The death and destruction left in the wake of the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 was extraordinary. More than 200,000 people died and the financial damage exceeded 120% of Haiti’s 2009 GDP. After the immediate search-and-rescue activities, humanitarian agencies, alongside the Haitian people and government, turned their attention not merely to getting life back to normal, but to the goal of ‘building back better.’ Billions of dollars and extraordinary human capital poured into Haiti, yet during the recovery process a vital factor to ‘building back better’ was often overlooked: environmental sustainability (ES).
The Barriers to Environmental Sustainability in Post-Disaster Settings
My research (available here) sought to understand the barriers to ES in post-disaster settings. Using transitional shelter implementation in Haiti as a proxy, I examined how humanitarian actors considered ES, and the barriers they faced to incorporating environmental concerns into operations. Data demonstrated that in post-disaster settings there is a low prioritization of, but growing interest in, ES. In Haiti, as a result of the barriers outlined below, the inclusion of ES was sporadic and inconsistent. These barriers can be broken down into two categories:
1) Prioritizations and perceptions within the disaster response sector limit enthusiasm for incorporating ES into programming. Specific barriers include:
- A perceived trade-off between a rapid recovery and ES;
- A muddled delineation between emergency response and mid- to long-term redevelopment; and
- Environmental concerns simply do not drive decision-making.
2) Structural and organizational barriers within the disaster response framework impede ES and serve as a further disincentive to incorporating it into programming. Specific barriers include:
- Unclear accountability amongst donors, implementers, and organizers regarding ES;
- A lack of personnel with both ES and disaster expertise;
- The humanitarian sector is slow to adapt to new practices and technologies; and
- Pre-positioning and pre-planning are logistically difficult.
These barriers are reinforcing and deeply interrelated. For example, in Haiti, if it were perceived that ES required trade-offs in speed or costs – a common but ultimately disproven perception – ES would generally not be pursued. Moreover, in the balancing act between rapid response and comprehensive planning, an emphasis on speed tends to persist past the search-and-rescue phase and into the mid- and long-term recovery. The emphasis on speed is driven by the unique pressures of operating in a post-disaster setting (e.g., media and donor scrutiny).
Even if humanitarian actors wanted to pursue ES, structural, organizational, and logistical barriers impeded implementation. In addition to a lack of clarity regarding who was ultimately responsible for taking the lead on environmental programming, the fact remains that there were limited actors with sufficient expertise in both the environment and disaster recovery to lead the effort. That is, even if ES was considered a paramount concern, there were significant human capital challenges that would have impeded their efforts. As a result of the totality of these barriers, in Haiti, ES ultimately came down to the capacity and motivation of specific implementing agencies, many of which were already overwhelmed with the complex operations one would expect after such an extreme event.
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Resilience
While asking the humanitarian sector to consider the environment might strike some as beyond the humanitarian imperative – to save lives and reduce suffering – this ignores three critical points: 1) with the right expertise and proper planning, considering the environment will not interrupt the mid- and long-term humanitarian response; 2) proper environmental management will help bridge the gap from emergency response to long-term redevelopment; and 3) in the mid- and long-term recovery, ignoring the environment can expose new vulnerabilities or exacerbate old ones. As such, ES must be embraced as a goal – or more accurately, a tool – of the humanitarian sector. Conversely, disaster response efforts that do not incorporate ES risk hindering long-term recovery efforts, and thus, disaster resilience.
Author’s Note – Two points of clarification: First, the environment in this instance refers to local, acute issues – particularly those around the impact site (e.g., increased risk of landslides due to improper material extraction). This is not about global environmental issues (e.g., climate change). Second, this analysis focuses on the mid- to long-term recovery and not search-and-rescue or emergency operations. To paraphrase a research participant, I am not suggesting ‘we hug a tree before we hug a baby.’ I operationalized a definition for post-disaster sustainability as “Sustainable post-disaster activities provide resources to affected citizens to ensure health and safety and to promote redevelopment, without causing further damage to land or existing structures, exacerbating the impacts of the disaster, or placing undue stress on the natural environment.