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Climate Change challenge

The world’s poor are bearing the brunt of global warming. How is the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement helping them meet the climate change challenge?

‘‘Worst flooding in the Horn of Africa for 50 years.” “Australia’s drought the most severe in 1,000 years.” “The Alps the warmest in 1,300 years.” “Global weather chaos now thought to be inevitable.”

These are just some of the headlines that have shot around the world over the past few months. After years of sitting on the climate change fence, the media have finally come down on the side of the scientists, economists and politicians who firmly believe that, in the words of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, climate change “is one of the greatest challenges of our time”.

Over the past year, there has been a sea change in the world’s perception of the issue. There has been a general acceptance of the scientific arguments that climate change is human-induced and not a cyclical phenomenon. Since the publication of the Stern Review (see box), there has been a realization that failure to take action could have financial consequences similar to “the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century”. Furthermore, people are beginning to realize that climate change is not just an environmental threat but one that is already touching their lives, wherever they are in the world.

Humanitarian issue

“The environmental label has come off climate change,” says Charles Ehrhart, coordinator for Care International’s poverty and climate change initiative, “allowing us to see it for what it truly is — an economic and livelihoods issue, a food security and water issue, a health issue, a conflict and refugee issue, a human rights issue... and an environmental issue.”

Although Ehrhart characterizes the response of humanitarian organizations to the climate change challenge as slow, he believes that the community is at last riding the crest of a wave.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, he adds, was instrumental in triggering interest and has been “well ahead of the game” in recognizing that climate change would have a disproportionate effect on the lives of the poor.

Although the Movement started to look at the risks of climate change and its implications for disaster management in 1999, the International Federation’s Deputy Secretary General, Ibrahim Osman, acknowledges that internally and externally global warming is still perceived as an environmental problem, not a humanitarian one.

Osman told former United States Vice President Al Gore at the Netherlands premiere of his surprise box office hit documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, that: “Today, we still need to explain why we are so concerned. Yet the explanation is simple: climate change will lead to more weather extremes; more floods, heatwaves, droughts, intense hurricanes and typhoons. Moreover, these disasters will affect the most vulnerable people, the elderly and sick; the poorest of the poor in the poorest of countries.”

The poor on the front line

According to the World Disasters Report, weather-related disasters have doubled over the past decade. Its editor, Jonathan Walter, warns that climate change will put even more vulnerable populations at risk of disaster.

Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change as they often don’t have the means to fend off floods and other natural disasters. To make matters worse, their economies are often based on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and the fishing industry. Furthermore, the poor in these countries often live in the most disaster-prone areas — along low-lying coastlines, on flood plains or on deforested slopes.

Slowly changing climatic conditions and more frequent extreme events are likely to threaten their food security, reduce their access to fresh water and increase their vulnerability to waterborne diseases.

In a recent study, the World Health Organization indicated that climate change results in an extra 150,000 deaths and 5 million sicknesses each year by increasing the spread of malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and other ailments. “Our health officers in Africa and Papua New Guinea are reporting outbreaks of malaria in areas where it never previously occurred,” says Osman. “It is spreading to higher altitudes because of rising temperatures.”

It is not just the poor in the developing world who are on the climate change front line. The vulnerability of Europe’s elderly was underlined by a heatwave in 2003 which saw 30,000 deaths within the space of a few months. The floods in 2006 in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia also highlighted those countries’ inability to invest in the infrastructure necessary to protect their citizens.

Preparing for the unpredictable

The vulnerability of its main constituents — the poor — has led the Movement to “mainstream” climate change into all areas of its work — from health and care to disaster response and preparedness.

“Our work has become more complicated,” says Peter Rees, head of operations support at the International Federation. “We are grappling with unpredictable weather patterns and constantly changing disaster scenarios.”

At the end of 2006, the Movement was caught out by the El Niño effect which resulted in a weaker hurricane season than anticipated in the Caribbean and a stronger one in the Pacific where Typhoon Durian wrought havoc in the Philippines and Viet Nam. Somalia and Kenya were hit by heavy rain rather than the expected annual drought.

“People who had never experienced flooding before were not prepared for water-borne diseases such as cholera and malaria,” Rees admits. “We should have made a more strategic link and got mosquito nets to them earlier.”

