There has been some striking progress in reducing the death toll from natural disasters in recent decades. While Cyclone Sidr killed around 3,000 people in Bangladesh in 2007, similar or weaker storms killed 100 times that number in 1972 and 45 times more people in 1991, largely because governments and local communities have since taken action to reduce risk.
Now that is all under threat from climate change. A new Oxfam report shows that each year, on average, almost 250 million people are affected by ‘natural’ disasters, the vast majority of them climate-related such as hurricanes, droughts and floods (earthquakes are comparatively rare). But the numbers are rising - by 2015, this could grow by more than 50 per cent to an average of over 375 million people affected by climate-related disasters each year, in part because of climate change. (see graph.)
Climate change could also increase the threat of new conflicts, which will mean more people displaced, and the need for more humanitarian aid. One recent report estimated that 46 countries will face a ‘high risk of violent conflict’ when climate change exacerbates traditional security threats. Already, there is evidence that the number of conflicts is again on the rise.
Rising vulnerability and the grinding machinery of climate change form a deadly combination. What to do? Firstly recognize that when it comes to human impact, disasters are anything but ‘natural.’ They pick on poor people. In rich countries, an average of 23 people die in any given disaster; in the least-developed countries this is 1,052. Some groups – women and girls, the chronically sick, the elderly, and others – are even more vulnerable, their ability to cope undermined by discrimination, inequality, or poor physical health.
For many of the world’s poor people, four trends threaten to further increase their vulnerability:
- there are many more people living in urban slums built on precarious land.
- the increasing pressure on farmland, caused by drought, population density, and increasing demand for meat and dairy products in emerging economies, means that more people will find it difficult to get enough to eat.
- climate change, environmental degradation, and conflict are likely to drive more people from their homes, stripping them of their livelihoods, assets, and the networks of family and communities that can support them. Some estimates suggest that up to one billion people will be forced from their homes by 2050.
- the global economic crisis is increasing unemployment and undermining social safety nets.
This poses a big challenge to the international aid system, including organizations like Oxfam, which in November 2008 was directly assisting 3.3 million people with humanitarian needs. It will need more money (the world spent more on video games in 2006 than it did on international humanitarian assistance – see chart). But it will also need to work differently: in the past, is has used centralised, logistics-heavy interventions geared to large-scale catastrophes. In the future, humanitarian organisations will need to focus more on building local capacity to help prevent, prepare for, and respond to a proliferation of smaller climate-related shocks.
The report concludes that the humanitarian challenge of the twenty-first century consists of an increasing total of largely local catastrophic events, increasing numbers of people vulnerable to them, too many governments failing to prevent or respond to them, and an international humanitarian system unable to cope. In the face of that, disaster-affected people need:
- A far greater focus on building national governments’ capacity to reduce risk and respond to disasters;
- A far greater focus on helping people and communities to become less vulnerable to disasters; and
- An international humanitarian system that acts quickly and impartially to provide effective and accountable assistance.