By Anita Makri
There’s growing momentum to factor climate change into humanitarian work, Anita Makri reports.
It’s a treacherous road to the US-Mexico border. Much like a war zone, says the medical aid charity MSF-Doctors without Borders.
From kidnappings to physical and sexual violence, people on the move from Central America are caught up in a humanitarian crisis that was smouldering long before US politics turned the international spotlight on this migrant route.
More and more, MSF also has its eye on how climate change comes into play.
“A lot of the solutions that you need are actually not new and not rocket science – not very fancy computer modelling,”
Maarten van Aalst, director, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre
“We’re not consciously there because it’s a climate hotspot,” says Carol Devine, a humanitarian affairs advisor for the charity. “But it’s well known that climate change is exacerbating the extreme violence and poverty that’s already there.”
Water scarcity and crop failure are prime examples, she says.
It’s not yet factored into planning operations. But MSF is now much more “attuned” to climate change, says Devine. And it is not alone: other humanitarian organisations are also starting to think more about this, according to James Orbinski, medical doctor and director of York University’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research in Canada.
Orbinski, who was president of MSF’s International Council when he accepted the organisation’s Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago, warned the charity’s annual science conference last month that climate change has “clear implications” for how it operates. “There is no way that MSF could possibly prepare for all possible natural disasters and extreme weather events [predicted]”, he said.
Signs of change
Orbinski believes one reason humanitarian organisations are more actively thinking about climate change is the severe heat waves and floods of the past couple of years.
Humanitarian work has also become less reactive and more preventive in recent years, according to Andrei Marin, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “At least in theory, [it] places humanitarian organisations in a position where they can better anticipate and mitigate,” he says.
The signs of climate change impact are different from place to place. MSF staff see a lot of severe acute malnutrition in children, says Devine, and more malaria than in the past in the Sahel, Somalia and South Sudan.
Sometimes the signs aren’t obvious, and aid workers on the ground have to connect the dots. People you meet on the border between Guatemala and Mexico won’t tell you “I’m fleeing climate change”, Devine points out. “But I met several who say ‘my crops have failed, we left because there’s no water’.”
Scarce water, rising sea levels and crops failing as droughts and floods become more frequent are among the “slow-onset” impacts that are expected to double the number of people on the move by 2050 across Mexico and Central America, according to The World Bank. It says up to 30 per cent of the region’s population relies on agriculture for income.
Then there’s the confluence of conflict and environmental degradation, which pushes people to leave their homes, making them more vulnerable. Sometimes this limits options for humanitarians to protect them.
Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is one area where this plays out, says Margherita Fanchiotti of the UN Environment/OCHA Joint Unit. The area is hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees while under stress from environmental degradation and landslides.
Fanchiotti, who leads the unit’s work to integrate environmental considerations in humanitarian response, says environmental stress has implications for operations on the ground. “For example, you may not be able to relocate the population.” Or the response could trigger more problems.
Marin and colleague Lars Otto Naess analysed what the ongoing changes in the humanitarian system might do to improve how people can adapt. They find those changes tend to fall under three categories: building resilience, reducing disaster risk and investing in early warning systems.
Organisations on the front line know that early warning is the key to protecting people and their assets. That means forecasts and predictive models – and here, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has made a head start.
Through the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, set up in 2002, the IFRC works with climate scientists and governments to look at past problems in a region, get the best forecasts quickly, and look at the range of actions that responders can realistically take.
Long lead times are important, according to Maarten van Aalst, director of the centre and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How much time you have depends on the hazard – it might be five days ahead for a tropical cyclone or several weeks for a drought prediction. The science is generally good enough to give responders a workable lead time, he says. But much research still falls through the cracks between what’s considered novel science and needs on the ground.
The reality, says van Aalst, is that prediction is like a puzzle that has to be worked out afresh every time a response system is designed. “For a storm in Bangladesh, it’s very different than for a dzud [a severe winter] in Mongolia. And that’s, again, very different from a drought in southern Africa.” Each new situation calls for new scientific work.
And there’s another risk to contend with: unpredictability. “For a poor farmer in the Sahel, the primary consequence may be just not knowing what to expect in the next rainy season,” says van Aalst.
Both humanitarians and people in vulnerable areas want to avoid the unexpected.
For organisations, modelling can help plan operations and policies, according to Orbinski: being able to describe and quantify causal variables helps understand where, why and how people make a decision to move across borders, for example. MSF says it wants to invest more in climate-related research that helps these kinds of decisions, and to invest more in forecasting emergencies.
For vulnerable people, it’s about building resilience – strengthening their ability to deal with shocks and surprises. “A lot of the solutions that you need are actually not new and not rocket science – not very fancy computer modelling,” says van Aalst.
But it’s often in the most vulnerable areas that information is poorest. And within those areas, refugee camps are a neglected hotspot.
Fanchiotti is leading an inter-agency project, with a group of UN agencies and The World Wind Energy Association, to conduct a climate vulnerability assessment focusing on refugees and internally displaced people in Burundi, Chad and Sudan. Her colleague Saidou Hamani, regional coordinator for disasters and conflicts at the UN Environment Programme, says water overuse and drought in the Lake Chad Basin adds to the challenge of displacement resulting from Boko Haram violence.
Assessments of this kind are lacking in developing countries and there’s hardly any research specific to refugee camps, says Fanchiotti. “Usually, it’s very data-rich sort of methodologies that are used for vulnerability assessments that don’t necessarily work when census data for example are collected only once every 10 years.”
At MSF, Devine says a number of research projects are under way to address these kinds of data gaps. One project is looking at how climate-related migration, violence and healthcare are converging in Mexico. And in Guatemala, climate change is one of the leads being followed by staff looking at a rise in chronic kidney disease.
“What we want to do now is to connect more with researchers to also share our data,” she adds. There’s a clear recognition that climate change matters, she says, and the organisation is ready to go beyond pilot projects. “I think the momentum is massive.”
Fanchiotti sees signs of this movement globally. But it needs to be strengthened, she says. “It’s a long way to go before it is actually becomes a standard practice, not a set of pilots here and there.”