Humanitarianism and environmentalism: what’s next in a changing world

Destruction in the aftermath of a typhoon

Disasters and the environment often go hand-in-hand. Extreme weather events claim lives, devastate livelihoods, destroy infrastructure, displace people, and cause physical damage that alters ecosystems. The process of rebuilding however can represent an opportunity to reduce future risk by working with nature rather than against it. 

Anita van Breda, senior director of environment and disaster management at WWF, has worked at the nexus of humanitarian action and environmental management for over 15 years. As the climate crisis fuels more intense disasters, environmental issues and humanitarian needs are growing increasingly intertwined. Here, she takes some time to reflect on the past and look toward the future.

How has your work—and the intersection of the humanitarian and environmental sectors—evolved over time?

My introduction to working with humanitarians began with a partnership between WWF and the Red Cross following the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which wreaked physical, emotional, and social damage across the region. At the time, environmental and humanitarian organizations working together was not a common practice. There was an immediate opportunity to integrate environmentally responsible approaches to the recovery and reconstruction efforts following the tsunami. Through this experience, I became convinced that communities can build back stronger by incorporating environmental issues into disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts.

Humanitarians and environmentalists have different perspectives on time, we speak different technical languages and we usually do not work and train together. Therefore, all involved needed to learn a great deal in order to understand each other’s worldviews. My team’s work has grown over time, both in terms of the number of people and institutions involved, and the demand to apply it, since disasters are unfortunately growing in scale and scope.

What are some ways that environmental and humanitarian organizations can work together? 

Let’s take the example of a humanitarian agency that is working with a local disaster-impacted community to support them in rebuilding their livelihoods. Maybe those livelihoods are based on natural resources such as fisheries and agriculture. If so, the humanitarians could partner with organizations focused on environmental management to use updated fisheries management approaches in order to support people in regaining reliable food security and economic development. Along the coastlines, on the sandy beaches, and at the fishery ports, the fishery industry should be reconstructed in a way that allows the ecosystem to sustain itself and the people who depend on it over the long term.

Rickshaws in tidal floodwater in Bangladesh.

Mangrove plants along the coastline of Fiji.

How can the world respond to the array of worsening floods that we’ve seen over the past few years?

When people think of disaster management, images of first responders and emergency relief efforts often come to mind. But just as critical are efforts to reduce the risk of disasters in the first place. A large rainstorm, for example, doesn’t always have to become a flood disaster.

Nature is an important tool to help us reduce the impacts of extreme weather events, and can prevent them from becoming disasters. Wetlands, for example, are critical ecosystems that can absorb and store floodwaters, reducing the risk of flood disasters. Plus, they can bring myriad benefits to local communities, from strengthening water quality to providing recreation opportunities. But across the world, wetlands are being filled to make way for new developments. Preserving, managing, and restoring wetlands can help to reduce the risk of dangerous flooding.

Our Natural and Nature-based Flood Management: A Green Guide toolkit and training course provides support for water managers to use natural approaches to reduce flood risk around the world. By harnessing the power of nature, we can save lives and livelihoods.

What actions can people take to strengthen their communities’ resilience to disasters?

Disaster preparedness starts at home. Think about whether you have a plan for how you and your family would respond if there were a fire, flood, earthquake, or other extreme events. Next, expand outward. Check in with your neighbors and community groups and discuss how you will communicate in the event of a disaster. Do you have the preparation and equipment to take care of yourself, your friends, and your neighbors before professional help arrives? It’s helpful to be up-to-date with first aid and CPR lifesaving training and tools. By weaving support systems into our homes and neighborhoods, we all become safer. If you want to do even more, you could ask your local disaster management agencies about how they are integrating climate risks and environmentally responsible practices into disaster management plans.

Over the past year, catastrophic weather events have claimed lives and overwhelmed communities around the globe. As the climate crisis worsens, what do you see as the world’s most urgent needs?

How much the climate continues to change depends on the success of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But we know that a certain amount of change is already baked into the system, so we need to be serious about adaptation and reducing vulnerability. We need to recognize that disasters are not inevitable; they are a choice we make as a society.

To be better prepared, we need to update emergency management planning to incorporate the risks posed by the worsening climate crisis. And after a disaster, we must rebuild our communities and our infrastructure in ways that account for how the world is changing.