ICAN Turkey activists, call all the leaders of the world to be aware of this fact and do what is necessary. And what is necessary is to start negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons immediately.
Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction that has not been banned through a legally binding international treaty so far. We also call Turkish government to support a process of such a treaty publicly and to sign the Humanitarian Pledge -- which has been signed by 127 states -- calling the world to fill the legal gap to ban nuclear weapons.