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close this bookThe Environmental Impact of Sudden Population Displacements - Expert Consultation on Priority Policy Issues and Humanitarian Aid (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters - European Commission Humanitarian Office, 1995, 101 p.)
close this folder3. OVERVIEW OF POLICY ISSUES
View the document3.1. Environment and Sudden Population Displacement: Policy Issues for Humanitarian Action and Development programmes
View the document3.2. What Makes Emergencies Different? Inter-Relations of Development, Environment and Disasters
View the document3.3. Environmental Issues: UNHCR's Experience and Response

3.2. What Makes Emergencies Different? Inter-Relations of Development, Environment and Disasters

Terry Cannon1

1University of Greenwich

1. Introduction

This section of the introduction provides a framework of questions that should be addressed so that emergencies interventions that take account of environmental problems can work properly. Some of the issues show how success depends in part on the self-awareness of the institutions involved, and their willingness to recognise the power systems in which they operate and the limits these put on policies. The first part examines the relationship between institutional behaviour and power, and suggests that policies are largely determined by the potential for action rather than what is needed.

Secondly, it examines the implications of this for those who want to intervene in emergencies to make their involvement more protective of the environment. This includes being aware of the fact that the environmental problems identified are themselves largely the concern of outsiders in most relief situations, and are therefore in danger of becoming a new area of dispute between providers of assistance and the recipients.

Lastly, it suggests a number of policies that might arise if greater attention is given to the role of power and institutional behaviour: in other words, what would environmentally-sensitive policies look like if they could be devised with fewer political and diplomatic constraints?

Initially it is worth asking why there is now a growing interest by various international institutions to incorporate environmental concern into emergencies. Is there a danger that the label environment is simply being added to the list of concerns because it is fashionable or driven by interests other than those that concern people as the priority? In whose interests is it to add environment to the menu?

Most environmental problems are caused by two types of conflicts of interest. The first arise because humans make demands on ecosystems that are greater than those made by any other species, and have the inherent ability to damage environments and other species permanently. This capacity for human destructiveness has ancient origins, and exists in all regions of the world and in alt periods of history. It could be labelled the human species impact (HSI) set of problems. Today, if those who are able to spend aid budgets wanted to reduce HSI, how significance are refugee emergencies in comparison with other source of such difficulties?

The second type of environment problems arise because of conflicts between different groups of people over their access to life support and production resources (especially arable land, forests, water, rangeland and fisheries). These can be termed competitive group impacts (CGI). The most severe of these conflicts arise when one group (typically from a so-called advanced economy) invades the territory of another which has different resource needs that are disrupted by the new arrivals (Cannon 1994). In effect, what is normally a much more sustainable use of the environment is erased or severely distorted by the new users, who are able to commandeer resources by virtue of their power. The displaced peoples may themselves be victims of expulsions in conflicts over resources, and may then generate new problems in the areas they are forced to settle2.

2 Black and Sessay (c. 1995) report a more optimistic outcome in the Senegal River valley, west Africa, mainly because the ethnic affinity of people expelled from Mauritania and the valley inhabitants in Senegal enabled the refugees to have access to land and water and to engage in economic activities.

Examples of such events include those removed for dam construction or other development projects, including resettlement schemes for agriculture. Competing groups often generate particularly severe and/or sudden problems because the change in use of environmental resources is abrupt, and often involves large numbers of people or a significant shift in the technology of resource extraction.

In cases of refugee emergencies, the external agencies that are attempting to provide assistance often become embroiled in imposing a CGI problem on the host population. So the apparently simple act of incorporating environmental concerns into the policies for refugee emergencies is likely to create new difficulties for the agencies involved. Can they add environment to the list without it being part of institutional self-justification (i.e. following fashion), and avoid blaming refugees. Is it possible to incorporate environmental concerns without drawing attention to the group conflicts and heightening the tensions between them? What are the policy implications when it is perhaps the host people who are losing as much or more than the refugees?

2. Institutions and Disaster Emergencies

First, this study will look at how external interventions in emergencies are embedded in particular power relations. In addition, it will look at how the intervening institutions are forced to (or willingly accept) that there are certain political or diplomatic constraints on their activities.

