The 5th June 2023 marks the 50th annual World Environment Day. Since it was established by the United Nations Environment Programme, every year has marked growing awareness of the critical need to take action to protect our environment, along with increasingly complex problems, and most devastatingly, more and more tangible evidence of the impact environmental changes are having. Millions of animals are killed every year by plastic pollution, while climate change threatens their environment. Up to 51 trillion pieces of plastic are estimated to be in our oceans, and microplastics find their way into the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.
None of us can avoid the consequences of pollution and climate change. But the most vulnerable bear the greatest burden. Food insecurity as a result of climate impacts on agriculture means millions of families do not have enough food to eat, all year round. People living in low-income countries are at least four times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather compared to people in rich countries, despite being the least responsible for climate change. At Habitat for Humanity, we see the devastation wrought by these disasters when we respond to emergencies. Our team in Malawi are right now continuing to provide assistance to people displaced by Cyclone Freddy. It won’t be the last time this is needed – Malawi experiences two to three cyclones a year, of increasing intensity.
The need to withstand the threat of extreme weather is why so many of our building projects prioritise disaster resilient construction, and community planning. In Nepal, Habitat has been focussing on long term reconstruction since the 2015 earthquake which displaced over 2.5 million people. We’ve worked with communities, businesses and local authorities to promote the use of appropriate construction materials and technology which make homes better able to withstand disasters – and to make these more accessible to people on low incomes, who have no option but to live in homes which are inadequate, and often put them at direct risk.
This is another area where the most vulnerable are doubly disadvantaged -the construction industry plays a major role in climate change, as one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and consumer of highly extractive materials which deplete natural resources and use fossil fuels in their production. But over a billion people around the world are living in informal settlements, in inadequate homes, with very limited access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation and electricity. They are not benefitting from the new homes being built – but they are paying the price of their construction.
This is why Habitat recognises the critical importance of for-profit motives and uses these in our market development work as a force for social good and inclusion. Our Terwilliger Centre for Innovation in Shelter invests in the “pioneer gap” so that start-ups can test innovative and sustainable solutions. In Kenya, we are working with a social enterprise recycling waste plastic into construction products including paving bricks, paving tiles, hatches and manhole covers. In India, we are supporting the development of Recycler paver blocks, made from mixed plastic and industrial waste, with superior properties than cement concrete. And here in Great Britain, we are implementing our Empty Spaces to Homes project, retrofitting empty commercial spaces to create affordable accommodation for vulnerable people, at a fraction of the carbon cost.
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