Environment Defined by the Sphere Standards

“The environment is understood as the physical, chemical and biological elements and processes that affect disaster-affected and local populations’ lives and livelihoods. It provides the natural resources that sustain individuals and contributes to quality of life. It needs protection and management if essential functions are to be maintained. The minimum standards address the need to prevent over-exploitation, pollution and degradation of environmental conditions and aim to secure the life-supporting functions of the environment, reduce risk and vulnerability and seek to introduce mechanisms that foster adaptability of natural systems for self-recovery”. The Sphere Handbook, 2011, page 14.


Environmental concerns are a feature of every camp and need to be taken into account from the moment a site is being considered until it is responsibly closed. The loss of natural vegetation cover and soil erosion are some of the most common and visible environmental impacts of traditional camps. However, for both traditional camps and collective centres it is equally important to understand the impact of ground water pollution, sanitation management (waste, latrines and drainage) and soil contamination.

The nature and scale of these concerns will vary according to the physical location and nature of the response. Specific considerations will need to be made at the various stages of the camp life cycle and will require careful analysis to modify existing tools and best practices to the particular context. It is essential to carry out an initial, rapid, environmental assessment as soon as a site is considered, and certainly before a site is finally selected.

When viewing different options, it is important to consider the size of the site that is selected. Larger camps commonly cause concentrated damage due to the physical site infrastructure and potential local harvesting of resources. Smaller camps will cause less intensive damage but will disperse it over a larger area. The UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies (2007) suggests a maximum camp size of 20,000 persons, with a one-day walk between camps in order to reduce environmental damage. It is essential that national authorities and traditional leaders are consulted on the potential environmental implications of camp establishment and maintenance.

As a guiding rule, even if not always possible, the principle of ‘prevention before cure’ should be applied to every environmental situation in a camp. Demands placed on the physical environment during an emergency are particularly high as people may have no alternative but to cut young trees for shelter, gather grasses or leaves to use as roofing, or empty waste and dirty water close to living areas in camps or collective centres. Even in such situations early recovery or environmental rehabilitation measures should be considered and planned for when conditions might allow them to begin.