To begin and illustrate my theme, let us consider a rather awkward question. Why do disasters (whether natural, technological, or complex combined emergencies) receive so much attention, given that in general 'normal' everyday life for many people in much of the world is much more 'risky'? The first reason is obvious, well recognised and not easy to change: the media give disasters and emergencies priority, so that the general public and political leaders are directed to think in terms of the exceptional rather than the normal. This is partly excused by what is often called human nature. The media are supposedly responding to humanitarian interest and compassion, and a widespread human fascination with danger.

But there is a further explanation that is not so widely accepted. Disasters receive disproportionate attention because of the behaviour of institutions and the power systems of which they are part. The way in which power systems operate have an in-built tendency to focus on the exceptional: it is convenient for political elites to distract attention from the normal, and scientific establishments may often be in danger of tailoring their research to benefit from that set of priorities (Blaikie et al. 1994).

This can be illustrated with an analogy: road safety issues in the West as compared with aircraft safety. Many more people use roads (the normal) and die in road accidents than in aircraft crashes (the exceptional). Yet at least until the 1980s far more effort went into aircraft safety issues. This is partly because crashes make headlines, forcing political systems and institutions to respond. But it is also because aircraft safety is much more susceptible to technical fixes (which are deemed possible) and are not basically a challenge to political systems (which are resistant). Dealing with road accidents requires much more social (behavioural) change, and shifts in politics which may be difficult.

There is also a lack of institutions (because of power systems) with an inherent interest in improving road safety. The exception is of course the motor vehicle industry, which in the 1980s introduced car safety as a selling-point. But even this demonstrates the argument about institutional interests, since not all aspects of improved car safety improves the chances of those not in the cars, and indeed some argue that making vehicles safer merely makes drivers behave more aggressively and dangerously (Adams 1995). Moreover, making cars safer is a technical fix aimed at a single mode of private transport, outside the context of the entire system. It ignores the even greater safety benefits that could be gained from increased public transport or other policy initiatives.

Let us transfer these arguments to development issues and disasters. In comparison with the impact of everyday living and dying, disasters are a relatively minor cause of human suffering. In April 1995 the World Health Organisation report 'Bridging the Gap' put the number of annual deaths of children under 5 years as 12.2 million a year, mostly from easily-preventable or treatable illnesses (The Guardian, 2 May 1995). This is many times more than mortality from emergencies and disasters in most decades. It is useful to consider the proposition that in development work, as a general rule professional groups and their institutions tend to define problems in terms of their own existence and its perpetuation.

This type of problem has been analysed by Michael Thompson in relation to the Food and Agricultural Organisation's (FAO) forestry policies (Chapman and Thompson, 1995 pp. 30-31). This analysis is not politically biased, and may apply to large NGOs and left-wing political groups as much as any other: though such groups may have less power, they run the risk of devising policies that enable them to continue as institutions. NGOs or political parties rarely dissolve themselves or merge with other organisations with whom they share similar goals. NGO and official aid agencies are in danger of defining problems in terms of what they consider themselves capable of doing, and of perpetuating their own existence by defining problems in terms of their own agenda3.

3 Seaman (1990; p.8) argues that compared with the total costs of an emergency the value of external aid is usually a very small fraction, and this suggests that agencies have an enormous impact on what is allowed to be done in crises compared with the resources they actually provide.

This is of course a widespread phenomenon that extends beyond institutions alone. Academics often argue that all problems require more research. Scientists seek funding for expensive projects on the basis that they will benefit humanity. This is argued even when the resulting technological advances are often not related to real needs, and may even worsen conditions for significant numbers of people. Civil engineers will present the case for technical fixes to complex problems, such as Bangladesh floods, even when many more people die in cyclonic storms than in riverine floods (Blaikie et al 1994, ch. 6). Where political and social change is more relevant for a real solution, it is given a lower priority because it is more difficult or challenges existing power systems.

Thus in short, there is a considerable danger that institutions and the power systems in which they are embedded, operate on the basis of fulfilling their own roles rather than identifying what is really required: what is done is what is possible, not what is needed. Though the situation is now much improved, a classic illustration of this is how European Community and United States government food aid was designed to solve domestic farm surpluses as much as the nutritional needs of recipients.

