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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Humanitarian shelter and climate change: Is the shelter sector ready?

Mhari Gordon23 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 Babisterit 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’?

Photo: Tilly Alcayna from RCRC Climate Centre. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

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”.

Photo: Paul Knox Clark from ADAPT Initiative. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

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/

Photo: UK Shelter Forum. Photo by Ilan Kelman


Shelter and Climate Change: The Humanitarian Institute Evening Conference

Evie Lunn8 June 2022

Evie Lunn is a BSc student at IRDR.

This event, chaired by Lisa Guppy, explored whether humanitarian organisations are ready to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. The key debate was how to provide timely and principled assistance with minimal environmental impact. By bringing together panellists from a diverse range of humanitarian backgrounds, this event provided a forum where two crucial questions could be answered – does the shelter sector have the will and capacity to be part of the solution? And, more importantly, is the sector even prepared to respond to the impending shifts in climate?

Aditya Bahadur opened the discussion by identifying the key shifts that the shelter sector will have to contend with. Although it is no secret that extreme climate-related events are on the rise, it is also important to acknowledge that these events are increasingly occurring both simultaneously and across boundaries. Due to urbanisation and the hyper-densification of our social and economic networks, disturbance in one place can lead to disaster in another – creating a ripple effect of crises. One way Bahadur suggested that the sector should address these shifts was by reforming data collection and planning approaches. Existing methods of data collection have severe issues with certainty and specificity, and a fresh perspective on big data could form the basis for a more effective approach. Bahadur also suggested bridging the disconnect between local and national response and focusing more on adaptive management rather than hard infrastructure. Local, regional and national approaches need to be scaled-up and brought together, particularly regarding municipal planning which needs to be much more informed by residents in informal settlements. Streamlining humanitarian finance is essential if these novel approaches are to be tested and implemented successfully.

The next speaker was Amelia Rule, who emphasised the need to unravel the narrative that high-tech innovation is the solution to shelter challenges. Instead, we should look to what already works in the shelter sector – such as hosting, which has already played an immensely important part in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Focus on high-tech innovation often overlooks scale, suitability and adaptability in local contexts. While Rule acknowledged that innovation is important, she emphasised that the solution is to build on pre-existing expertise. Problems with shelter must be looked at contextually; there is no clear-cut, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that can be applied in all contexts across the globe. Rule also dismissed the prevailing sentiment that migration is inherently negative; the benefits of migration and hosting need to be promoted. Hence, migration must be reframed as a sustainable and even desirable method of coping with climate change rather than a last resort.

Magnus Wolfe Murray (left) and Kate Crawford (right) at the HI Evening Conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Magnus Wolfe Murray was incredibly strong in his conviction that the shelter sector is woefully underprepared to cope with the changing climate. Some of the complications he discussed included the difficulty in determining when a person has migrated for climate-related reasons, given there are often multiple intersecting factors involved. For instance, a person may claim that they migrated for economic reasons because they could not find work where they lived. But upon closer inspection, it may become clear that they migrated for climate-related reasons because drought prevented them from earning an income via their agricultural work. Wolfe Murray also argued that while there is increasing talk about adapting the shelter sector for climate change, there is not enough preparation being undertaken in the field. Material supply chains, particularly regarding bamboo, are currently very weak and resources are being used in a way that is not sustainable, even in communities where humanitarian support is present. It has become undeniable that environment and landscape management are intrinsically intertwined with individuals’ homes and the shelter sector. Thereby, these two cannot be separated or viewed as a dichotomy.

The final speaker, Kate Crawford, built on arguments from the panellists and described how built infrastructures embed systems of privilege and bypass. She primarily discussed difficulties with investment in the shelter sector, including finding ways to get money to flow to risky projects. There is almost always a web of invisible confidence-inducing assurances that are at play when investors decide to spend money on shelter. The important distinction is that it is not risk that investors have a problem with, but rather unquantified risk. If we could measure how effective different shelter solutions are in an objective and quantifiable way, then investors would be more willing to commit funds to the cause. Crawford also suggested looking internally for solutions rather than always focussing our attention overseas. Measuring and retrofitting housing in the UK, for example, can be very beneficial for improving shelter policy and infrastructure.

