Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One man on a bicycle with a whistle can save thousands of lives

The human cost of climate change is now an over-riding priority for many humanitarian organizations. It is not a priority because it is the flavour of the day or a significant issue on government agendas. It is a priority, from our perspective, because in the Red Cross and Red Crescent network we are confronted with the human cost of climate change every day. For us this is not a new or a future challenge.

We have being dealing with climate and weather-related disasters for decades. Working at the grassroots level in disaster-prone communities we have invested heavily in more effective early warning systems, smarter disaster risk reduction and improved resilience of vulnerable populations. We continue to launch emergency response and recovery operations but for us prevention is the key that will unlock the solution to the human cost of climate change.

Prevention, preparedness, risk-reduction and adaptation – these are fundamental if we are to effectively address the human cost of climate change. It is an enormous challenge on a number of fronts.

Firstly, and most urgently, the challenge is enormous due to the growing urgency to support and work with disaster-prone communities so that they are better protected; to save lives and livlihoods before disasters strike is possible and, logically and morally, it is the best approach.

Secondly, from the economic angle there is also a compelling argument for prevention. Investment in prevention safeguards livelihoods and defends development efforts already carried out. According to the World Bank, investing in prevention can save as much as 80% of the cost of the emergency response. These are important elements to consider as the world grapples with a global financial crisis.

Thirdly, as humanitarians, donors and policy makers we are confronted with a serious challenge to convince governments and their constituencies that investing in prevention is the best course of action. It is my belief that the aid community is failing vulnerable people all over the world if we are simply caught up in a cycle of perpetual emergency response.

The story is not about when disasters strike. The story is about what we can collectively and responsibly do before the disasters strike. With the knowledge and experience at our disposal and the massive resources within risk-prone communities themselves, we can effectively save lives and reduce the impact of climate-related disasters by being proactive and by promoting a culture of prevention.

This approach recognises that climate-related disasters are a reality - even an inevitability. It is not inevitable however that communities lose their loved ones, livelihoods and futures because of climate-related disasters. Working together with communities at risk, humanitarian organizations and governments can strengthen their resilience, improve their early warning systems, boost their preparedness measures and, as a bottom line, minimize loss of life.

Early Warning Early Action

This approach, often referred to as Early Warning Early Action is as much a mindset as an operational framework. It states clearly: We can do better if we proactively seek out the risks before they happen.

In Bangladesh in 1970 a Cyclone called Bhola struck with sudden ferocity and 500’000 people lost their lives. The world was in shock, it grieved and it moved on, numbly accepting this “Act of God”. In 1991, Bangladesh again sufferd the devastating impact of a deadly cyclone and 140’000 people lost their lives. Together with our local Red Crescent organization we said, “OK, no more can we blindly accept such large scale loss of life. What can we reasonably do to adapt, to protect coastal communities against the dangers?” It wasn’t straightforward but based on local knowledge and expertise, supported by the international component of our Movement, we build high-rise community cyclone shelters; we trained people to quickly recognize and respond to early warning systems; we installed community telecommunications centres to quickly pass on vital information about weather patterns; we worked with communities to improve evacuation drills.

One man on a bicycle with a megaphone and a whistle can save thousands of lives. My point being, while we must harness the high-tech resources at our disposal we must also appreciate the effective low-tech and community-based solutions which already exist. The last major cyclone to hit Bangladesh claimed approximately 2’000 lives. Loss of life is not something to celebrate but we can reasonably claim that our early warning systems and improved preparedness and risk reduction has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Not to mention the important economic and developmental savings which Bangladesh needs for a better future. There are many more such examples of how investment in risk-reduction has saved lives in countries such as Cuba, Mozambique and Vietnam.

The forecast data from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, which we established in 2002, indicates annual economic losses up to 20 per cent of the world economy and humanitarian consequences on a much larger scale than the increase in disasters we are currently witnessing.

Inaction is not an option: either we address the rising risks, or we fail to address our humanitarian obligation to care for the most vulnerable people around the world.The main question is not if but how to address the risks of climate change. While some impacts can already be seen, or projected fairly accurately, many others will appear as surprises, or only become apparent once climate change progresses.

Climate change therefore not only raises the risks but also increases the uncertainties. A country may be hit by a once-in-a-century flood this year and by a heat wave or drought the next. And it may face more complex disasters, compounded by poverty, disease or conflict. Addressing the rising risks is not something new – we just need to integrate the notion of changing risks into everything we do, aware that the range of extreme events may be growing. We must enhance our ability to respond and help people to reduce their vulnerability.

Let us remind ourselves that climate change is the result of individual human actions everywhere though, of course, those who have enjoyed the fruits of energy-dense development must acknowledge their greater historic responsibility in this regard. In any case, the disastrous effects of climate change affect all of us – rich or poor – though, as always, it is the poor that pay the greatest price.

The magnitude of this issue is unprecedented and far greater than what the Red Cross Red Crescent alone can achieve. Humanitarian organizations and civil society organizations, together with governments and policy makers must address with urgency and priority the human cost of climate change. Governments and humanitarians alike must recognize and act upon the crucial importance of investing in prevention, preparedness and early warning systems; and above all – we must do what we can to give a voice to those who are most vulnerable to climate-related disasters. If nothing else happens, climate change should encourage all of us to listen to them, support them and work with them for a better, safer future.

Today, a leading think tank, the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is holding a special high-level panel discussion on the humanitarian implications of Climate Change.

The photograph used in this post is by Assi Dvilanski. I came across it on facebook and asked permission to use it. Turns out Assi is a paramedic with the Magan David Adom (Israel's equivalent to a Red Cross society). 


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