If we use this type of analysis, we can also see why there is more emphasis on people displaced by disasters and emergencies, although in fact there are an estimated 50 million 'normal' refugees around the world, and countless tens of millions of other 'economic migrants' forced by poverty or lack of access to livelihood resources to move to cities or other regions of their own countries. The media focus and institutional justification for dealing with disasters is that they appear more significant than 'normal' everyday life, despite the fact that it is possible that there are as many people displaced by development projects as there are by disasters and wars (McCully 1995). This number would be multiplied many times over if we included people who are in effect forcibly-displaced and seriously-deprived people living in their own country (in conditions little better than many formally-designated as refugees), such as most black people in South Africa, the Palestinians, indigenous Australians, and many North American Indians.

3. The Implications of Incorporating Environment in Emergencies

We need a legitimate basis for dealing with emergencies in general, and perhaps even more so for dealing with environmental issues within that context. This is especially because a priori it would seem to be extremely difficult to add environment as a further layer of concern in situations in which by definition it is extremely difficult to operate effectively.

Why is it necessary to specifically recognise the environment as a category to signify problems when dealing with disaster emergencies? The opportunity cost in terms of the foregone investment in other environmental problems may be very high in emergencies, where all operations are difficult and often inadequate. In other words, would such money be better spent elsewhere on environmental issues? Is it possible to treat environmental issues within the framework of the conventional aid effort in emergencies, and without significantly adding to costs, or shirting the burden on the environment elsewhere?

Are environmental problems in emergencies deserving of a higher priority for any reason, perhaps because they would otherwise increase mortality, morbidity and reduce life-prospects of the displaced people (and/or the host population)? It seems important at the outset of new attempts to be sensitive to environmental problems of refugee emergencies to be as clear as possible about what can and cannot be done, and whether it is worthwhile to try to do it, without simply adding a fashionable new layer.

If we return to development initiatives themselves, as well as generating their own refugees, many are well-known as causes of environmental disasters. Dam projects, transmigration schemes in Indonesia, land colonisation schemes in many countries, irrigation projects across the world, all are associated with environmental destruction on scales that appear on the face of it to be far worse than that connected with refugees and emergencies. In other words, investment in dealing with environmental problems associated with displaced peoples may be much more effective if spent on the more predictable and long-standing problems associated with deliberate population movements. Why concentrate on emergencies?

3.1. Time-scales and inclusion/exclusion from consideration

One of the implications of the institutional behaviour and power systems involved in relief efforts is that some events are included and others excluded from consideration. This operates both in terms of which groups of people are or are not allowed to be included, and the time period that is considered valid. What relevance does the assumed time-scale of the emergency have on the potential for implementation? For how long is the term emergency phase valid? It is no longer normally applied to many groups, despite their original status as emergency refugees.

For instance, although their conditions are in many cases no better after fifty or a hundred years than many current refugees, Palestinians and many Mozambicans, let alone North American Indians or Australian Aborigines are 'excluded' from use of the term emergency phase. Why should it be used only in relation to the immediate expulsion and its aftermath? To what extent is it media-driven or related to immediate political agendas of those who determine priorities regionally and internationally? What effects would this have on resolution of the emergency over the longer term, and the place of environmental concerns in that process? Should the attention be given only or primarily to refugees in camps, or more generally including those absorbed into existing settlements, and also to the host population?

What about the motivation of the displaced people to deal with environmental problems? Is there any relationship between the length of time that people are displaced and their degree of concern to preserve the environment? Common sense suggests that immediate needs on arrival are likely to exclude the environment from the immediate concern, and to highlight the validity of external agencies in providing policies and assistance.

Should it be assumed that once the displacement becomes 'normal' or long-term, and any hope of return has diminished, then the refugees might consider an environmental agenda. But by then they may expect environmental concerns to be organised by the donors. There is also the problem of the host population, and its own reaction to the changed access to production and other resources that results from the refugee influx. The environmental damage resulting from the hosts having to use different or fewer resources could be more severe than the activities of the displaced peoples, and yet there may be no institutional responsibility to deal with this by national or international agencies.

