April 2008

Climate change is a humanitarian challenge

Mr OsmanThis article is based on the speech made by Ibrahim Osman, Deputy Secretary-General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), during the celebration of World Meteorological Day at WMO Headquarters in Geneva on 25 March 2008.

A strip of bamboo poles, a clutch of mangrove trees, learning local dialects for navigational directions … in some of the poorest parts of the world, such low-key, low-cost measures are making the difference between suffering from, or averting, damage caused by climate-change-linked disasters and extreme weather events.

WMO advocates the use of a wide range of adaptation measures to respond to the dangers posed by natural disasters, particularly as the world comes to grips with the challenges posed by climate change and many of WMO’s partners in the development and aid field have embraced the adaptation approach, including the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

In an address entitled “Risk reduction and the human cost of climate change,” Mr Osman said that the IFRC regarded climate change was not only an environmental, political and economic issue, but as an equally important humanitarian challenge as well. “As the world’s largest humanitarian and disaster response network, the Red Cross Red Crescent is mainly concerned with the human cost of climate change, I have no doubt that the humanitarian consequences of climate change will be one of the greatest challenges facing the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in the coming decades. And I know that action must be taken now if these effects are to be mitigated.

IFRC’s programmes have been designed with the challenges posed by global warming in mind, as well as the potential effects it can have on the world’s poorest people. Water security and scarcity, flooding, agricultural and food production and the spread of disease, such as malaria and dengue, are among major humanitarian threats linked to climate change that the IFRC is working to address.

Mr Osman said the IFRC has millions of volunteers and staff working through 186 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in communities across the world, many of which are already dealing with consequences of climate change. “The people hardest hit by the effects of climate change are the world’s most vulnerable, the elderly, the sick and the poorest people in the poorest countries.

IFRC works closely with WMO to help countries better respond to the challenges of climate change, particularly by promoting adaptation and mitigation measures: adaptation policies must play a central role in the international community’s approach to climate change.

In particular, he called for an international agreement on quantifiable, predictable and adequate funding for climate risk reduction and adaptation measures; an accord on how to mobilize these resources and a deal on implementing these funds via programmes that give priority to the most vulnerable people.

“The IFRC will increase partnerships, cooperation and dialogue with governments, international organizations, knowledge centres and civil society organizations in order to ensure that these goals are met,” Mr Osman said.

Several examples were cited of how some of the world’s poorest people are being affected by climate change—and, more importantly, how they are responding. From Bangladesh to Nicaragua, people living in some of the most vulnerable settings have found simple, inexpensive ways to adapt to increased rainfall, cyclones and other extreme weather events.

Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh in December 2007, a tempest as strong as one that hit the low-lying country some 26 years earlier and left more than 100 000 people dead. But this time, thousands of Red Crescent volunteers, along with thousands more workers assisting the Bangladesh Cyclone Preparedness Programme, used bicycles and megaphones to warn people living in the cyclone’s path to escape the danger zone. Sidr caused the deaths of some 3 000 people. While still unacceptable, the value of risk reduction could not be clearer.
  damage after Sidr

Also in Bangladesh, annual seasonal floods inundate the village of Satiantoli and its surrounding low-lying areas, a debilitating pattern exacerbated by climate change. The floods disrupt lives and isolate communities, severely impacting upon livelihoods and education.

The construction of a simple bridge, using 300 m of bamboo, valued at just over CHF 1 000, now provides 15 000 villagers with uninterrupted access to the main highway, no matter how serious the flooding. IFRC volunteers live and work in the cities, towns and villages, like Satiantoli, which they serve, helping communities prepare for and withstand disasters like cyclones and floods.

Quoting a Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteer in Satiantoli: “We worked day and night to build this bridge. The whole community participated. Some gave money, some gave bamboo and the rest worked to build it.”

In another Asian nation, Viet Nam, the Red Cross is protecting communities from tropical storms and sea surges by planting mangrove trees to safeguard the sea dyke that runs along the country’s coastline. IFRC says that the cost of planning and planting has been about US$ 1.1 million, and has reduced the cost of maintaining the dyke by US$ 7.3 million annually.

Making a difference does not always need money. In Samoa, the Red Cross found that most villages had different words for “north”, “south”, “east” and “west”. This made it very difficult to issue early warnings or direct people to shelters when a storm is approaching. Local Red Cross volunteers now help to interpret meteorological information and weather reports, making sure that everyone threatened by extreme weather understands when to seek shelter—and where that shelter is located.

The Central American nation of Nicaragua has been battered my many natural disasters, receiving the brunt of severe storms in recent years, including Hurricane Mitch in 1998. It is particularly vulnerable to climate change and variability, with experts predicting the region to experience higher temperatures and a remarkable decrease in rainfall in coming years.

The Nicaraguan Red Cross is helping communities on the country's Atlantic Coast respond to increasingly severe hurricane seasons and weather extremes by playing a key role in its National Risk Management Plan and implementing climate change projects in rural and urban communities aimed at changing people's behaviour in response to disasters.

The Red Cross also carries out risk management activities and helps with organize contingency plans and train volunteer response brigades. It also supports micro-projects, including evacuation centres, construction of "safe cabinets" to store radio communication equipment and building pedestrian bridges in case of flooding.
The IFRC’s Geneva-based “policy and preparedness department” works closely with WMO’s weather and disaster risk reduction programmes to minimize such dangers. Collaboration occurs in affected countries too, with more than 30 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies working with National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in their respective countries. The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in the Netherlands liaises with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and encourages Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to work closely with NMHSs.

The IFRC’s is determined to work with WMO to strengthen community-based early warning in countries in Africa and the Americas; collaborate to produce an early warning product for early action, seasonal forecasting and longer-term climate change predictions; and to work together to strengthen the international early warning programme.

In many cases, this collaboration has proved extremely useful and has strengthened both organizations. But there are many challenges in bringing detailed scientific information on climate change to the community level at which the Red Cross Red Crescent works. The International Federation and the World Meteorological Organization must make a long-term investment in each other, and embark on a permanent dialogue.

The IFRC was encouraged by the outcome of the November 2007, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, but it believes a lot more work must be done for the international community to reach “concrete and meaningful commitments” at the next conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

“The Red Cross Red Crescent is ready and able to play its part in this process,” Mr Osman said. “We are committed to contributing to the development of adaptation policies and measures at local, national and international levels.”



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