New climate centre gives edge in Disaster preparedness

Published: 27 June 2002 0:00 CET

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre came into being yesterday in The Hague. Established by the Netherlands Red Cross, the centre will address the threat millions of people face from climate change related disasters every year by seeking to bridge the gap between meteorological science and relief aid.

The Climate Centre aims to strengthen Red Cross and Red Crescent relief aid programmes by making better use of scientific data on climate change and extreme weather. "By facilitating an exchange of ideas between the worlds of meteorological science and emergency relief," says Eva von Oelreich, Federation head of disaster preparedness. "The centre hopes to put the impact of climate change and the resulting natural disasters on the agenda of policy-makers and organizations in the field."

The first activity of the centre is the two-day International Conference on Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness where 150 meteorologists, policy-makers and representatives of humanitarian relief organizations will discuss ways of limiting the impact of climate change on the lives of people in vulnerable positions.

Scientists believe that extreme rainfall or drought arising from increasing global temperatures in this century will lead to more frequent and more severe disasters. Floods and landslides could threaten more people; crop failures could lead to an increase in malnutrition; diseases like malaria and dengue fever could reach places where people are less resistant to them.

An accompanying rise in sea levels could displace millions, especially people living on coastal settlements. These situations can exacerbate an already difficult condition for densely-populated urban slums with little access to resources such as safe water and public health services. People living in developing countries will be the hardest-hit, mainly because their economies are based on weather-sensitive sectors such as agriculture.

The rise in sea levels also threatens the very existence of small island countries like Tuvalu in the Pacific. Which makes a climate centre in Netherlands all the more relevant. As E M d’Hondt, vice president of the Netherlands Red Cross pointed out at the official launch of the centre: “Half of the Netherlands lies below sea level. We have a lot of experience living in a delta, coping with the threat of the sea and water running through our lowlands. Part of our political relatively stable situation and structure is due to the shared interest of all parties, ‘only by working together can we survive behind the dykes’.”

The centre also reflects the Red Cross and Red Crescent emphasis on preparing vulnerable communities to face natural disasters. Experience shows that adequate preparation for extreme weather can keep down both human casualty and damage to property. For instance, the implementation of early-warning systems by the Bangladesh Red Crescent has allowed coastal village communities to get themselves, their valuables and their cattle out of harm's way in time.

In his opening address, Jan Pronk, The Netherlands minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment said, "It has been proved that you can indeed minimise the number of victims by being prepared. I very much welcome this initiative to bring everything together to minimize the numer of victims of natural disasters"

Furthermore, building hurricane-proof houses and storage rooms saves lives and reduces the damage to disaster-stricken societies. The climate centre will advocate the establishment of such disaster preparedness projects by Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies the world over.

"The recently-launched World Disasters Report focuses on the issue of reducing risk. A considerable part of it relates to those disasters connected with the increasingly hostile behaviour of the elements," says Graham Betts-Symonds, Federation disaster preparedness expert. "The essence of disaster reduction is to find ways of adapting and mitigating the effects of seasonally occurring disasters, usually related to climatic change. The scientific connection of global warming and weather patterns around the world is well documented. This is leading to increasing floods, drought and harsher weather, threatening those most at risk."

Betts-Symonds feels that in line with the message of the World Disasters Report, there is much that the Red Cross and Red Crescent can do to reduce the effects of the "inevitable" through such initiatives as community-based disaster programming, awareness raising, risk reduction and disaster preparedness assessments. He says: "These measures can make a difference in the short to medium term. However, in line with the philosophy of this conference, action now is needed in new and different ways if a difference is to be made in the long term survival of our world."