I have an alert on my phone that goes off every time a major natural disaster occurs. Sometimes I get multiple alerts a day. My wife would tell you they always seem to go off around 3am. It’s my job to keep up with every new and developing humanitarian crisis, so that if we need to respond we can be ready to deploy a team in 24-48 hours.
After 18 years of doing this work, I see something changing. The crises are getting harder to predict. In the past it was safe to assume certain regions would be affected at certain times by seasonal droughts or tropical storms, but increasingly it’s anyone’s guess where or when the next one will hit. And it’s getting harder to keep up with the sheer number of large-scale natural disasters, which are reportedly occurring three times more often than 50 years ago. As humanitarians we are bearing witness to this trend in our daily work, with each year bringing new record-shattering emergencies.
In recent years we responded in Honduras and Mozambique after both countries were hit by successive major tropical cyclones without precedent in recorded history, including the strongest cyclone to ever hit the African continent. We are seeing Syria currently experiencing its worst drought in 70 years and Madagascar its worst drought in 40 years, and now a similar situation is unfolding in the Horn of Africa. In Renk, South Sudan, we recently responded to the highest seasonal flooding in 30 years. These are just a few of the many examples I could give.
It has been well documented that climate change is making extreme weather events more severe, more frequent and less predictable. Yet it is not only influencing so-called ‘natural’ disasters, but conflicts too, as we are witnessing in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and many other places where competition over scarce resources is fuelling violence. It may not be possible to prove exactly how much climate change is to blame in any given disaster, since there are always many contributing factors, but it certainly has a multiplying effect.
I spend a lot of time looking at disaster data. The question that concerns me, because it determines whether or not an extreme weather event will become a humanitarian disaster, is coping capacity – or lack of it. People with access to air-conditioned buildings will cope more easily in a heat wave than people living in tents. Countries without strong infrastructure, emergency services, and funding will always be harder hit. That’s why the poorest are hurt most by climate change.
It’s also why this crisis is not news to humanitarians – we’ve been witnessing it unfolding for a long time. We meet urgent needs in the aftermath of climate-related disasters, but we also help prepare communities to withstand future disasters through what we call ‘disaster risk reduction.’ This might involve improving infrastructure, building shelters resistant to flooding or hurricanes, or training communities in water conservation or in land management techniques that reduce the risk of landslides and flash flooding.
But lately we are finding the need to keep coming up with new tailor-made solutions to the dramatically changing environmental conditions in areas where we work. These have included raising hand pumps to protect water points from submersion due to increased flooding levels in South Sudan, creating a drainage system for a refugee camp hit by repeated flash flooding in Sudan, and setting up a nationwide cyclone early warning system in Madagascar.
As the human impact of climate change becomes increasingly urgent, we cannot ignore our own imprint either. Over the years Medair has been quietly conscientious about this: for example using solar panels instead of fuel-based generators to power water systems and clinics, planting a tree for every latrine built, or leaving a water supply for animals and plants when constructing protected springs. We are working with partners on innovations such as tarpaulins made of biodegradable plastic, are improving the energy efficiency of our offices and minimising travel. And we’re now intensifying these efforts with our commitment to the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organisations.
But the challenge facing us is bigger than any of us can meet alone. We are grateful for those who recognise the challenge and partner with us. As it gets harder to predict where resources will be needed next, anticipatory funding is especially helpful – equipping us with the resources to make all possible preparations before disasters strike, rather than merely racing to act when they do.
While I love my job, I wish it weren’t necessary. But what is tragically clear is that those of us doing emergency response will only be getting busier in the years to come.