3.2. Whose environment should we be concerned about and why?

What type and scale of environmental problems are we concerned with and why? Is it local production and life support resources? De-vegetation, biodiversity and species extinction (for instance some refugees and disrupted host populations in Africa have been implicated in wildlife poaching)? Local ecosystems and sustainability, or the global environment and carbon cycle? These different types of problem are of varying levels of significance depending on who defines them, ranging from groups and institutions at different levels from local (including various conflicting groups) to international. Each may also have very different perceptions of the causes of damage and of what should be done about it. Are the refugees victims, a part of the problem (e.g. de-vegetation and species extinction and poaching as a survival strategy), or part of the solution? In other words, whose definition of what constitutes an environmental problems is to be given validity, and what impact will this have on policy-making?

How can we assess whether the environmental impact of the ousted people is worse than that in their place of origin? Do the ecosystems of the areas people move from have the opportunity to recover during their evacuation? From what perspective should this be judged: that of the local ecosystem, global environment, the ousted peoples' or host's livelihoods, that of different classes, ethnic groups, men or women? How will the areas vacated by ousted people be used: will new users appropriate their land/resources and make new, worse, or better environmental impacts?

Who has control over environmental resources in the refugees' destination? In what ways does this pre-existing pattern of asset-control affect the access of the refugees and therefore how they may be forced to degrade other resources? What conflicts arise between the needs of displaced people (often farmers and pastoralists) and the livelihoods of existing inhabitants (i.e. what new forms of contestation and rivalry can arise)? How do the ousted people relate to the existing power systems in the destination, and who can adjudicate on their behalf? What relevance do the perceptions of different groups on the time-scale involved have on their behaviour to each other and their attitude to the environment?

What are the economic and social characteristics of the ousted people, and how do their internal differences affect their use of environmental resources in exile? What bundle of assets do they bring with them (in terms of money, equipment, expertise, kinship links and entitlements, contacts and networks, shared ethnicity)? How effective is this bundle compared with their homeland? Do they gain access to resources in their new location in different ways, with some having better opportunities than others? How are land and water rights allocated? How are fuel and fodder resources allocated? What attitudes to crops, plants, animals, wildlife change in response to the displacement? How do other characteristics of the refugees affect these attitudes (e.g. age, gender, disability and morbidity)? How do different economic and social characteristics affect the planning horizon of the displaced people? What are their concepts of development and progress (sustainability) in the context of this interaction of their characteristics and the perceived time-scale of exile? What concepts of progress/development on their behalf are held by NGOs and aid agencies that are involved, and how different are these from the people themselves?

4. Policy Potential and Political Realities

What type of pro-environment interventions can be made when the encircling society and/or its ruling group are hostile (e.g. Sudan/Khartoum, Palestine/Israel, Zaire/Rwanda, Ethiopia under Mengistu, Somalia, South Africa), unsupportive (e.g. Malawi) or themselves poor (e.g. Angola, Tanzania as well as many others already mentioned)?

How is it possible to alter the priorities of either the host or the ousted people to give environment some significance? Why should they? How will they respond if it is outside agencies who are asking them to reset the agenda? How can existing needs and complaints of the ousted people be channelled effectively into pro-environment behaviour? How can those of the host be so channelled?

Displaced people are not socially-homogenised in their place of origin, and being expelled does not eradicate economic and social differences. Their existing power systems are likely to be maintained to a large extent while refugees, though they may be transformed and modified to some extent. Whose ideas of environmental use and preferences should be given validity? Emergencies are not social levellers despite the media appearance of similar conditions being endured by all.

Probably the most difficult set of issues are those affecting the host population, since in many cases it is they whose ability to cope with the influx is least supported by either national or international agencies. Host peoples often lose access to their own environmental resources, and are less likely to receive any compensation. Some foreign NGOs are forbidden by their own charitable objectives to assist them, being bound to rules of aid for victims of the emergency. And yet, in some cases the easiest way to help the refugees would be through policies that assist the hosts in their ability to co-ordinate with the victims of the emergency, or to reduce the hostility of local peoples to the new arrivals.

This illustrates the problems raised in the earlier analysis of how policies are associated with what is possible rather than what is needed. Other key examples also relate to the host communities. For example, it is largely impossible under current international political and diplomatic circumstances for agencies or foreign governments to attempt to predict emergencies that might lead to mass displacements of people. This might be perceived as interference in domestic affairs, or criticism of sovereign states, or taking sides in disputes. It is therefore extremely difficult to prepare for emergencies even when to many people their likelihood seems obvious (e.g. Burundi during and after the Rwanda crisis). It is consequently almost impossible to take into account the environmental needs inherent in any given population movement.

