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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