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November 10, 2009






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Climate change: the ultimate early warning


To many people enduring its effects worldwide, the global economic crisis must have felt like what we, in the humanitarian sphere, call a “sudden-onset” disaster. One day, it seemed, they had jobs and houses and futures; the next they didn’t.

Yet in many countries there are economists who claim, quite possibly with justification, to have seen the dangers on the horizon well in advance: unsustainable property bubbles; dubious and incomprehensible banking practices centred on “securitization”; too much borrowing; and so on.

We think we see signs of trouble ahead too, in the form of what our latest annual World Disasters Report calls the “ultimate early warning”: climate change.

The report points to the vast amount of evidence now uniting experts the world over that suggests a highly changeable climate in the decades immediately ahead. Scientists, ominously, now predict not just “imaginable” surprises but “true” surprises as well. “Unknown unknowns”.

There are, of course, uncertainties attached to these predictions. But it is now highly likely that extreme-weather events – floods, droughts and storms – will become more frequent and more severe. And we cannot say we have not been warned. In March, experts meeting in Copenhagen said global sea levels could rise by more than a metre by the end of the century because of changes in the polar ice sheets; existing UN estimates, they believe, are too low.

The disasters which climate change will trigger, potentially threaten more lives and livelihoods than any before. But are we acting on this “early warning”? So far, only piecemeal. Some countries and communities are well on the way to protecting themselves; others, usually vulnerable nations in the developing world, lack the means to act.

Weather-related disasters

Seismic disasters, for sure, are devastating when they occur. This December will see the psychologically important fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami – probably the worst natural disaster of its kind in recorded history.

Our report highlights that, after 2004, last year was the second deadliest of the preceding decade, due to just two disasters: Cyclone Nargis, which left nearly 140,000 people dead (or missing, presumed dead) in Myanmar, and the earthquake which killed nearly 88,000 in the Chinese province of Sichuan – together making up 93 per cent of the global disaster toll.

It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from either of those events, except perhaps about the political limits of humanitarianism.

Audible, however, in the background to our report, written not by us but by independent specialist experts, is the steady drum beat of climate warning – still thankfully classifiable as “early” warning. And still capable – if not for very much longer – of being coupled with “early” action.

Indeed, the subtitle of World Disasters Report this year is: “Focus on Early Warning, Early Action”.

The International Federation’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) has grown by nearly 300 per cent in the last half decade, and last year amply confirmed the rise in small-scale, weather-related disasters climate scientists are warning of. Floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts, together accounted for nearly 60 per cent of grants from DREF, now worth more than US$ 15 million a year.

In fact, so stark is this trend that we in the Red Cross Red Crescent, who must try to pick up the pieces after disasters strike, feel we can no longer sit around and wait just to respond to them – increasingly we must try to predict them and reduce their impact.

In less than a decade, the number of Mozambicans who die in floods and storms has been reduced almost to zero

In July, the IFRC launched its first wholly preemptive appeal (for nearly US$ 750,000) for flood preparedness, based on seasonal forecasts for the West African monsoon, that were to prove highly accurate. While there was no big emergency in any one country, as in 2007, disaster managers were much better placed to deal with the widespread smaller emergencies that did occur – especially in Benin and Togo.

In Haiti, although the human toll from the Caribbean hurricanes – Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike that battered the country in 2008 - was considerable, it would have been higher still but for “early warning, early action”. Red Cross volunteers, mostly forewarned, worked round the clock before and after the storms hit, carrying out evacuations, search and rescue, first aid and relief. They plotted and re-plotted landfall scenarios for the hurricanes to decide how best to use very scarce resources to save lives.

This year and next, the International Federation will encourage a greater use of DREF for preparedness, and together with scientific partner-organizations we will try to provide our member societies with early warning of unexpected events or abnormal trends.

Which brings us back to where we started. In the new climate of austerity in the world today, we must all demonstrate value for money in the goods and services we provide – both in the private and public sector. And quite right too.

Humanitarian “impact”

It is impossible to be exact. But one academic study found that public money buys four times as much humanitarian “impact” if spent on preparation and protection before disaster strikes than on relatively expensive response.

It can be done. And the case study put forward by many disaster experts is still Mozambique – one of the best examples anywhere in the world of what we call “community-based disaster preparedness”. In less than a decade, the number of people who die in the floods and storms it is regularly exposed to has been reduced almost to zero, through carefully planned and rehearsed evacuation procedures as well as better use of climate information.

If the scientists are right, it would be natural for the Red Cross Red Crescent and other agencies that respond to disaster to be the first to notice things changing. (We do, by the way.)

And surely it’s no coincidence that the World Climate Change Conference in Poznan in December was the first of its kind to address the issue of adaptation to the inevitable humanitarian impacts of climate change; and the first where the humanitarian community was strongly represented.






Bekele Geleta is secretary general of the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world’s leading disaster-response agency.


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