The event concluded with a Q&A. Several questions from the audience asked whether there are any positive shifts in thinking when it comes to shelter-related solutions to climate change, and if humanitarian actors are ready to make this a priority. Panellists suggested that half the battle is for humanitarian actors to be reflective of their impact on the environment and hold themselves accountable, and we are already beginning to see this. However, there is not much evidence of sustainable solutions currently being employed at scale. Rule suggested there is also a risk that ‘greening’ the response is a tick-box, performative exercise that does not actually translate into real change. The humanitarian community needs to work together to have a collective front, rather than applying for different funding opportunities and experimenting with solutions in a competitive manner. The will for change is there, even if we are not seeing this change being enacted on a large scale. Despite Wolfe Murray’s concern about the scale of seismic change that is approaching, and the unprecedented migrant crisis that will most likely follow, he still believes there is reason for hope. An example he gave was the great success in restoring fertility to the Loess Plateau in China. This shows that the tragedies which arise from climate change are not inevitable and there are models that already exist which can rehabilitate damaged eco-systems. Overall, the shelter sector is not yet ready for the challenges ahead, but if the humanitarian community works together to overcome these issues, then perhaps the future will not be as bleak as our panellists have predicted. It was evident from discussions amongst the panellists and attendees that systematic change and transformation is possible if we act together, and we act now.

The event was live-streamed and you can watch the video here on the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction YouTube channel.

Evie Lunn is a BSc student at IRDR. Contact at: evie.lunn.21@ucl.ac.uk

Climate Hazards in the Northern Bolivian Altiplano

Bayes Ahmed14 July 2021

Written by Dr. Ximena Flores-Palacios, a Bolivian independent researcher and practitioner in sustainable development.

Tuni Condoriri Glacier. Photo: Leny Chuquimia, Página Siete.

The Northern Bolivian Altiplano is one of the most affected areas to the impacts of climate change and disasters. Vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities are the ones most at risk from climate hazards and are, in many cases, marginalized from socioeconomic progress. In order to prevent climate change and disasters from having further devastating impacts, it is necessary to close the development gaps that leave communities at risk. Without urgent action, climate change and disasters may push people deeper into poverty.

This region is located to the West of the Department of La Paz and covers an area of approximately 20,000 km² with a population of 2.5 million people (including the cities of La Paz and El Alto). A large part of this region is influenced by the presence of Lake Titicaca and the glaciers of the Cordillera Real mountain range. The altitude of the region ranges from 3,000 metres above sea level in the inter-Andean valleys to almost 6,500 metres above sea level in the peaks of the Cordillera Real, which is home to most of Bolivia’s glaciers.

The Northern Altiplano is particularly vulnerable to climate variability and the adverse impacts of climate hazards that threaten communities and ecosystems. The region is already experiencing not only increases in temperatures but also changes in rainfall patterns and the water cycle. This, in turn, will have consequences for biodiversity and high-altitude wetlands. Besides, the region is exposed to different threats such as changes in the precipitation regime, frequent droughts, hailstorms, frosts, and snowfalls.

The most visible impact of climate change in high mountain regions is glacier retreat. The IPCC reports that Andean inter-tropical glaciers are very likely to disappear in the coming decades, which will negatively impact water availability in the region. In addition to global increases in temperature, the greater frequency of El Niño in recent decades has contributed to rapid glacial retreat.

Pressure on water resources in the region is already high, with an increasing demand for domestic consumption, agriculture, and dams. Therefore any future changes in the hydrological cycle will have significant implications in the region. This aspect is crucial as the cities of La Paz and El Alto draw on water from several surrounding glaciers, and together these cities form a fast-growing metropolitan area that is home to more than two million people.

Aymara people have adapted to climatic variability and changes in their environment over centuries. In the process, they have developed essential knowledge about the local climate and the environment, and they have domesticated numerous crops that are vital to ensure food security around the world. People have lived subsistence lifestyles for a long time, and for them, there is nothing new about adapting to harsh conditions. What is new, however, is the extent of the changes and the effect these changes are having on an increasing number of people. Even though families have had generations of experience in creating mechanisms to cope with such variability, the impacts of these climate hazards are affecting them disproportionally and threatening their culture.

