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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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,”
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
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.
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 is a freelance journalist based in Geneva.
©REUTERS / STRINGER, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
Stern Review: The economics
of climate change
In October 2006, the British Treasury published a report
economist Sir Nicholas Stern which made a strong economic
case for acting sooner rather than later on climate
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
“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
“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
“Efforts should also be increased to strengthen
mechanisms for improving risk management and preparedness,
disaster response and refugee resettlement.”
©REUTERS / CRACK PALINGGI, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
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.
©SAMOA RED CROSS SOCIETY
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
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
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
www.ipcc.ch). 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.
©REUTERS / PAUL MATHEWS, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
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
“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