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Published: August 19, 2021

World Humanitarian Day 2021: protecting aid workers in a time of climate crises

By: Chiara Jancke

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This year’s World Humanitarian Day focuses on the human race and ‘a global challenge for climate action in solidarity with people who need it most’. GISF’s Léa Moutard and Chiara Jancke spoke to our members about the challenges climate change could pose for the humanitarian sector and the role security managers can play in addressing them.

The last days have tested the humanitarian community. At a time where we’re still learning how to adapt to Covid-19, NGOs are trying to understand how to stay in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and deliver aid to the 18 million people requiring assistance while protecting staff and programmes. In Haiti, humanitarians are trying to scale up their operations to respond to a 7.2- magnitude earthquake that killed at least 1,419 people.

These dramatic events are occurring against the backdrop of weeks of wildfires and floods devastating entire regions in countries including Turkey, Germany, the US, and Greece. A recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stresses that water problems, including droughts, accompanying wildfires, and flooding, are likely to globally worsen.

The consequences for all of us, but particularly the most vulnerable across the world, will be dire. A study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) highlights that the climate crisis could indirectly increase the risk of conflict and that of the 20 countries that are the most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are already affected by conflict.

Humanitarian security managers will have to take the rapidly deteriorating climate crisis into account when mitigating risks to keep humanitarians safe and enable them to assist those affected. On this World Humanitarian Day, we reached out to our members to hear what challenges they’re worried about, how security managers can address them, and what positive changes they’ve been seeing in the sector.

 Climate-induced challenges affecting aid workers’ security: What are the challenges affecting aid workers security that you’re the most concerned about?

‘Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating the impact of sudden-onset disasters and hazards. This can cause community displacement, poverty, the collapse of social structures, conflicts, and sexual violence. While these threats are not new to aid workers, the climate crisis has compounded their frequency and magnitude.  If we fail to contain this crisis NOW, aid workers will continue to face extreme dangers to their lives and wellbeing while helping the people most in need.’ Javeria Malik, Global Safety and Security Advisor at ActionAid International.

‘In already trying contexts, communities across the globe will face even greater hardship due to climate change. The increased number of droughts in some parts of the world and floods in others will lead to increased destruction of livelihoods, food insecurity, displacement and, inevitably, also to increased insecurity. An insecurity that affects communities and aid workers alike.’ Marieke van Weerden, Director of Safety and Security at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

‘The changing climate is affecting us all.  Water scarcity will likely be a significant driver of insecurity in my area of responsibility (the Middle East and Africa). The increase in both drought and flood events have a negative effect on the already strained availability of potable water – particularly for displaced populations who may be situated away from the infrastructure of traditional population centres.  The region already contends with so many challenges, and climate change will, unchecked, both exacerbate old and create new problems.’ Dave Simpson, Regional Manager Middle East and North Africa at RedR Australia.

What role do you think security managers can play in addressing these challenges? 

Security managers need to consider the entire holistic profile of staff and not just their work environment and threats. We need to capacity build our staff to manage the stress they face, ensure resources are in place when they themselves cannot balance their duties with providing for their families and give them the confidence to face the challenges in their daily operations with a clear mind.’ James Davis, Global Security Advisor at ACT Alliance.

‘The mental and physical preparation of staff members on how to act in changing environments is crucial. Be an accessible partner for the aid workers in the field for support and guidance if they face difficult situations.’ Josef Frei, Global Safety and Security Advisor at Welthungerhilfe.

Our planning and coordination skills will be essential to build specific capacity within our own organisation and across organisations and partners, ensuring that different communities or partners can help each other and supplement any national responses.  We need to be innovative to achieve this.’ Anonymous

I believe in a simple approach for security managers. Awareness is key – we need to have a good network, share ideas, and ensure that staff is well-informed with verifiable information and have their ‘finger on the pulse’. We also need to investigate the science and history behind the climate crisis to anticipate what might happen and develop mitigation measures. Lastly, where a climate crisis occurs, knowing how to react through training, education and experience will allow us to potentially mitigate and avoid impact on fieldwork by being agile enough to adapt quickly and navigate the crisis.’ Andrew Brown, Chief Security Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

What general positive change have you seen in the aid sector this year?  

 ‘A positive change is increased interagency security coordination and information sharing, which was accelerated because of the extraordinary circumstances we found ourselves in due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the past, sharing was, of course, present, but it was an environment of restricted sharing where it seemed like organisations viewed each other as competitors when we should have been partners in the global fight to end suffering.’ Tim McAtee, Director of Global Security at International Medical Corps.

There is a bigger emphasis on risk-sharing between agencies. There is much benefit in sharing at different levels and complementing each other.’ Tom van Herwijnen, Global Security and Safeguarding Manager at Christian Blind Mission (CBM).

The utilisation of technology in managing incidents, conducting trainings and the growth in capacity for our local/national staff in managing programs and security portfolios has been a positive change.’ Armstrong Maina, Global Security Manager at Population Services International (PSI).

‘The unprecedented disruptions of Covid 19 have afforded some opportunities to reset.  Travel will always be required to an extent, but hopefully we can rationalise at least some of the flying that takes place in the sector as the world opens back up.  These same restrictions have also further reinforced/accelerated the need for responsible localisation of humanitarian action.  Finally, and whilst not new, I continue to see a strong sense of community amongst humanitarian security professionals, something which is often invaluable in what can on occasion be a challenging and isolated job.’ Dave Simpson, Regional Manager Middle East and Africa at RedR Australia.

On World Humanitarian Day, these quotes highlight the many challenges ahead. However, they also show the critical role security managers can play in helping the humanitarian sector address them. This makes continuing growing our sense of community, collaboration, and interagency coordination more important than ever for humanitarian security managers to look to for support in the process.