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Principles of Sustainable Environmental Management

Principles of Sustainable Environmental Management

1 January 2001


Environmental planning is crucial at all phases of refugee operations.

Ensuring that environmental concerns are integrated with planning and activities in other sectors is essential to the overall welfare and safety of refugees. It can also have a major impact on the environment, as certain potentially harmful activities might be avoided or overcome by careful planning and co-ordination, particularly during the early phases of operations. Environmental management should therefore not be viewed in isolation but should be integrated into all relevant sectoral activities such as physical planning, forestry, agriculture, livestock management, water, and santation.

Prevention Before Cure

"Prevention before cure", taking action as early as possible to minimise potentially large-scale problems and irreversible effects, is a key policy promoted by UNHCR in its field operations. Effective planning can contribute to minimising environmental degradation as well as the costs - human resources and financial - of site rehabilitation. Simple environmental activities can be initiated almost immediately in a refugee emergency, regardless of the situation, pending development of a more comprehensive response strategy. Issues such as the choice of camp site are of considerable importance: if there is no other option than for a camp to be established close to an ecologically sensitive site, extra measures must be taken to prevent refugees from having a negative impact on the environment in that region.


With limited resources at its disposal, UNHCR must always strive to maximise the efficiency of its assistance programmes. This is especially the case with environmental issues where a long-term approach is often required to encourage and support sustainable use and management of natural resources.

The principle "prevention before cure" can contribute to cost-effectiveness as environmental degradation is often more costly to reverse (or repair) than to prevent. With improved integration, costs can be minimised as environmental activities are carried out within sectors, rather than developed as expensive "add-on" projects.

Local Participation

Involving local people with the development and management of environmental activities is fundamental to managing natural resources in a sustainable manner. Activities such as reforestation, agroforestry, controlled grazing of livestock, or the promotion of fuel-efficient stoves must have support from local communities - refugees and local people - if they are to succeed in the long-term.

Competition for limited natural resources is a common source of conflict and concern between local people, refugees and authorities. Involving people in discussions and debates over access to, and the use of, natural resources is an increasing feature of many of UNHCR's activities.

As part of UNHCR's awareness-raising programme at the field level, refugee community leaders are encouraged to create awareness and a sense of responsibility for protecting the surrounding environment. Actions such as this help instil respect for local traditions such as taboos on hunting or cutting of trees, or passage to sacred forests and other culturally important sites. Such initiatives can go a long way to protecting the local environment and to confining the extent of human impacts on the environment.

Women and the Environment

The important role which women play in using natural resources such as wood, water and wild foods is also a concern which UNHCR addresses in many of its field programmes. While the special needs of women, their safety and health care, remain the main priority for UNHCR, reducing the unequal work burden of women at refugee camps is also an important issue. Time spent collecting fuelwood and water, and meeting labour requirements for agriculture might mean that women have little time for education or even for caring for their families. As women are often the main direct users of natural resources - and can be the main actors in environmental activities such as energy-saving cooking practices - it is essential that their assistance and co-operation is integrated with ongoing environmental activities.