There is also an assumption under current international arrangements that refugee emergencies will only be eligible for multilateral agency assistance if they are cross-border. Furthermore, it is assumed that they will involve the neighbouring countries in providing a haven and sites of camps only temporarily. Crucial in this is the acceptance that land will not be allocated for farming or grazing, and that other resources will not be made available for long-term use.

This is an understandable and sensitive approach designed to reassure the host government and the local population that their disturbance is temporary. Yet it may lead the refugees to some forms of environmental abuse that are detrimental to their hosts and might be averted if the political circumstances were less rigid. It also makes it difficult to develop policies that incorporate the needs of both the host and refugee groups, or to encourage any symbiosis and positive relationships between them.

4.1. Policy objectives for external agencies

What should the policy objectives be if there were no existing power systems and political constraints? One of the most obvious and significant is to assist in removing or reducing the threat that has caused expulsion, though this is often an area that international agencies find difficult to deal with precisely because of diplomatic and political restrictions. The agencies tend to limit their intervention to providing a safe and healthy environment for the duration of the expulsion. This is often not fulfilled because institutional behaviour and power restricts action to what is possible rather than what is needed.

This is illustrated by the debate and dispute in February 1996 concerning the surveys of the UN intervention in Rwanda4. Supplies necessary for the welfare of refugees should also take account of the need to minimise the animosity of the host people. This should at least include a commitment to energy supplies in addition to food and water, so that one major environmental impact on local bio-mass can be reduced. Where repatriation is likely to be impossible or to take a long time, there should be negotiation with existing users for access to land, water and other environmental resources to minimise conflict with host communities. In fact it is likely that all refugee initiatives should include a fully integrated approach involving the host peoples, to search for positive interactions between the two groups.

4 Seaman (1990) provides an interesting contrast with the commonplace assumptions about the benefits of emergency relief, and argues that much is ineffective. De Waal (1989) found considerable evidence that mortality was greater in emergency camps (from disease) than might have been expected if the same people had not fled famine in Darfur in search of relief.

Major immediate objectives then should be to provide assets for possible (realisable) livelihoods to help prevent refugees having to revert to environmentally damaging activities. Most of these goals are very different from those normally incorporated in refugee emergencies. Usually the people are treated as victims requiring outside aid, incapable of economic activities or recovery, and lacking any rights to resources because of their supposed temporary status.

Some of these needs would include exploring the possibility of land for cultivation, assistance to those whose ability to farm is limited (perhaps because of missing or sick family members), necessary farm tools and key inputs, ploughing services and other land preparation if necessary (organised to avoid damaging practices), access to water for cultivation and animals, veterinary services, marketing arrangements for animals and other produce.

The emergency programme should address the needs and aspirations of the host people, and integrate them as necessary into the emergency management. Mobilising their indigenous knowledge is likely to be valuable, and respecting it will increase their self-worth. Workshops and other semiformal structures for the sharing of local knowledge (of plants, soils, seeds, weather, etc.) between hosts and displaced people could be arranged.

Evaluation of the long and medium term impacts of displacement is vital, and the development of environmental suitability programmes (ESPs?) when it has to be assumed the displacement is not temporary. In fact the assumption perhaps should be that the displacement is at least medium-term, and political expectations and policies created on that basis so that antagonisms are reduced though proper expectations and planning.

Special attention needs to be given to the refugee impacts on bio-mass, through the rapid assessment of fuel needs and by making adequate food aid provision where appropriate (e.g. palatable and acceptable foodstuffs that minimise energy needs in their preparation). Providing fencing may protect bio-mass, but need to take account of cultural needs (e.g. wire-link may protect animals but may not fulfil cultural needs such as privacy or purdah).

There will need to be assessment and provision of house construction material that are an adequate substitute for wood if necessary. Evaluation of water table and other water resources, and assessment of impact of any increased withdrawal should take account of impacts on local users as well as refugees. There needs to be rapid evaluation of replanting and seed requirements, including provision for crops that provide fodder, thatch, and fuel. Where necessary there may need to be compensation and substitution of resources for the host people.

