Humanitarian shelter and climate change: Is the shelter sector ready?
By Mhari Gordon, on 23 June 2022
Mhari Gordon is an IRDR PhD Student.
The ‘Climate Charter’ (launched in May 2021) was clear that the humanitarian sector needed to help people whilst being a part of the climate solution and increase its environmental sustainability. One year on, more than 200 organisations have signed the Charter, including several members of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Global Shelter Cluster. But is the humanitarian shelter sector ready? Welcome to the big question discussed at the 28th UK Shelter Forum (UKSF), co-hosted by Amelia Rule from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Victoria Maynard from University College London’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (UCL IRDR) in May 2022.
The talk of climate change and response has been ongoing for decades, as noted by UKSF speakers and attendees. However, the scope and way climate change is spoken about has evolved. As observed by Lizzie Babister “it is no longer one person in the corner talking about climate change – it is everyone”. Climate change is taking centre stage in all discourses within the humanitarian sector – as it should do – and appears to have become a driving force in breaking down the silos which have long existed between organisations and clusters (i.e., shelter, WASH, health). But what has become evident is that the shelter sector, like others, is not yet ready to be a part of the climate solution. So, what needs to be done?
Why must the Shelter Sector get ‘ready’?
The 28th UKSF kicked off with two Keynote Presentations by Tilly Alcayna from RCRC Climate Centre and Paul Knox Clark from ADAPT Initiative. Alcayna spoke of historical carbon emissions and responsibility for the climate crisis – how the vast majority lies with the US, Europe and the Global North. Even today, one American on average consumes as much as fifty Ethiopians. Therefore, reducing emissions needs to be targeted at those with excessive consumption, not the types of shelters provided to people in need. Alcayna emphasised that shelter and settlement types need to be chosen based on their suitability for the living conditions, including weather events and extreme temperature variations (the likes of up to 50’C surface temperatures), as well as health, wellbeing, and access to livelihood. Moving forwards more should be learnt from nature-based solutions, such as biomimicry and regenerative-by-design building. Also, research needs to identify current practices which are flexible, local, and adaptable that could be applied more widely. Alcayna urged for acting now with speed, scale, and scope, as ultimately, “the health of humans relies on the health of the planet”.
Knox Clark followed by painting the dreary picture of the climate breakdown, those who are and will be affected, and the subsequent challenges to the humanitarian system. Knox Clark stated, “We are now in an environment no human being has ever experienced before… For humanitarians, the consequences will be particularly stark”. He explained that humanitarians are responding to events which now have faster onsets, such as tropical storms that have developed in 24 hours instead of 72, as well as ‘new’ disasters such as extreme heat, wildfires, and glacial melting events. So, what does this mean for shelter? Knox Clark called for a fundamental shift in response. The humanitarian challenge is on the scale of disasters and migration, nature being less predictable with new types of crises and complexity, and contexts with higher levels of vulnerability, degraded environments, and increased securitization and domestic focus. Knox Clark advocated that the way forward for shelter is transformation via anticipatory actions, partnerships and collaborations, and supplies (materials, logistics, and skills) being much closer to the site of events. He argued that the sector has had a poor record of change, but to get ‘ready’ it needs to become more adept at responding to the changing conditions.
How can the Shelter Sector get ‘ready’? Which practices and policies?
In the final session, chaired by Charles Parrack, participants reflected on what the shelter sector needs to do to get ready. There were discussions on whether it is fair and acceptable to focus on carbon in the responses that support people who have made relatively insignificant contributions to causing the climate breakdown. Amelia Rule argued that the whole process from humanitarian organisations and their response should be looked at, not just the carbon emissions of the end-product provided to people in need. Especially as many countries who currently, and are most likely to, require humanitarian assistance have already met their carbon emissions and climate change targets. Magnus Wolfe Murray remarked that there are opportunities in well thought out, low carbon approaches for shelter and settlement responses. Such as solar panels that provide renewable energy and can unlock carbon credits and funding. This type of win-win scenario is the way forwards. However, the rationale must be rooted in meeting humanitarian needs while minimising local environmental impacts, rather than reducing carbon emissions of people in need. A current challenge for the sector is how these strategies can be scaled up and made more accessible, as well as sharing lessons learnt and good practices.
Discussions also centred around the need for greater emphasis on taking people’s needs and wants into account throughout shelter responses. Lizzie Babister shared that “the answers are with the communities that we work with.”. Humanitarians should focus on being facilitators and “need to get used to being a minor partner – be humble” as reflected by Jim Robinson. Many panellists and attendees were of the opinion that the phrases “Greening the Response” and ‘Shelter and Climate Change’ should be dropped and that the new focus be on ‘Climate and Shelter Justice’. A climate justice and people-centred approach can present opportunities for the shelter sector to improve collaborations; it can breakdown the silos across clusters, create partnerships, and potentially pull larger funds for both climate change and humanitarian work.
Phil Duloy concluded the day by giving credit to the hosts, presenters, and participants at the UKSF, as he highlighted that the discussions that take place here drive and improve the policies seen in the succeeding years. The shelter sector may not yet be ‘ready’ to be a part of the climate solution. However, it is evident from the 28th UKSF that there is neither lack of motivation and drive from the individuals who work in the sector, nor lack of thoughtful, brilliant strategies and roadmaps to get ready.
More details on the 28th UKSF (including videos of several sessions) can be found here: https://www.shelterforum.info/uk-shelter-forum-28-climate-change/