“People are beginning to realize that they may be exposed to more than one weather-related disaster in their lifetime,” adds Mohammed Mukhier, head of the International Federation’s disaster policy and preparedness department.

“What we do is work out the risks and help local communities manage those risks. Awareness, after all, is the poor person’s insurance,” he adds. Research has shown that in disaster-prone areas, good training, planning and evacuation rehearsals, along with the installation of an early warning radio system, can be the difference between life and death.

“Investing resources in advance of a disaster costs much less than efforts to repair damage later,” argues Mukhier.

Faced with the prospect of responding to and preparing communities for more disasters in the future, the International Federation has doubled its funding for response and preparedness since 2000.

“We have scaled up capacity building and resources,” says Rees. “What we now need is for National Societies to do the same.”

Helping National Societies “adapt”

After starting to assess the risks of global warming in 1999, the International Federation asked National Societies in 2003 to prepare for negative impacts with the help of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Centre on Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness, set up a year earlier.

The centre, based in The Hague, Netherlands, describes itself as a bridge between climate change and disaster risk reduction. It aims to help people living in disaster-prone areas adapt to the risks of climate change, reducing the chances that they will be directly affected.

“Adaptation,” says Madeleen Helmer, who runs the centre, “was a dirty word in the 1990s as it was seen as somehow condoning emissions, which are the root cause of climate change. However everyone now realizes that while fighting it, the world has no choice but also to find ways of living with it.

“It is now certain that climate change is happening and further accelerating. Yet, within this certainty, we will have to deal with an increased uncertainty about its impact.”

She explains that climate change experts and forecasters can start to predict the natural disasters that are going to hit a particular region. It is likely, for example, that Central America will be hit by more intense storms and hurricanes, with more rainfall afterwards. This will further increase Guatemala’s and Nicaragua’s vulnerability to floods, landslides and high storm surges. Once a risk has been found, it is a matter of identifying the area that is vulnerable and the people who live there, often in isolated communities or in the shanty towns of a city. Yet there might also be nasty surprises. Already, says Helmer, areas prone to flooding have also been hit by droughts or heatwaves.

Based on the results of pilot projects — one in Bangladesh and the other in Nicaragua (see boxes), the centre has broadened its mandate to act as a resource for the whole Red Cross and Red Crescent family on climate change.

“We inform National Societies about the potential risks of climate change and how these risks might affect their programmes and mission,” says Helmer. “We then help them integrate climate change into existing programmes to reduce casualties and damage caused by natural disasters.”

Raising awareness and understanding

Over the past two years, 20 National Societies in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific have started to work on climate change.

Support for the scheme has been particularly strong among Pacific island states, which face the prospect of a catastrophic sea level rise in the next 100 years, which could jeopardize their very existence.

Communities are experiencing the negative impacts of climate change first hand — crops are dying due to changes in seasonal wind patterns, fish-poisoning algae are thriving due to warmer temperatures and storm surges are increasing.

“We are aiming first to build up National Societies’ understanding of climate change so that they can help these communities reduce their risks,” says Rebecca McNaught, the Movement’s first regional climate change and disaster delegate. “We are concentrating on practical steps as we want to avoid creating a sense of hopelessness.”

The Samoa Red Cross Society, along with its counterparts in the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu, is implementing a programme which aims at educating staff and volunteers, assessing in-country risks and priorities, building a network with climate change scientists and policy-makers, and developing concrete adaptation activities.

The Climate Change Centre has funding for up to 40 National Societies to follow this programme in 2007 and is hopeful that more countries will sign up. According to the United Nations, climate change will affect Africa more than anywhere else in the world due to extreme poverty levels, high rates of population growth, over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture and over-dependence on natural resource-based livelihoods.

National Societies in Malawi and Mozambique have started to integrate climate change into their disaster risk reduction programmes. But with Africa already experiencing more frequent and intense storms, droughts and floods, the race is on to help people adapt to these weather-related risks.


Faced with the reality that climate change is happening and is bound to get worse, however much is done internationally to try and halt it, the Movement has recognized that it is too big a problem for one actor to tackle alone.

