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Climate Changeas a driver of humanitarian crisis and response

Summary of published research1

Thousands of Somalis have been displaced by what is described as the worst floods in the country in 10 years.

Tufts University has recently published a paper which explores the relationships between climate change, humanitarian crises and humanitarian response through a review of published and grey literature. According to the authors and based on the database of disasters worldwide maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium over the past 11 years, climate-related disasters have been killing an average of 33,520 people a year, and, as critically, affecting the lives of over 211 million people. Seven categories of disasters on which data are gathered can be attributed directly to meteorological phenomena and thus directly affected by climate change: drought, extreme temperature, floods, mass movement because of drought, mass movement because of flooding, storms, and wildfires.

In a detailed statistical analysis of the death toll from recent natural disasters between 1980 and 2002, it has been shown that there is no evidence that rich nations experience fewer disaster-events per se; rather, the events have less impact. It has been shown that less democratic nations and nations with larger income inequalities suffer proportionally larger death tolls from disaster.

However, geography is still important. A nation in Asia is 28.5 percentage points more likely to experience a disaster in a given year than one in Africa. The UNISDR (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) in its 2011 review points out that the populations of people at risk from weather-related disasters, and particularly tropical cyclones, has almost tripled since the 1970s. This is because the number of people living in vulnerable coastal cities has increased, with most of this increase being in low-income, shanty-town like developments.

Furthermore, it appears that the intensity, and cost of natural disasters are increasing, and the twenty-first century holds the possibility for much greater levels of destruction than previously experienced. To date, increases in the natural disaster burden can be attributed, at least in part, to development forces, including population growth, endemic socio-political inequities and the failure of governance systems to avoid human settlement on dangerous terrain. However, in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that natural hazards themselves were likely to increase in frequency and intensity during the course of the century. The report concluded that rain-fed agricultural yields in Africa could drop by up to 50% by 2020, and that as many as 1.25 billion people in Africa and Asia could be exposed to water shortages and stress by 2050.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) projected that climate change will in fact cause a decline in the availability of calories per capita in developing countries, relative to 2000 levels. The result will be a 20% increase in the number of malnourished children, relative to a world without climate change.

A more recent 2012 IPCC report on climate extremes found that several hazards – with the potential to spawn humanitarian crises – were likely to emerge in the twenty-first century – more intense cyclones, food and water shortages, major flooding, droughts, degraded ecosystem goods and services, and changes in the frequency and patterns of disease. This increasing future risk is partially due to prospects for an expanded range for disease vectors and partially due to the impact that climate change is expected to have on food production and on flooding – malnutrition and flood events being aggravating factors in the spread of infectious disease. Since least-developed countries, by definition, suffer from deficiencies in food, water, sanitation, and health care, these excess stresses are likely to place disproportionate harm in those places. Potential effects of increased temperature may be further intensified by the demographics of affected populations; a growing proportion of elderly people in many countries will be susceptible to heat waves.

The humanitarian implications of such impacts are clear, yet the true costs are not. At least one organisation, however, suggests the price of aid missions might jump by anywhere from 32% to 1600% due to climate change.

A landmark report from FORESIGHT in 2011 found that migration was likely to be a major feature of human societies in the coming decades. However, the authors argued that, for underlying social reasons, this movement was equally likely to be towards areas of environmental stress as away from such areas—as in the river deltas and mega-cities of coastal Asia. Meanwhile, the authors distinguished between migration (which may have a positive role in risk-reduction) and displacement (which is likely to be universally negative). Preventing migration out of stressed areas may lead to an increase in displacement.

A second school of thought focuses on the dislocation related to natural events. Climate change will create more environmental pressures and natural disasters that displace people from traditional homelands, particularly in areas of extreme exposure, such as coral atolls. These mass migration events will cause human security challenges and may serve as the basis for humanitarian crises.

