The humanitarian implications of climate change

18 March 2009 13:00 - 14:15 GMT+00
Public event


Sir John Holmes - UN Under secretary general for humanitarian affairs

Bekele Geleta - Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


James Darcy  - Overseas Development Institute


John Battle MP - Chair, All Party Group on Overseas Development


Just as there is growing awareness of the dramatic implications of climate change for development, so too there is growing concern about its humanitarian implications. Weather-related natural disasters, such as those triggered by hurricanes and floods, have increased in recent years – a trend that seems set to continue. Changing weather and climate have major implications for agricultural production and food security, including the prospect of harvest failure and potential famine. Experts predict loss of productive land, water scarcity, conflict over available resources and new patterns of forced migration. Coupled with other trends such as population growth, the impact of climate change may cause a major increase in the humanitarian caseload in the coming decades.

Adaptation to climate change is increasingly linked with disaster risk reduction among practitioners and academics. Whilst the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction and the Hyogo Framework for Action provide a sound basis for international action, response to climate change remains inconsistently allocated between the humanitarian and development agendas. Urgent international efforts are needed to bridge this divide.

In this sixth event in the ODI speaker series on climate change and development, ODI are pleased to welcome speakers from two global organisations at the heart of this debate and at the forefront of risk reduction and emergency relief efforts worldwide. Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Response Coordinator, has placed particular emphasis on this issue and will speak from a system-wide perspective.  Mr Bekele Geleta, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, will draw on the Federation and National Societies’ experiences and perspectives on natural disasters and risk reduction.

Committee Room 11

Sir Holmes began by noting that the UN Secretary General has decreed 2009 as the year of climate change.  It is also important to keep the focus on the humanitarian implications of climate change because the current concentration on mitigation activities means that adaptation activities tend to be ignored.

The situation facing us is serious, and therefore the impact of climate change (CC) is central to security and humanitarian issues. CC will soon become a major driver of humanitarian need. CC is a danger to the most vulnerable groups in the world, and the situation in these communities will get worse despite our best efforts with the Copenhagen process.  When hazard events are allowed to become disasters, increasingly larger numbers of lives are lost. The number of disasters recorded every year has doubled from 200-400 per year – though some of this could be attributed to better recording processes.  However, nearly ¾ of these disasters are due to climate change.  Scientific evidence suggests that this trend will continue.

CC also interacts with other trends such as population growth and urbanization, and their associated risks are growing at the same time. As a result, strategies for humanitarian assistance are becoming less clear, as assistance is starting to be channeled into slow onset crises rather than disaster response. CC related events are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

CC events are swift, they affect local, national and international ability to respond, and as a result, these events are redrawing world map.  For instance:

i)     In small island states like Kiribati, the water supply for agricultural production is acutely threatened, and many of these states are increasingly prone to flooding. Some island populations are already being permanently relocated, with many others developing contingency plans to do the same in the near future.

ii)    In the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, tens of thousands of people every year are already displaced by predictable annual flooding.  As these events get more acute, tens of millions of rural Bangladeshis could be uprooted.

iii)   In the Horn of Africa, communities continue to struggle with the pressures of droughts of increased length and number, making recovery trajectories longer and more difficult.

CC will affect the poorest and most vulnerable communities – particularly those with the least amount of resources to adapt. Projections for Africa include a halving of production in SSA, since 93% of the land in the region is rain-fed.  Other areas of potential threats related to CC include: exacerbation of existing stresses on marine stocks; reduced agricultural productivity resulting in increased food insecurity; and increased urbanization into mega cities on coasts where the poorest people live in flood-prone areas.

It will become increasingly difficult to feed growing populations as our supply of water and arable land will also diminish over time.  For instance:

·         2.4 billion people in South Asia are predicted to be living in regions of water stress – nearly half of the world’s poor are already coping with  immense stress in this region.

·         By 2020, the glaciers that feed South Asia’s water supply will have disappeared, resulting in huge changes in the capacity to support the region’s population. The implications for mass population displacement are truly frightening.

As a result, we need to act comprehensively and quickly in all the areas otherwise we will be overwhelmed. So, what do we need to do?

·         Strong Copenhagen agreement on CC. Concerns on global economy not to override longer term existential crisis of global warm

·         Focus on adaptation of climate change

Three main challenges from humanitarian perspective:

1.    Reducing risk and managing implications of extreme events:

The Bali Action plan from 2008 attempted to improve the situation to some extent. There is an internationally agreed agenda on DRR – Hyogo 2005 – which tries to build systematic resilience to extreme weather events. However, action to implement it since 2005 has been totally inadequate – in part because the new challenges of CC has shown Hyogo to be an inadequate response mechanism. This is especially the case regarding displacement and migration.

2.    Ensuring that the successor to Kyoto strengthens existing mechanisms for humanitarian issues and risk reduction:

The Hyogo framework has provided some indications of how to do this. In addition, other agendas like the cluster approach for humanitarian activities also enables different actors to effectively collaborate on common issues. These mechanisms in themselves don’t offer complete solutions – they do need to be aligned with the CC agenda. A key issue of concern is that mitigators and adaptors need to be working together closely – although we have made some progress in this front, there’s a long way to go yet.

