Before The Next Disaster Strikes: The Humanitarian Impact Of Climate Change

Climate change is an issue so large in scope and so potentially overwhelming in importance that it might be helpful for us to pause and focus our attention on practical steps we can take to adapt to a warming planet and reduce its negative impacts.

Consider the adaptation mechanisms of two mammals: polar bears and humans. Polar bears have evolved over thousands of years to adapt to a harsh climate. But today we see these magnificent animals stranded on melting ice floes, struggling to stay afloat. They have no time to adapt and could be extinct in a few decades. And what about humans? How will we stay afloat with rising sea levels, more extreme weather, intensive storms, flooding, heatwaves and droughts coming our way, as scientists agree they will? Unlike polar bears, we can adapt more readily to protect ourselves from natural disasters, including the many effects of global warming. Using simple, cost-effective methods, we can save lives, lands and livelihoods. We have the knowledge and experience to make a critical difference in reducing risks. What is needed is the will to do so now before the next disaster strikes.

Indeed, we have no time to waste. Over the past 30 years, disasters -- storms, floods and droughts -- have increased threefold, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). In 2006 alone, 134 million people suffered from natural hazards that cost $35 billion in damages, including the devastating droughts in China and Africa, in addition to massive flooding throughout Asia and Africa. These disasters scarred lives, shattered families, stripped away livelihoods and set back development efforts.

Not only are natural hazards becoming more frequent, but rapid urbanization and population growth mean more people are now at risk. Disasters triggered by these hazards have affected five times more people than they did only a generation ago. Megacities like Tokyo, built on seismic areas, or exposed coastlines like Shanghai, are at particular risk. In such cities as Mumbai, Cairo, Mexico City and Lagos, each with more than 10 million residents, decaying infrastructure, land erosion, crowded conditions and a paucity of rescue services could spell potential calamity should an earthquake or powerful storm hit.

Global warming will exacerbate our growing vulnerability to disasters. As outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, hundreds of millions of people will be at increased danger from climate-related hazards. The countries least responsible for global warming -- the poorest developing nations -- will be the most affected by its consequences, both in human and economic terms. Massive flooding, droughts and storms, the spread of infectious diseases, disruption of crop cycles and competition for natural resources could threaten the lives of millions. Some 200 million people living in coastal flood zones -- 60 million in South Asia alone -- are at risk from intense storms and rising waters. In the cruel calculus of disasters, the poorer the community, the greater its vulnerability to natural hazards and the more difficult its recovery.

Given these potential scenarios, the humanitarian community is taking a hard look at how it can help reduce risks, bolster preparedness and respond more effectively to the consequences of climate change. Potential humanitarian impacts include:

Human health risks . Diseases, such as cholera, malaria and dengue fever, will likely increase in some areas as a result of changing temperatures; diarrhoea-related diseases and malnutrition could also climb.

Diminished food security and water suppl y . Desertification and drought could threaten the livelihoods of over 1 billion people in more than 110 countries, particularly in semi-arid regions.

Rising sea levels. Coastal cities and countries with low coastal areas could be in danger; the Bahamas, Viet Nam, Egypt and Bangladesh are among those at high risk.

Threats to peace and security. Scarcity of key resources, including water, could exacerbate tensions between ethnic groups, countries and regions as they compete for, and adjust to, different environments and resources. Darfur and Sri Lanka are two examples of this potential scenario.

Increased migration and displacement. Populations affected by rising seas, flooding, drought or desertification leave their lands at risk, either voluntarily or by coercion. Some analysts predict we could see up to 50 million environmental refugees by the end of the decade. Environment-related migration has been most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, but also affects millions of people in Asia and India.

What can we do? To begin, we must not be frozen by fear or lulled into a despairing sense of complacency. The greatest risk we face is doing nothing. It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work in building more disaster-resilient communities. The tools needed are not expensive, particularly given the potential costs. Experts estimate that one dollar invested in risk reduction today can save up to $7 in relief and recovery costs tomorrow. Many of the most effective tools at our disposal to save lives are based on mobilizing people, not on expensive technology. Community-based early warning systems, local disaster education and evacuation plans, better crop and land management techniques are all being completed with great success by nations across the resource spectrum.

Consider Bangladesh, for example, where devastating cyclones swept the country in 1970 and also in 1991, killing half a million people. A community-based "human early warning system" was set up along the Bay of Bengal, and villagers were trained in how to build cyclone shelters, design evacuation plans and other simple measures. The death toll from monsoons and heavy rains in recent years has fallen dramatically. Or take the case of Simeulue Island in Indonesia, situated near the epicentre of the tsunami. For generations, residents had been taught what to do if an earthquake struck or the ocean suddenly receded, as it did on 26 December 2004: head for the hills. As a result, fewer than ten of the island's 78,000 inhabitants were killed by the giant waves. In nearby Aceh, no such warning system existed; in some areas, up to 90 per cent of the population perished.

The citizens of Toronto, Canada will benefit from another kind of early warning system, one designed to reduce heat-related deaths. The city has installed an emergency mechanism that will alert public health officials 60 hours before the start of potentially lethal heatwaves, which are expected to increase as the world warms.
For effective disaster preparedness and education, look to Cuba's success. In September 2004, the fifth largest hurricane ever to hit the Caribbean struck the island with winds of 124 miles per hour. Nearly 2 million people -- more than 15 per cent of the total population -- were safely evacuated and no one was killed. The following summer, Hurricane Dennis hit 12 of Cuba's 14 provinces, affecting some 8 million people, 70 per cent of the population, but thanks to effective community mobilization and evacuation efforts, fewer than 20 died.

Better land use policies, particularly in overpopulated or heavily eroded areas, can also save lives. In 2004, a hurricane killed nearly 3,000 people in Haiti, but caused only a handful of deaths on the other half of the island. The difference: the mangrove trees planted along the Dominican Republic's shoreline buffered high wind and waves, while well-forested hillsides prevented deadly mud slides. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, engineers are pairing up with local governments to strengthen city drainage systems to withstand more intensive rainstorms.
Risk reduction is one of the best insurance policies we can take to protect investment in development. A major disaster can destroy decades of development gains. In Pakistan, the 2005 earthquake cost $5 billion in damages, approximately the same amount the World Bank lent the country over the last decade. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch resulted in losses equal to 41 per cent of Honduras's gross domestic product, while in the Maldives 66 per cent of its GDP was wiped out by the 2004 tsunami.

The message is clear: natural disasters need not result in human catastrophe. We must redouble our efforts and invest in simple life-saving measures that can reduce our vulnerability to disasters due to a changing climate. The Global Platform in June 2007, spearheaded by ISDR, will bring together national governments, scientists, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and the United Nations to move this agenda forward.

But disaster-risk reduction is too important to be left to the experts. Risk reduction begins at home, in schools, places of work and worship, and throughout our local communities. It is here where we will either save lives or lose them, depending on the steps we take today to reduce our vulnerability to tomorrow's hazards. For greatest impact, these steps must be grounded in local knowledge and communicated broadly so that everyone, from a local school child to a village grandmother to the municipal mayor, knows how to be protected from nature's vicissitudes.

Education is vital, as is the sharing of experience within and among communities. As importantly, disaster-risk managers need to listen and learn from the grassroots in order to build upon examples of risk reduction that have been tried and tested in the crucible of local experience.

The polar bears are stranded. Let's not leave ourselves open to a similar fate.