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Humanitarian Organizations Struggle to Keep Pace with Climate Change


By Roy Brooke

The number of people in crisis is growing. Globally, 52 million people received international humanitarian assistance in 2014, according to the United Nations, and millions more sought help from communities and governments. To add perspective, 52 million is nearing the number that live in the United Kingdom and more than live in Spain. The number is expected to grow by another 5 million this year.

Climate change is a big contributor to this trend, as it increases risks and vulnerabilities related to natural hazards such as drought, floods and storms, and impacts peoples’ livelihoods, health and food systems. Climate change can also erode the economic base of societies through slower changes such as desertification and interact with other risks; for example, it can increase conflict over scarce resources.

The global humanitarian community is feeling the strain. The amount of money they seek annually is up 300 percent over 10 years; the number of people they try to help has doubled over that period, and the crises they respond to are getting longer.  These trends will increasingly test the capacity of the humanitarian system to respond. Although climate change is, of course, not the only factor in these trends, its role as a driver and multiplier of risk will only grow. By 2030 India and Pakistan alone are projected to be home to 180 million poor people at risk to climate change impacts.

Increasingly, disasters such as floods, storms and droughts do not represent an acute, unpredictable “emergency,” so much as chronic human vulnerability to predictable, recurring risks. So, rushing in with palliative humanitarian assistance to climate-related disasters may not be the most appropriate or helpful response.  For example, in Fiji in 2009, heavy rain led to severe flooding in the city of Nadi. After the flooding, homes were rebuilt quickly in their original locations so that people could get on with their lives; in other words, there was a “traditional” humanitarian response. However, locals had noted that heavy rain and flooding had become increasingly common in the region. This means that a traditional response with no attempt to increase their resilience to flood risks, provide alternative places to live or incorporate adaptation measures, may have actually rebuilt risk and set the stage for more disasters, with corresponding human and institutional burdens.

Responses like this one are common because, overwhelmingly, that is what the humanitarian system is set up to do: respond to emergencies, not reduce vulnerability. Indeed, the humanitarian system remains very separate from the development community, which is understood to deal with “long-term” issues, even though the distinction is increasingly irrelevant or blurry.

To illustrate, less than 1 percent of humanitarian funding is spent on prevention and preparedness measures. Assistance itself is normally provided in the form of tents, food and water, even when crisis is the norm. This means that, even though a disaster may go on for months, years or recur often, victims are often given only such assistance as will get them to the next disaster, not programmatic support that moves them out of harm’s way.

Donors can contribute to the challenge. For example, donors spent substantial funds on famine relief in Niger in 2005 during a drought situation, but few wanted to also spend money on a Senegalese initiative to build a ‘green wall’ against the encroaching Sahara Desert that could have helped to prevent future famines.

Increasingly, leaders in the humanitarian community recognize that a shift must be made toward an approach that addresses the risks, shocks and stresses to which people are vulnerable rather than only fixing problems after they occur.  West Africa’s flood season offers an insight into what this looks like. During 2007, floods across Africa were the worst in decades and caught humanitarians off guard. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in nearly 20 countries, and almost 300 people died.

The next year, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) determined to approach the situation differently and used seasonal forecasts to support flood preparedness and response. This meant that the IFRC could seek funds before the disaster, that medical supplies for waterborne diseases were prepared in advance, and that flooding was prevented in Ghana by releasing water from Burkina Faso reservoirs in advance. The result was a lower human toll and a 33 percent lower per-beneficiary cost.

This example illustrates two vital features for building resilience to climate change: the incorporation of climate risk information into humanitarian assessment, planning and response; and working across traditional humanitarian/development divide to develop contingency plans, early warning systems, partnerships and better coordination.

Building on this example, there are several measures that could help the global humanitarian system to change and adapt.

  • Second, there is a need for holistic, integrated approaches across the aid community such as joint humanitarian-development community analyses of risks and of the responses that are most appropriate. This ties into the vital question of funding, as holistic approaches also entail require more effective ways of using existing, though currently disconnected, humanitarian, development and climate finance sources. For example, in Ethiopia the Productive Safety Nets Program gives predictable cash or food payments to 7.8 million chronically food insecure people. This helps beneficiaries to undertake soil and water conservation and the construction of schools and clinics, with corresponding food-security, climate resilience, health and education outcomes. The program also ensures that households have sufficient food, which allows them to make investments in other areas.

There are, of course, examples beyond West Africa and Ethiopia in which humanitarian assistance integrates climate risk information and increases resilience. One that will undoubtedly be getting more attention following the devastating April 25, 2015 earthquake is the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, which brings together government, development and humanitarian stakeholders to focus in a holistic way on issues such as school and hospital safety, and community based disaster risk reduction, whether the risks stem from climate change, earthquakes or any other source.

However, the challenge is that they remain just that – examples and not the norm. The issue, therefore, is to scale up individual examples into meaningful system-wide change. This will ensure that those who need assistance most continue to receive it, and that resilience to climate and other risks is increased.

Image credits: Jérémy, Flickr

Roy Brooke has held leadership positions in Canada, Europe and Africa, in fields including urban and organizational sustainability, national politics, international development, and humanitarian affairs. He worked for the United Nations based in Geneva, Switzerland, and also in Kigali Rwanda, during 2003-2011.  He is now Principal of Brooke and Associates, a consulting firm that helps organizations and communities maximize social and environmental outcomes. roy@brookeandassociates.com.  Twitter: @rbrooke

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