Last year a partnership was launched between the German, Indonesian and Netherlands Red Cross Societies and the Rabobank Foundation, a global leader in sustainable banking. Over the next four years, more than 1,000 people from four vulnerable villages in East and West Jakarta will learn how to protect themselves from climate change-related risks such as floods, disease and food insecurity, as well as reduce their financial risks by benefiting from a microcredit scheme run by Rabobank.

National Societies are increasingly looking to partner with organizations bringing different experiences on climate change to the table. In the Netherlands, the Red Cross is part of the HIER (Dutch for “here”) campaign — a coalition of 40 nature, conservation, environment, development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations — which aims to convince at least 1 million consumers to take action and influence government and business policy.

In the Pacific, the International Federation has joined forces with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission to produce Pacific Disaster Net which will house everything relating to disaster risk management in the Pacific including climatic information and long-term forecasts.

Underpinning its collaborative approach is the Movement’s neutrality and independence, says Madeleen Helmer. “We support calls for a strong reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as this is the cause of the problem but we will not be more specific on how this must be done or what a particular country should do. Other partners understand and respect this position,” she says.

Rebecca McNaught says: “The International Federation uses its mandate of working with the most vulnerable people in its core areas of work to help advocate on issues like climate change. It sends a clear message when the Movement says it is concerned about climate change as a humanitarian issue.”

Advocating for change

“We have become more outspoken,” says Rees. “After recurrent flooding in central Europe, we told governments to scale up their disaster preparedness and invest more in flood control. After all, humanitarian response is often a substitute for failed development.”

The Movement has also stepped up its presence at international conferences dealing with climate change. Shortly after the tsunami hit the Indian Ocean in December 2004, it sent a team to a United Nations meeting on disaster risk reduction in the Japanese city of Kobe, where for the first time countries agreed that climate change was an underlying risk for disasters.

At the United Nations Climate Change conference in November 2006 in Nairobi, Kenya, the Movement sent its biggest-ever delegation as part of a fact-finding and networking exercise. As momentum gathers within the Movement, it also plans to take on a more proactive advocacy role at the next meeting, scheduled for December in Bali, Indonesia.

Big push

Over the past year, climate change has rapidly moved up the Movement’s agenda. Initial reservations about its relevance to Red Cross Red Crescent work with vulnerable people have been largely swept aside as the impact on the world’s poor becomes more and more apparent. It is increasingly no longer seen as a competing priority but one that has to be addressed if existing health-care and disaster preparedness priorities are to be met.

“We are sending a strong message to all National Societies to focus on climate change,” adds Mukhier. “Developing countries are going to bear the brunt but those in the developed world must not ignore the threats on their own doorstep.”

“The Movement is becoming a strong voice for the vulnerable on one of the greatest challenges of our times,” says Helmer. “We are moving fast, but the problem is that climate change is moving even faster.”

Claire Doole
Claire Doole is a freelance journalist based in Geneva.


Stern Review: The economics
of climate change

In October 2006, the British Treasury published a report by
economist Sir Nicholas Stern which made a strong economic
case for acting sooner rather than later on climate change. It
warned that environmental “business as usual” would shrink the world’s economy by onefi
fth and argued for a more sustainable energy future. The review also highlighted the need
for adaptation to protect the health and livelihoods of developing country populations from the impacts of climate change. Below are some key extracts.

“Adaptation policy is crucial for dealing with the unavoidable impacts of climate change,
but it has been under-emphasized in many countries. Adaptation is the only response
available for the impacts that will occur over the next several decades before mitigation
measures can have an effect.”

“The additional costs of making new infrastructure and buildings resilient to climate
change in OECD countries could be US$ 15 to 150 billion each year (0.05 – 0.5% of gross
domestic product).”

“The challenge of adaptation will be particularly acute in developing countries, where
greater vulnerability and poverty will limit the capacity to act. As in developed countries, the costs are hard to estimate, but are likely to run into tens of billions of dollars.”

“Adaptation efforts in developing countries must be accelerated and supported, including through international development assistance. A US$ 20 billion fund should be created by the World Bank and other financial institutions to help poor countries adjust to climate change challenges.”

“Efforts should also be increased to strengthen mechanisms for improving risk management and preparedness, disaster response and refugee resettlement.”

An Indonesian man arranges merchandise in his flooded shop in Jakarta in February 2007.