3.    Developing a new business model for tackling these issues

We need to be better prepared to come to the assistance of those struck by weather events. Therefore, we need a new strategic dialogue, and new business model on the humanitarian side, focusing on prevention and awareness and less on the disaster-response side. This agenda will require a wider range of actors involved in the process.  For instance, the issue of forced displacement and migration will require a new level of sustained engagement.  What are the legal and institutional frameworks needed to deal with that type of migration? Do we need a new convention or institution?

To sum up, Sir Holmes stated that we already see impacts of CC on humanitarian caseloads – but what is more important is that this caseload will increase exponentially, threatening to overwhelm the capacity of the humanitarian community.  Though the stakes are high, we need to act now.

Bekele Gelata Secretary General of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies began his note with an overview of the response so far on CC and humanitarian issues.  He noted that the 1992 UN Framework Convention on CC was the first step.  However, he identified that the Kyoto Protocol did not include NGOs like the IFRC, and despite all these agreements, the world has failed to stop CC. In fact, latest scientific reactions suggest that we are moving ever-closer towards a climate catastrophe.

70% of all disasters are weather-related. There were 78 recorded disasters in 1970, which increased to 350 by 2000, growing at average annual rate of 8%. Whereas fewer than US$4bn was spent in 1950, upwards of US$83bn was spent in 2000. The data also reveals important disparities in disaster related impacts. 98% of the affected people are from developing countries, with at least 10% originating in the least developed countries. People in low income countries are 20% more likely to die of natural hazards than those in high income countries. Most losses in developing countries are not insured. The impacts of CC are gender sensitive also. CC effectively has long term irreversible consequences on human populations. Projections based on current experience show that CC related costs will significantly increase over time – as high as 16 fold increase by 2070. This is likely to be characterized by an upsurge in disease, and a starkness of daily realities.

As a result, CCA (adaptation) as well as mitigation is needed. The starting point has to be fairness. Historically, the poor have contributed least to the problem, so it is only right for those who have created the problems to work on the solutions. The world’s 2.6 billion poor people must not be further victimized – the responses to CC must reflect a commitment to poverty reduction.  The good progress made in this area must not be undermined.

Climate adjustment measure – 3 critical questions

1.    How to we change the way we live? We must commit to change now – it is our social responsibility.  We must also recognize that choices made are dependent on whether or not people have the capacities to choose. Task of development is to increase these choices

2.    How do we resource the necessary changes? There are a number of low cost growth pathways. By 2030, financial flows will need to amount to US$100bn on mitigation and US$50bn on adaptation. The role of development agencies should be to encourage innovations, including knowledge, technical and technological transfer, trade, and intellectual property rights.  We should also be encouraging South-South and South-North cooperation to the full extent possible.

3.    How do we organize international development cooperation, since development funding and humanitarian funding continue to operate on separate budget lines?

There are a number of messages from the field. Few organisations have the capacity to work on international response coherently.  Furthermore, the absence of adequate domestic mechanisms for monitoring and coordination for preparedness for disasters is continually hindering response mechanisms. Local level responses are happening, but there is a disconnect between these responses and the policy-level discussions.  For instance, IFRC’s DRR-related activities in Bangladesh has constituted volunteers on megaphones providing instructions and information.  In the Solomon Islands, the IFRC has been documenting indigenous knowledge and adaptation mechanisms.

Mr. Gelata concluded by noting that although things are getting worse, they will not get better unless we act.  We have a number of ideas about what can be done.  We wish governments to have the will and wisdom to underpin commitments at Copenhagen.  After all, it’s no use saying “we are doing our best” – we must succeed in what is necessary”.

James Darcy, Director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI was the panel discussant.  His first comment was the fact that humanitarians amongst us deal with the world as it presents itself – we tend to respond. Development colleagues see disasters as aberrant phenomena - so DRR has always been a bit of an orphan – no one has known what to do with it.

Conceptually and operationally, how do we bridge this divide? Most funding for the preventative work is coming from the humanitarian pot – we need more, not less, for response money.  However, there is an urgent need to locate this discussion in development circles. Humanitarian instruments are not very well adapted to DRR – development community can do this much better.

As has been noted already, most disasters are related to CC.  There is also a cumulative effect of stresses – there will be a tipping point, a sudden breakdown of systems. Our capacity to prevent these have also been limited. We need to be much sharper on the economic analysis of the problem as well. Donors are frequently faced with question around how to justify investments in preventive action without much tangible data or indicators to work with. It is therefore a difficult political decision to make.

CC has significant implications for the humanitarian system.  This is manifested in more ways than simply crisis response.  The implications of social safety nets and social protection activities are also instrumental in helping humanitarian actors to rethink our relationships.

Finally, the question of Insurance is both important and interesting. Commercial insurance companies are getting rather nervous about the getting involved in CC related activities, likely because it will prove an expensive proposition with low profits.  As a result, we need to look at new ways – such as the processes that Caribbean countries are implementing to help each other.

The discussion that followed centred around a number of issues:

·         Does there need to be more analysis done on the economic issues such as growth and trade? What kinds of mechanisms are in place to finance climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies?

·         What is the role of the private sector – businesses and insurance companies alike?

·         Are choices that decision makers make reactive or proactive? How do policy makers view the impacts of climate variability (reactive) versus climate change (proactive)?

·         Is the approach of the new business model to moving response onus from UN to developing countries appropriate?  How well do we understand indigenous coping mechanisms and response capacity?

·         What is the relationship between humanitarian and development actors in working through DRR activities?