Rural people in this region rely on natural resource-based livelihoods. They are engaged in high-altitude agriculture and livestock, and the communities around Lake Titicaca also partake in small-scale fishing. Families keep and store a part of their production for their own consumption and sell the rest. However, frequently and due to poverty-related causes, farmers have to sell their produce which in some cases affects their food security. Non-farming activities and migration are risk management strategies that also help to diversify income.  Human mobility due to climate change has been rising in the last decades, as some people move in anticipation or adaptation to environmental and climate impacts, and others are displaced due to extreme events. 

Rural livelihoods are highly vulnerable to climate change and disasters in terms of agriculture and food security, water supply, biological diversity, the environment, health, and infrastructure. This vulnerability is worsened by (i) very low levels of investment in climate-responsive agriculture, (ii) inequalities in land tenure, with the exacerbation of smallholdings as land continues to be divided resulting in the overexploitation of soils and vegetation, (iii) high dependence on climatic variables in agricultural production, with the majority of farmers without irrigation systems, who depend on rainfall, and are highly susceptible to hailstorms, frost and snowfalls; (iv) accelerated agro-ecosystem degradation processes, and (v) water pollution by mining, industry, and solid waste.

Despite the enormous challenges associated with poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, disasters, and now the effects of COVID-19, people in the region are making every effort to thrive in their own environment, and to build the resilience of their communities to climate and other shocks. For these people, resilience is rooted in traditional knowledge, as their capacity to adapt to climate change and disasters is based on an in-depth understanding of the environment, social organizations and networks, and cultural values and attitudes.

Rural people are responding to climate change and disasters in unique ways:

  • To cope with climatic variations, people change and adjust their livelihoods. They diversify productive activities and continue to improve plant varieties and animal breeds, which provide a buffer against risks in uncertain environments. The ability to access multiple resources and rely on different land-use patterns contribute to their capacities to manage climate change at the local level. However, farming practices may also be forced to change as a result of reductions in water availability due to less rainfall and melting glaciers.
  • Traditional weather and climate forecasting are still used by Andean communities to make decisions on the management of their farming system and climate change adaptation. However, the intensity, frequency, and extent of climate impacts are challenging people’s traditional knowledge. It is necessary to promote community disaster risk management and early warning systems to mitigate the negative effect of climate change.
  • Traditional systems of governance and social structures are in place, and strong community networks are crucial for community resilience to climate changeLocal organizations together with municipal governments are central actors in territorial development. Public policies must ensure that climate action is designed in a participatory manner that enables the participation of indigenous communities and other marginalized groups. 
  • People are using migration as an adaptation strategy. There are high levels of internal migration from rural to urban areas of the country and international migration, especially among men and youth. Rural areas are populated by women and older adults who face difficulties in terms of access to land, reduced productivity, fragmentation of land tenure, and the effects of climate change, further increasing vulnerability. Although migration is now a new phenomenon in the area, climate change seems likely to become a major force for future population movements, probably mostly through internal migration, but also to some extent through international migration.

Although Bolivia is making progress towards sustainable development, the impacts of climate change and disasters remain serious problems. In order to address these challenges, it is necessary to deepen understanding of climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and mitigation in the Northern Altiplano and to enhance the adaptive capacity of Andean communities.

Leveraging traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies is not only essential, but it is key to increasing the resilience of communities facing the impacts of natural hazards and environmental change.

In addition to health impacts, COVID-19 threatens to further affect the livelihoods of Andean communities dependent on agriculture. Investment in rural agriculture is needed to help people become more self-reliant, mitigate the impact of severe events and increase the resilience of communities.

Acknowledgement: This blog article is part of the project “Climate change and migration in times of COVID-19 in Bolivia” supported by UCL Global Engagement Funds 2020-21. Special thanks to Alejandro Mamani and Cloe Barbera, the research assistants of this study.