Care International –
meeting the climate change challenge

Charles Ehrhart, coordinator for Care International’s poverty and climate change initiative: “The humanitarian community has been very slow out of the blocks on climate change as it took us a long time to grasp that it was our issue. This was partly because the media presented it as an environmental issue and partly because our staff either did not see the relevance or saw it as a competing priority. However, the message that climate change is not an added extra but needs to be addressed if we are to tackle existing priorities is gaining traction.

“In June 2006, we set up the climate change poverty initiative, which is helping member organizations understand the consequences and decide on their priorities. We already have in place some adaptation projects in countries highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [see box] as at high risk such as Bangladesh, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Tajikistan, etc.

“The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a leader in integrating climate change into disaster reduction programmes and Care International would welcome the opportunity to build capacity and implement projects together. We want to go beyond the talking shops and start to partner by doing.”

Reducing risk in

Where: Wawaboom and Betania in Puerto Cabezas municipality, North Atlantic Ocean region.
What: Shelter construction, rain gauges to monitor water levels, solar-powered radio early warning systems, first-aid and emergency response training, waste cleaning activities with the communities.
Why: The region is prone to severe flooding and bush fires that jeopardize food security, livelihoods and health.
Big picture: The Nicaraguan Red Cross is building links with scientific institutions and meteorological offices to create a forum with national, local and village authorities, and partnerships with educational institutions to integrate climate change into the school curriculum and university research programmes.

Everyone is talking about climate change in Samoa, including Red Cross volunteers who learn how it will affect their island home.

Reducing risk in Bangladesh

Where: 80 villages across Bangladesh; 160,000 people in total.
What: Community forestry, raised wells, disaster risk reduction communication, bamboo bridge project for access to health care and work, capacity building for disaster preparedness.
Why: Vulnerability to severe seasonal flooding.
Big picture: The International Federation and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society are in partnership with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and Kyoto University, Japan, which is studying rural community perception and adaptation to climate change.


Catastrophic century

In February 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that temperatures would probably increase by 1.8 to 4 degrees Celsius by 2099, with sea levels rising by 28 to 43 centimetres (see Global warming is likely to result in:
Thirst: Fresh water availability in southern Africa and the Mediterranean reduced by one-half, leaving millions thirsty.
Hunger: African agricultural yields drop by 15 to 35 per cent. Marine and other ecosystems are disrupted. Up to 50 per cent of species face extinction.
Disease: Up to 80 million more people in Africa are exposed to malaria. Millions more are exposed to dengue fever.
Coastal flooding: 7 to 300 million people are affected by coastal flooding. Hardest hit are small islands, Bangladesh and Viet Nam, and coastal cities such as Calcutta, Hong Kong, Karachi, London, New York and Tokyo.
Population movement: Hundreds of millions of people are forced from their homes by rising sea levels, storms, floods and drought.
Disasters: Rising intensity of storms, droughts, floods, forest fires, heatwaves.

Australian farmers Chris and Claire Priestley inspect a dead cow on their drought-affected property in New South Wales.

The ICRC mitigators

Riccardo Conti heads the ICRC’s water and habitat department and a team of 100 engineers on the ground. His main task is to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people have access to water, particularly in situations of armed conflict. It is a task that is becoming increasingly difficult as water supplies are affected by climate change; more frequent floods and droughts are putting an increasing strain on irrigation systems and water and sanitation provision. Conti’s department is actively identifying ways of mitigating global warming.

“We are trying to reduce our environmental footprint in areas where we work and to encourage local communities to adopt environmentally friendly energy and consumption patterns,” he explains.

In Eritrea, the team has introduced solar-powered water pumping systems as a “green” alternative to diesel pumps, while in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it persuaded people to plant trees rather than crops on the banks of the Murhundu River to reduce erosion and to ensure the continued supply of water to the city of Bukavu.

Engineers have brought biogas plant s to prisons in Nepal and Rwanda, and thousands of people in Ethiopia and Somalia cook on energy efficient stoves, reducing the consumption of wood and helping in the fight against deforestation and desertification.

As well as contributing to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the introduction of green technology can also help those hardest hit by climate change become more energy efficient.

“We have always responded to the vulnerability of the environment,” says Thomas Nydegger, ICRC hydrologist, “but climate change has made it even more vulnerable.”


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