Greening the blue in humanitarian aid

On World Refugee Day, we are in Geneva where a new hub has taken up residence at the UNHCR. Launched by Switzerland and the UN refugee agency, the Geneva Technical Hub is a centre of expertise dedicated to the greening of humanitarian action.

 A densely packed crowd waits for drinks to be distributed in the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Population density is taking its toll on the environment in the world's largest refugee camp, Kutupalong-Balukhali in Bangladesh. © Keystone

Rue de Montbrillant 94 in Geneva, Friday 11 June 2021. Manuel Bessler, head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, speaks at the official launch of the Geneva Technical Hub.

"Yes, humanitarian action must first and foremost save lives. No, it should not be at the expense of the environment and communities," he said at the headquarters of the UNHCR, long-standing Swiss partner and co-initiator of the Hub.

"I am particularly proud that, as part of this hub, our Swiss experts and universities can support the UNHCR in greening the blue [of the UN] and making a contribution to this important cause – reducing the environmental impact of humanitarian action.

Unprecedented humanitarian need and an environmental burden

To see the new hub in action, you have to travel far from Geneva.

The journey begins in Southeast Asia, in Bangladesh. Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp, the largest in the world, extends over a dozen kilometres between Burma and the Bay of Bengal. 600,000 people, mostly Rohingya, live in the camp. The lack of sanitation and waste management, uncontrolled deforestation for firewood and over-exploitation of local resources in the huge camp has taken an enormous toll on the environment.

A few thousand miles away and the scenery changes, but the problems are the same. The green-ochre landscape of the Sahel is the backdrop to another major migration crisis. Violence and terrorism are rife. Two million people have already been forced to flee. Along the migration routes, people rely on firewood to cook and stay warm, depleting a precious natural resource. This impacts girls and women especially, who face dangers and miss out on education when collecting the firewood.

Boundless scope for innovation

In a region with abundant sunshine like the Sahel, solar energy is easily exploited to replace fossil fuels. In the camps, waste normally considered a problem can be a source of energy. Drones can be used to improve living conditions, for example to map risks when planning a camp. Sensors in water tanks help manage water supplies.

The Geneva Technical Hub initiative pools the innovative technologies and technical expertise of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Swiss federal

institutes of technology in Lausanne and Zurich, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) to tackle the challenges faced by millions of internally displaced or stateless people and refugees.

The hub's expertise includes disaster risk reduction, energy, construction, housing, camp planning, water and sanitation, and waste management.

The first phase of the project will run from 2021–24. Swiss Humanitarian Aid will contribute CHF 5.7 million for the first three years, plus additional funding if the initiative produces good results. In addition, five experts from the SDC's Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit will be seconded to the hub.

"The SDC specialists will observe current best practices, produce technical guidelines, provide training and vision, and come up with potential solutions," explains Manuel Bessler.

Why does Switzerland support the Geneva Technical Hub?

  • A record number of people worldwide rely on humanitarian assistance. 
  • Displacement due to conflict and disaster is on the rise, compounded by the current global pandemic and climate change. 
  • Migration is a key concern of the 2030 Agenda adopted by 193 UN member states, including Switzerland.
  • The Federal Council's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 places sustainable development at the heart of Switzerland's foreign policy activities. 
  • Under Switzerland's International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24, sustainable development is central to the SDC's efforts in developing countries. 
  • Switzerland encourages close collaboration with the scientific community and the private sector to develop innovative technological initiatives to achieve the objectives of its strategies.
  • Switzerland supports the UNHCR in the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees, which was adopted in 2018 by the international community.
I am particularly proud that, as part of this hub, our Swiss experts and universities can support the UNHCR in greening the blue and making a contribution to this important cause – reducing the environmental impact of humanitarian action.
Manuel Bessler, Federal Council's delegate for humanitarian aid and head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA)
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