World Environment Day: ICRC committed to sustainable development

04-06-2012 Feature

For the past 10 years, the ICRC has been striving to make sustainable development a practical part of its humanitarian work. Innovative experiments – biogas production as part of waste disposal at prisons in Rwanda, Nepal and the Philippines, solar panels driving water pumps in South Sudan and heating water at a Philippine prison, and so on – are being carried out to reduce human impact on the environment. To mark World Environment Day and in the run-up to the UN's Rio conference on sustainable development in mid-June, here is a brief review of ICRC projects.

Along the boundary running the length of a prison in Rwanda, biogas domes peek out of the earth. Each contains a 100-cubic-metre chamber. Inside, human waste is decomposing and releasing methane. "It's true that this system costs more than a simple septic tank," says Alain Oppliger, the ICRC adviser for sustainable development, "but it's worth it in terms of environmental impact."

The system's main advantage is that it safeguards prisoner health, since emptying a septic tank manually poses a high risk of dangerous contamination. The second plus is that the resulting methane is used as a fuel to cook food. Cooks in Rwandan prisons otherwise burn wood, which results in deforestation of the prison's surroundings and exposes the cooks to long hours spent in a smoke-filled environment.

With gas now providing part of the heat needed for cooking, the ICRC has noted a 25-45% drop in tree-felling near the prisons. And part of the waste residue is used as fertilizer for banana and coffee plantations. The ICRC, says Oppliger, has a humanitarian duty to do what it can to protect the environment in the places where it works. The biogas system, introduced by the organization in Rwanda 10 years ago, is now operating in Nepal and the Philippines as well, with a total of 13 prisons benefiting from it.

Solar panels

Another project being carried out by the ICRC is sun power. In the town of Akobo in South Sudan, for example, it has installed solar panels and is completing the process of sinking four boreholes and equipping them with pumps. These are connected to a distribution network of 11 sites that will supply 55,000 people. The entire system runs on solar energy. Panels have also been installed at prisons in the Philippines to heat water in their kitchens.

The ICRC's alternative-energy projects in Rwanda, Nepal, the Philippines and South Sudan are merely the beginning. Since September 2011, the organization has had a sustainable-development policy aimed at incorporating environmental protection, economic sustainability and social responsibility into its operations and decision-making process.

Future benefits

The ICRC has issued guidelines for aid operations and the management of toxic medical waste, garage waste and used electronic components. The delegations in Bogotá, New Delhi and Nairobi, among others, have now implemented these rules. The ICRC hopes that within two years they will be in force in 13 delegations.

"Now we can follow the principles of sustainable development from the outset of our operations", says Oppliger. "And that means that we can prepare for post-conflict reconstruction without in any way impeding our ability to deal with the current emergency. It's really part of our never-ending effort to improve the quality of our operations."


What the law says

Under international humanitarian law, the natural environment has the status of a "civilian object", meaning that the law protects it from attack. This protection ceases only if the "object" concerned may be viewed as a military objective. Of course, even if this should be the case, the general principles of the law of war – such as the proportionality principle – still apply and have the force of customary law (see Rule 43 in the ICRC's List of Customary Rules of International Humanitarian Law). ). In addition, Articles 35, paragraph 3, and 55 of the Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions specifically prohibit acts of warfare that "may be expected to cause ... damage to the natural environment". The ICRC is currently revising its environment-protection directives for military manuals.

The ICRC at Rio+20

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the ICRC will raise the issue of environmental damage caused by weapons contamination. Contamination can take lives and make land unusable in countries affected by current or recent conflict, but it can also kill people many decades after the fighting ends. It is a major problem in over 40% of the countries where the ICRC has operations today. The ICRC has formed a weapons-contamination unit that strives to minimize the effects by launching programmes to clear and destroy unexploded ordnance, and raising awareness of the danger among the local population. Both the Rio+20 participants and the general public are invited to visit the ICRC stand in Athlete's Park, in Rio's Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood. The organization will hold a photo exhibition there from 13 to 24 June. And on 14 June at 1.30 pm, a talk on weapons contamination will be given (room T-5, Riocentro) to the Rio+20 preparatory committee.


Rwanda. Construction of a biogas system near a prison. 

Rwanda. Construction of a biogas system near a prison.

Uganda. Solar panels supply electricity for the pumps that fill water tanks at Arum health centre.  

Uganda. Solar panels supply electricity for the pumps that fill water tanks at Arum health centre.
© ICRC / ug-e-00284