The number of people on the move due to climate change is deeply contested. Commonly cited figures range from 50 million to 1 billion people by 2050 (UNFPA, 2009). Critics argue that such numbers are “deterministic,” failing to account for human agency and strategies in the face of climate change.

Moreover, major policy biases against migration (especially in its international forms) may impede movement for many affected people. Migration calculations are also subject to uncertainties about the intensity of climate change. Mild climate change, a less than two degrees Celsius rise in pre-industrial levels, would yield migration flows “virtually indistinguishable” from existing patterns of migration. Meanwhile, moderate levels of climate change, two to four degrees Celsius, would lead to more migration, especially displacement, projected at 250 million people. Catastrophic global warming, above four degrees Celsius, could lead to environmental destruction and social dislocation displacing untold numbers of people.

There is also the issue of government-sponsored migration in the face of climate change. Directly or indirectly, policy decisions not only respond to environmental migration but also contribute to the actual flows of people, especially within national borders. Government development policies may influence whether people build and settle on ecologically sensitive areas, such as flood plains and hillsides. Governments may resettle populations from areas of perceived natural hazard, or in the wake of a natural disaster. Alternatively, governments may take climate-related actions, especially water or food security projects, such as hydroelectric dams, that either attracts workers to an area, displace local populations, or both. These adaptive actions could reduce certain vulnerabilities, but may create others of concern to humanitarians.

Many of the world’s large and fast growing cities are located at lower than ten metres above sea level along coastlines (so-called ‘low-elevation coastal zones’, or LECZs, which are susceptible to all manner of ‘seaward threats’).

Rural-to-urban migration has been (and remains) a key strategy for resilience in many developing country contexts, where rural livelihoods are particularly susceptible to climate variability. However, the nature of rapid urbanization is critical. With the number of slum dwellers set to rise from one billion to two billion in the coming decades, and “urbanisation [becoming] synonymous with slum formation”, the potential for urban humanitarian crisis is rapidly expanding. The low-cost and informal nature of slum settlements also means that they are located on highly marginal land, such as flood plains and steep slopes.

Many slums are highly vulnerable to flooding. Data from Dhaka, Bangladesh, show that nearly two-thirds of the country’s urban slums flood once or more per year. Similarly, a study in Gorakhpur, India found that parts of the city were water-logged for five to six months out of the year, due to waste management and drainage problems. This reconfiguration of where and how people live must be accounted for in any humanitarian planning around climate change.

Climate change is itself a product of globalisation; in many ways it is the world’s first fully globalised environmental risk. Climate emissions cause atmospheric warming, no matter where on earth they are produced. Indeed, the poor people in poor countries who will be most burdened by climate-related disasters are among the world’s smallest emitters of greenhouse gasses.

Globalisation also changes the profile of populations vulnerable to climate change. For example, food systems are more integrated today than ever before in human history. Disruptions in one part of the world can thus affect accessibility thousands of miles away. Food shortages in 2007–2008 triggered food riots in more than 30 countries. Meanwhile, the Russian forest fires of 2010 - fueled by abnormal heat and drought - led to that country imposing an export ban on grain. Globalisation is also creating incentives for states to establish industrial production zones at close proximity to the sea, for easier access to intercontinental shipping. However, these developments are often at very low elevation, jeopardising the people and investment in property should sea levels rise in the coming century.

Another hallmark of globalisation has been the recent trend of Asian countries, such as China, investing heavily in trade with Africa nations, in order to obtain sufficient food and raw materials for their large and industrialising populations. Recently, this investment has extended to the purchase of large tracts of land in the region, for the purposes of growing food. In doing so, the supply of arable land in the region is facing a squeeze, just as climate change will begin to accelerate drought and desertification processes in a region where agricultural land is already under heavy pressure. The implications for land and food security are potentially alarming.

