The increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms and extreme weather events – like the floods and heat waves currently affecting Africa, Asia and Europe – are forcing humanitarian agencies, like to Red Cross Red Crescent, to respond to more and more disasters each year.
For example, over the past three decades, the average number of annual natural disasters around the world has risen sharply – from about 75 in 1975 to almost 400 in 2004.
To find out more about this trend, and how aid agencies are adapting to better protect vulnerable communities, ifrc.org spoke to the International Federation’s Head of Operations Support, Peter Rees.
Question: We’re currently seeing some of the worst flooding to hit Britain, China, South Asia and Sudan in years, while many parts of Europe are experiencing record-breaking heat. Are these events unprecedented and is the Red Cross Red Crescent significantly scaling up its operations in response?
Peter Rees: Both the scale and unpredictability of recent disasters are indeed unprecedented. We have already responded to 256 emergencies so far this year, compared to a total of 278 emergencies in 2004.
We’re seeing far more requests for disaster relief emergency funds, and we have also greatly scaled up our international logistics capacity and our disaster response training.
But the key to managing this increase in disasters lies within National Societies around the world, who have so far demonstrated a resolve and determination to meet the demands of this rise in emergencies.
Question: What trends are you seeing in terms of disasters worldwide?
Answer: We are seeing a significant increase in climate change-related disasters, mostly floods. This increased level of flooding is also causing an increase in epidemics and health emergencies, including more cases of malaria and dengue fever.
We are also witnessing an increase in “multiple events”, which means one area is affected by a series of different disasters over a relatively short period of time.
In addition, we’re seeing an increase in “unique events”, or climatic anomalies, such as storms, floods or heat waves, that are highly unusual in a region.
These are of great concern since governments and communities are typically unprepared for them, and only have a limited capacity to handle them. An example of this type of unique event is the category five cyclone, which smashed into Oman in June 2007.
Question: Are these events being directly caused by climate change?
Answer: Essentially, there is a relationship between climate change and the disasters that we are now seeing. But it is not a causal link, and we should be careful not to blame all climate-related disasters on climate change.
But, that said, some of the events that we are seeing do fit with the trends of what we can expect with climate change.
Broadly speaking, we know that climate change is expected to lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of weather extremes, including more floods in large parts of China, an increase in the number of heavy downpours in places like Britain, a greater risk of heavy monsoon rainfall in South Asia, and a higher chance of heat waves, like the ones we’re seeing in many parts of Europe.
Question: How do natural catastrophes, like severe flooding, affect countries differently? For example, how do the challenges of disaster response in a country like Britain compare to those in Pakistan?
Answer: In general, developed countries have better infrastructure, such as flood defences and evacuation plans, to mitigate the effects of climatic events. Residents are also generally better insured, while the governments’ civil defence assets are better developed.
In addition, good urban planning reduces the risk and impact of natural catastrophes in developed nations, which also have tend to have greater available disposable income, at the family and local authority levels, to respond to the consequences of disasters.
In terms of Pakistan and Britain, both are highly populated, which increases the chances of people living in high-risk zones.
Pakistan, though, is more frequently affected by disasters, and is thus generally well prepared and trained – from the community level to the governmental level – to respond to disasters.
Contrary to what many people might think, communities that are regularly affected by disasters, such as in Pakistan, often have better coping mechanisms and are better prepared to respond, than those even in developed countries, especially in areas where people simply aren’t used to events such as severe flooding, for example.
Question: If this trend towards more severe and frequent weather events is likely to continue, how are aid agencies, like the International Federation, adapting?
Answer: The International Federation has taken a number of steps in response to the increase in disasters in recent years. We have increased our investment in early warning systems and reinforced our contingency planning on a national level.
We have also scaled up our disaster risk reduction projects at the community level and we’ve doubled the size of our Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, which enables us to mobilize urgent assistance as soon as a disaster hits.
We’re scaling up the pre-deployment of relief items, such as blankets and tents, and increasing the capacity of our Emergency Response Units, which are made up of teams of specialists, who are on standby and can be sent to disaster zones to provide immediate help.
In addition, the International Federation is increasing the number of staff and volunteers trained in disaster response at the national, regional and international levels and focusing more of our attention on controlling epidemics, ensuring public health education and providing clean water.
Question: What role does coordination play in responding to disasters? Are aid agencies, governments and communities working closely enough to cope with the humanitarian consequences of climate change and severe weather?
Answer: Coordination is critical for effective disaster response. While aid agency and government coordination is reasonably effective for large scale emergencies, there is a need to adapt the focus on coordination for smaller scale emergencies.
More could also be done to include communities in contingency planning and risk reduction projects.