Global plan for habitat disasters

Wednesday November 4 2009

By BEKELE GELETA & JOHN HOLMES

If necessity is the mother of invention, we should be looking forward to a breathtakingly innovative agreement on climate change in Copenhagen in December. Such an agreement would outline how we should curb greenhouse gas emissions, and how we could adapt to climate change, and help countries cope with its negative effects.

The increasing threat to life posed by climate change is already palpable and the need for action agreed in Copenhagen is increasingly urgent. Yet the lack of progress in ongoing climate negotiations raises concern as to whether governments will reach meaningful agreement.

For those living on the frontline — the most vulnerable communities living in risk-prone parts of the world — every day wasted means a step closer to food or water insecurity; communities having to move to secure adequate and safe services; or even whole regions emptying as they become unable to sustain life.

Changes in the Arctic are accelerating global climate change. Scientists warn that if the Himalayan glaciers disappear, the impact would be felt by more than one billion people across Asia. What will African farmers do when floods wash away their crops as is happening these days in West Africa? This might sound overdramatic. However, climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, storms and droughts.

Weather-related events are affecting or displacing more people every year. According to the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent World Disasters Report 2009, during the last decade on average 243 million people were affected annually by climate-related extreme events, or more than three per cent of the global population. All the scientific evidence suggests that these trends will accelerate.

OF COURSE THE CLIMATE CHANGE issue is complex, and cannot be neatly separated from other factors such as population growth, urbanisation and environmental decline. But those working in the humanitarian field understand all too well that climate change is now a major factor in the rising numbers of people affected by disasters and therefore in the increasing demand for lifesaving aid. Disasters driven by climate change cost lives here and now and they also have lasting effects that take us back to square one in the fight against poverty.

We are not helpless. Many of the humanitarian consequences of climate change can be reduced. For example, cyclone preparedness programmes in Bangladesh and Mozambique have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and can be expanded to address the increased risk of heavy storms and floods.

Public hygiene campaigns which have improved health in many villages and cities can be upgraded to address climate change related risks like the spread of dengue and malaria. Upgraded care for the elderly during heat waves, planting trees against landslides and storm surges, fine-tuned water saving systems against droughts. There are a multitude of small and big solutions in our hands.

We also need to explore more innovative ways of sharing risk, perhaps through insurance schemes, to better protect people in the future. But time is short. There is a unique opportunity to put in place a comprehensive global approach for climate change mitigation and adaptation. World leaders meeting in Barcelona next month should help to lay the basis for an agreement.

Bekele Geleta is Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) while John Holmes is UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

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