The bank for a changing world

The evolution of humanitarian response to the climate crisis

  • Benoît Hervieu Journalist at Usbek & Rica
  • Paris, France
  • 06.08.2019

Climate change is leading to increasingly severe and recurrent weather events, which also cause humanitarian disasters. If these tragedies can be foreseen, they require dedicated organisations to fundamentally change the methods of intervention. To discuss this topic, the BNP Paribas Foundation & the Rescue & Recover Fund brought together Mark New, Director of the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) and Professor at the University of Cape Town; Marie Leroy, Climate Advisor at CARE France; and Thuy Binh Nguyen, Technical Advisor Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation at the French Red Cross.

In March and April, Cyclones Idai and Kenneth hit Mozambique six weeks apart. Over 500 tornadoes struck the United States in May alone. India’s Rajasthan region has just sweltered through temperatures topping 50°C. Disasters caused by climate change are becoming more frequent, severe and predictable while knowledge of the phenomenon and the related human impact increases. Should we wait until someone dies before deciding to help the affected populations? 

Humanitarian organisations must now integrate the climate crisis and rethink their missions accordingly. Are they sufficiently prepared? What are their goals in a context that challenges the traditional paradigm of urgent action? These questions were asked at the 5 June debate with the BNP Paribas Foundation’s Climate & Biodiversity Initiative programme and the Rescue & Recover Fund launched in 2012, which has backed its NGO partners’ humanitarian activities since then. The meeting brought together Mark New, Director of the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) and Professor at the University of Cape Town; Marie Leroy, Climate Advisor at CARE France; and Thuy Binh Nguyen, Technical Advisor Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation at the French Red Cross

A factor of vulnerability

A natural disaster’s human cost must be foreseen as much as the disaster itself. That imperative should be self-evident. Unfortunately, it is not followed as well as hoped. Mr. New recalls when Cape Town’s drought peaked in March 2018 after three years of record-breaking heat. "The city’s population has grown by 25% in the last ten years,” he says, “resulting in exponentially rising demand for water. But the rainy season did not make up for the water shortage caused by the drought. Reserves were down to 15%, of which only 5% were usable, and local consumption was cut in half.” The drought’s scale underscores the human impact. Without greenhouse gas emissions, according to Mr. New, the risk would be three times lower. Its poor assessment explains its poor management. "The risk was clearly underestimated," he says. "A critical threshold of drought was assumed every 50 years, the most plausible being 15 years to establish an appropriate risk management system.

The humanitarian response therefore begins with information, a guarantee of prevention and risk reduction in the future. It now calls for expertise and long-term actions. "Our attention is particularly focused on two types of terrain," says Ms. Nguyen. "On one hand, small island states, such as those of the Caribbean, the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. On the other, very dry areas in West Africa or the Middle East. In both cases, the more exposed the site is to climate risks, the more vulnerable the population. Taking climate change into account as a factor that often increases vulnerability and poverty is at the heart of this new humanitarian approach with forward-looking aims. In particular, she works on the assistance project developed over the past five years by CARE France in eastern Madagascar with support from the Rescue & Recover Fund

we must both anticipate and respond to disasters, influence changes in States and local authorities’ public policies and help individuals become more resilient.

A typhoon strikes Madagascar every year and 80% of the population is affected at various levels (individual physical damage, destroyed housing and livestock, lack of access to basic services, etc.). "In this context,” says Ms. Leroy, “we must both anticipate and respond to disasters, influence changes in States and local authorities’ public policies and help individuals become more resilient. Disasters have less visible consequences, such as severe psychological stress and shock.

Mark New, director of the ACDI at University of Cape Town / Alexandre Kouchner, moderator Usbek & Rica / Marie Leroy, CARE France / Thuy-Binh NGYUEN, French Red Cross

The challenge of inclusion 

The link between expertise, information and action poses new challenges for humanitarian workers. "Information on climate is not always accessible to people and, moreover, they are not always able to interpret it," says Ms. Leroy, who highlights possible misunderstandings "with people who have their own culture and relationship to the environment and the climate.” Even States have experienced shortcomings in assessing risks. “Risk protection or insurance systems are too often out of tune," notes Mr. New. He stresses the need to assess "not just the cost of the risks associated with climate change, but also the additional cost of the events generated by this change.

Information on climate is not always accessible to people and, moreover, they are not always able to interpret it

The degree of expertise determines the effort. It is also involved in transmitting knowledge, tools and possible solutions. "Scientific language too often remains abstract," warns Ms. Nguyen. "What does a level 2 typhoon mean to people? The challenge is to know and communicate how many people are likely to be affected, what the specific consequences will be for their daily lives. Not only what the climate will be, but what it will produce.” This involves identifying the most vulnerable groups (women, older individuals) and including them in the collective response.

"Climate change is far from gender neutral," says Ms. Leroy. "Women often ensure the continuity of the community's daily life. They are exposed to constraints and aggression but left out of the decision-making process.

A culture to be spread

If hardship cannot be avoided, policies must prevent and limit it. This poses a moral dilemma for humanitarian workers. Should they urge people to leave disaster-prone, unlivable or even ultimately unviable areas? "Losing one’s property and environment is even harder than the disaster itself," says Mr. New. Ms. Leroy agrees. "Our role is not to decide for people but to develop knowledge, capacities and mechanisms," she says. These include retrofitting homes and diversifying sources of income. 

A culture of risk, its anticipation and the resilience that accompanies it is now taking root within NGOs. As tragedies mount, the people concerned integrate them and develop solutions. But will the effects of climate change bring about a humanitarian revolution? "We still wait before intervening," says Ms. Nguyen. "Every time a disaster occurs, it takes an average of six months before the money arrives. It’s still hard to rally the general public around what will happen and not just what already has. The risk culture must be more widely spread and shared.” 

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