Conversely, globalisation may impact the humanitarian response to climate change in more constructive ways. For example, the IPCC has noted that humanitarian response is often required as the result of a failure in disaster risk reduction (DRR). By expanding global flows of capital, products, and know-how, globalisation may improve DRR capacity in vulnerable locales, mitigating the need for humanitarian response. Technological innovations, ranging from early warning systems in Bangladesh to disaster-resilient schools in Thailand can be developed, shared via the Internet, and accessed around the globe. Moreover, the globalised development and dispersion of community-based participatory methods may bolster DRR and reduce future vulnerabilities to climate change.

State-mediated vulnerability is also a problem. A good example of this comes from the major waterways in South and Southeast Asia that run through China. Chinese policymakers have reason to be concerned about future water and energy scarcities. They have taken adaptive action such as the hydroelectric damming of rivers and the routing of water from southern to northern China, where it can be put to use in the country’s traditional agricultural belt. However, these projects may create water shortages for countries downstream, elevating the potential for scarcities and reduced agricultural yields, and triggering human security crises. Moreover, these projects have ratcheted up political tensions between China and its neighbours, further raising the humanitarian stakes.

Four major challenges exist with respect to state response to climate change-related disaster:

Although widespread support of international disaster guidance signals a shift in support of standardised methods of managing disaster response, the gap between policy and action remains a major hurdle. One basic issue that contributes to this dilemma lies in the tenure of political representatives versus the need for long-term disaster planning. While a politician might be in office for two years, comprehensive decision making requires a much longer time horizon and commitment that is not subject to the ephemeral oscillations of election cycles

Agencies typically are very good at measuring and tracking the inputs to their programmes (the finance, personnel, and supplies) and the processes these inputs feed (logistics systems, the supply of water, healthcare, food, and so on). However, they become progressively poorer at measuring and monitoring as they move downstream to programme outputs and outcomes and, at the end of the line, hardly ever measure or evaluate impact. If humanitarian aid programmes are to become concerned with enhancing system resilience as well as basic survival, then they will have to both adopt the methodologies of impact assessment and create the financial and management support needed to ensure such evaluations become routine.

The evidence also suggests that humanitarian operations are no longer synonymous with emergency operations. Most humanitarian assistance today goes into operations that have been running for five years or more. As much as 45% goes into programmes more than eight years old. Whilst this no doubt saves lives, it also condemns the victims to an endless state of purgatory, beholden to others, the agencies or the state, for their survival. Building resilience is not part of this mind-set. In these long-term crisis environments, in Ethiopia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine – all environmentally fragile states – a major opportunity is being missed to use aid to transform the way communities and their states develop the necessary economies and governance for the future.

The humanitarian aid system evolved as a Western based interventionist endeavour, seeing crises as abnormal and responding through exceptional interventions. If we face a future where crises are more pervasive, many more states will have to repeatedly meet the needs of their crisis affected populations. Increasingly, Southern states- Indonesia, Philippines, Mozambique, for example - are reforming their own disaster response systems, seeing this as a normal part of sovereign responsibility.

External aid agencies need to adapt to and support this change. The old methods of working around government systems, rather than with them, have to be challenged. In many crisis-affected states, aid agencies need to see themselves as long-term partners of the state, providing response services, but must also work to build resilience into livelihood systems and the infrastructure of hazard-exposed populations. They need to view recovery from crisis as a process of change to a more resilient state. Such change will not be easy. The humanitarian response sections of aid agencies have tended to see their work in terms of logistics and the impartial, neutral supply of live-saving aid and have shunned much of the political analysis of the development sector, let alone developed an analysis of complex global processes.

International humanitarian aid agencies have grown to become large, multinational organisations, turning over billions of dollars each year and playing a critical in the creation of international civil society norms. They now resemble major transnational corporations and find themselves increasingly challenged by the risk aversion and inertia that comes with scale and an operational model that is still essentially about organisational control.

Show footnotes

1Walker.P et al (2012). Climate Change as a Driver of Humanitarian Crisis and Response. Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University. June 2012.

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Reference this page

Climate Changeas a driver of humanitarian crisis and response. Field Exchange 44, December 2012. p12.