Climate disasters hitting the poor

Posted: 24 July 2008

Author: Richard Waddington

In 2007, there were 950 natural catastrophes compared with 850 in 2006, the highest number recorded since the giant insurance company Munich Re started compiling annual disaster reports in 1974. How far this is due to climare change is unclear. But it is clear that the burden of such disasters falls most heavily on the poor who are least to blame for climate change, says Richard Waddington.

When cyclone Nargis tore into southern Myanmar in early May, leaving over 130,000 people dead or missing in its wake, it was a brutal reminder of the devastation that extreme weather conditions can inflict, particularly in poor regions of the world.

While no single weather-caused natural catastrophe can be attributed with certainty to climate change, such phenomenon fit with the forecast of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for more severe and frequent weather-related natural hazards such as storms, high rainfalls, floods, droughts and heat-waves.

Floods, BangladeshTrygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures
Floods, BangladeshTrygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures
Flooding, Bangladesh. Bangladesh could become inhabitable as sea levels rise, contaminating inland water supplies.© Trygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures
Coupled with sea-level rise, this will lead to more disasters unless action is taken to cut global emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, blamed for the rising sea and land temperatures, the IPCC has declared.

But amidst mounting evidence that the rate and intensity of natural disasters are already on the rise, there is also an urgent need to do more to protect the most vulnerable against the consequences of the global warming that has already taken place or will inevitably occur, scientists and environmentalists say.

Storm surges

"We are going to see more of this," said Salvador Briceño, director of the secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), referring to the Myanmar cyclone.

"We saw a bit of it in China. They had some very heavy floods after the (recent) earthquake that were intensified by glacier melt - something also predicted by climate change. Hurricane Katrina, fires and floods in Europe, it is all over the world," he added.

Climate change and the need to mitigate its impact and help poor countries adapt is high on the agenda of the 10-day World Conservation Congress, which will attract 8,000 experts to Barcelona in October.

The burden of the disasters, at least in terms of human suffering rather than financial cost, falls heaviest on those least able to protect themselves. And the sad irony is that they are least to blame for the fact that the world's climate is changing.

Poorer countries consume far less fossil fuels - key generators of greenhouse gases. Benin and Bangladesh, for example, are at high risk from rising sea-levels and storm surges, yet their per capita contribution to greenhouse gas output is one eightieth that of the United States, according to the British Institute of Development Studies.

In 2007, natural catastrophes in developing and emerging countries caused most of the 20,000 deaths recorded, with 3,300 people losing their lives in Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh in November.

"What worries us the most is the impact on the poorest countries which have the least capacity to respond to the challenge," Yvo de Boer, secretary of the Convention on Climate Change, said recently.

Billions needed

Under the 11-year-old Kyoto treaty on climate change and its hoped-for successor, rich countries are committed to helping developing states adapt to climate change through financial assistance and technical help.

Several funds have been set up. The largest is the Adaptation Fund, managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which is fed by a 2 per cent levy on companies buying carbon credits on the international market to offset against their greenhouse gas emissions.

Projected impacts of climate change
Projected impacts of climate change
Projected impacts of climate change.
But the needs are enormous. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has estimated that developing countries require between $28 billion and $67 billion a year to combat the effects of a warming world.

"Poor countries are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with women and indigenous groups being the most affected," said Ninni Ikkala, Climate Change Officer at IUCN.

"There are positive examples of local level adaptation, such as replanting mangrove forests that can serve as buffers against more frequent storms. But to implement these solutions on a larger scale, substancial financial support is required," she added.

Healthy mangrove forests and coral reefs, for example, can serve as barriers and prevent coastal erosion; a solid forest cover prevents flooding in times of heavy rainfall. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 30 per cent of Africa's coastal infrastructure is exposed to flooding, including coastal settlements in the Gulf of Guinea, Senegal, the Gambia and Egypt. The number of people at risk will rise from one million in 1990 to 70 million by 2080.

The IPCC has warned that Bangladesh is on course to lose 17 per cent of its land and 30 per cent of its food production by 2050.

Mixed response

But despite the pledges, the international response has been mixed, environmentalists say. Back in 2001, the international community acknowledged the special needs of the world's 49 poorest states, the so-called Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and set up a special fund to help them adapt to climate change.

International relief agency Oxfam puts the amount required by the LDCs at some $2 billion, but commitments so far total $173 million, of which little over $90 million has been dispersed. By way of comparison, $90 million is what people in the United States spend on sun tan lotion each year.

"This is the canary in the mine. It is the early warning system. If the countries reponsible for causing climate change cannot find the money to pay for the most and urgent needs in the 49 Least Developed Countries, what hope is there for them to voluntarily provide the money for adaptation across many developing countries," said Oxfam senior researcher Kate Raworth, author of a recent report on adaptation.

The threat to the poorest countries is exacerbated by soaring urban populations, which have fuelled uncontrolled occupation of marginal areas exposed to disasters, such as floods and landslides.

Reducing risks

Nevertheless, the tsunami that struck parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and eight other countries in 2004, killing over 220,000, acted as a wake-up call to vulnerable countries to defend themselves by protecting their environment.

The 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction laid out a series of steps all countries should begin taking, including making risk reduction a national priority, strengthening preparedness and building a culture of "safety and resilience".

Rich countries, including Japan, Britain, Sweden and Switzerland, increasingly require that assessments of exposure to natural disasters be carried out before they finance roads, power plants and other infrastructure projects. Despite a lack of resources, some vulnerable countries have already built effective early warning systems and emergency response plans.

Cyclone Sidr was more powerful than Nagris, but the death toll in Bangladesh was only a fraction of that in Myanmar in part because it has a well tested disaster reduction programme, said UNISDR's Briceño.

Vietnam is one of the countries most exposed to rising sea levels, with much of the country's population living in coastal areas only a few metres above sea level. However, for over a decade, the Vietnamese Red Cross has been leading a programme of mangrove tree reforestration along parts of the coast.

"The Tsunami was a big eye opener...but the problem is that the needs are far greater than what is being done," said Briceño.

Source: IUCN