5. Conclusion

In general, organisations that are dedicated to dealing with humanitarian assistance have a tendency to consider problems as defined by the role expected of them and which they are capable - within given political constraints - of delivering. They are constrained both from seeing a broader picture in which emergencies might be a relatively much less significant, because it is often the case that they are embedded in the power systems that at least partially generate the problems of the normal and the everyday.

This is especially true for those organisations that are more constrained by governments' political frameworks. They are likely to be unwilling or unable to accept that many problems are caused at least in part by the governments or international organisations of which they are part (as donors) or with which they have to maintain relations (as recipients). In short, as with development projects in general, emergency interventions are in danger of being institutionally-determined and opportunity-driven or capability-driven, not needs-driven.

There is no necessary relationship between what is needed and what is possible or what is actually done. What is possible may not be needed. What is needed may not be done. What is done is usually what it is considered can be done, and often this is also what will retain rather than challenge the political relationships that determine power systems within which that institution has to operate.

This rather pessimistic analysis of what can be perceived as a rational but rather distorted approach to the world is not fixed and irrevocable. In the last fifteen years we have seen a fundamental shift away from emergency assistance towards an integration of aid with development. NGOs are increasingly trusted with the delivery of welfare and even other governmental functions. While this entails its own dangers, it also suggests that alternative power structures can be developed that responds more to needs on the ground and have less connection with local elites.

We are also seeing signs that major international agencies like the Red Cross are willing to accept that abuses of power and exploitation - the 'normal' grind of everyday life - is the real cause of much suffering, and that emergencies should be seen in this perspective5.

5 See for example the IFRC/RCS (1994) report and its comments on Brazil and some other countries

In the 1990s we have also seen the first developments of aid interventions that go against the premise of state sovereignty, and which seek multilateral solutions to civil conflicts. These have often been inadequate or have gone badly wrong, as with the many problems in Somalia, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia. And there is a notable lack of interventions in other places, or single-country interventions that have betrayed both the people and the motives of the interventionist power (e.g. Panama, Haiti).

At present the international system for dealing with emergency assistance is crude and reveals all the signs of its origins in both the Cold War and the system of national sovereignty. Attempts to provide different types of interventions are not working well both because there is little experience of this new approach. But the problems persist because the power systems of the world still basically uphold the benefits of minorities in most countries, who serve in alliance with an international global elite which directs and commands global resources in its own interests.

In this context international relief is bound to be inadequate and partial. It is also likely to deal with environmental problems, including those linked to emergencies, in ways that are inadequate and incomplete. There is also the danger that the environmental component is merely added to the list of things to be done to fulfil current fashions or donor conditions, and that it is not taken seriously or is done against the local people rather than with them and for them. Adding environment to a list in this way also involves the danger of depoliticising the causes of the problems or shifting the blame for them to the victims themselves. If all these dangers can be highlighted at the beginning of this debate then they can better be avoided, and there is the potential - as this book demonstrates - for a considerable improvement in the future.

6. Bibliography

Adams, John (1995) Risk. London: University College Press.

Black, Richard and M Sessay (c.1995) Refugees and environmental change: the case of the Senegal River Valley. Mimeo, Department of Geography, King's College London.

Blaikie, Piers; T. Cannon, I. Davis, and B. Wisner, (1994) At Risk: natural hazards, peoples' vulnerability and disasters. London: Routledge.

Cannon, Terry (1994) Indigenous peoples and food entitlement tosses under the impact of externally-induced change. GeoJournal 35,2 pp. 137-150.

Chapman, Graham P. and Michael Thompson (1995) Water and the quest for sustainable development in the Ganges valley. London: Mansell

De Waal, Alex (1989) Famine that kills: Darfur, Sudan 1984-1985. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

IFRC/RCS (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) (1994) World Disasters Report 1994. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff.

McCully, Patrick (1995) Move out! The Ecologist 25,4 pp. 164-165.

Seaman, John (1990) Disaster epidemiology: or why most international disaster relief is ineffective. Injury: the British Journal of Accident Surgery 21,1 pp. 5-8.

Thompson, Michael (1995) Policy-making in the face of uncertainty: the Himalayas as unknowns, in G P Chapman and M Thompson (eds.).