Why the climate crisis is a humanitarian emergency
Without drastic efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the humanitarian impacts of climate change will be far worse in the decades to come.
Climate change is not a distant vision of a troubled future. It is a reality of today.
Human-induced global warming has spurred a near doubling of natural disasters in the past 20 years. At least 7,348 major disasters occurred between 2000 and 2019, claiming 1.23 million lives and affecting 4.2 billion people worldwide.
In 2019, 34 million people globally were acutely food insecure due to climate extremes; weather-related hazards triggered some 24.9 million displacements in 140 countries.
The unfolding climate emergency is adding an additional layer of stress to humanitarian organizations that are already stretched thinner than ever before.
Climate change affects every corner of the world, but the impacts are felt unequally.
People in low-income countries are at least four times more likely to be displaced by extreme weather than people in rich countries.
Last year, Sudan was inundated by the worst floods it had experienced in decades. Eighty-year-old Bak was one of the many South Sudanese refugees in Khartoum who was severely impacted. He had been stranded in water for days until UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, came to distribute relief items in the area.
Bak said: “The water kept flowing for seven days until it went down. I could not move because I did not want to leave my belongings.” His belongings? A rusty bedstead, a few pots and plates, and a shed made of wooden poles with pieces of cloth.
People like Bak are the least responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions, yet they're bearing the brunt of climate change.
Climate-induced water shortages in Yemen give a glimpse of what the future may look like for North Africa and the entire Middle East.
In Yemen, years of conflict have already damaged the water and sanitation systems. Climate change further exacerbates water stress, leaving some 18 million people without regular access to safe water, which fuels poverty and instability.
According to the UN, if an area’s water supply drops below 1,700 m³ per person per year, the population faces water stress. In 2012, Yemenis had 140 m³ water per person per year. As of 2015, that number had dropped to 86 m³.
Globally, climate extremes and weather-related hazards may lead to more than 200 million people in need of international humanitarian assistance by 2050.
Climate-fuelled disasters have become the number one driver of global internal displacement in the past decade.
In 2018, a deadly drought in Afghanistan dried up riverbeds, withered crops, and displaced more Afghans than the Taliban conflict had displaced in the year, leading to “acute humanitarian needs.”
“When the harvest failed, I sold my animals,” said Mohammed Qadis, a farmer from Muqur District, Badghis, now living in the Muslemabad informal site. “The prices were way too low, down to one fifth of what they would have been a year ago. But I could not wait to sell; 20 sheep had already starved because I had no fodder for them and no water."
Higher temperatures have doubled the likelihood of drought in the Horn of Africa.
In the Horn of Africa region, seven of the eight rainy seasons since 2015 have produced too little rain or no rain at all. Severe droughts in 2017 and 2019 repeatedly wiped out crops and livestock, leaving 6.5 million children struggling to survive.
It is estimated that by 2040, one in four children will live in areas of “extreme high” water stress.
The unborn generations are the least responsible for the climate emergency, yet they will face the mounting effects of the climate crisis in the years to come.
Without ambitious climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, humanitarian assistance is and will only be a Band-Aid.
In March 2019, Cyclone Idai ripped across Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, devastating millions of people who were left destitute without food or basic services. Cyclone Kenneth arrived just six weeks later, sweeping through northern Mozambique and hitting areas where no tropical cyclones had been observed before.
Survivors are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
Before Cyclone Idai, Amelia Elias, a mother of three, had a business and was saving to buy their own place. “Life was good before the cyclone. Life here in the settlement is difficult because we can’t work, we have no means to live.”
In South Asia, climate change could push 62 million people below the extreme poverty line by 2030.
Between 2008 and 2018, more than 80 per cent of all new disaster-related displacements occurred in the Asia-Pacific region. This was due to mega disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, and the 2017 monsoon floods that affected millions of people in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
In 2020 a third of Bangladesh was under water, owing to an abnormally strong monsoon season intensified by rising sea-surface temperatures. Fortunately this time, anticipatory humanitarian action (where aid is given in advance of a crisis) was able to help communities to urgently prepare and protect themselves.
Climate change is an existential threat to humanity.
From Sudan to Afghanistan to Bangladesh, the effects of climate change are creating more need for humanitarian aid in the form of food, shelter and medical care. The impacts are unevenly weighted against the poorest people and those with the least resources to withstand climate shocks and stresses.
Humanitarian assistance can help address the impacts of climate-related emergencies, but a massive increase in global efforts is needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change, reduce the risk of disasters and curb the suffering.
In an environment where climate change acts as a risk multiplier, not only do we need more humanitarian aid, we need smarter humanitarian aid.
Over half of all humanitarian crises are somewhat predictable and 20 per cent are very predictable. Yet less than 1 per cent of humanitarian appeals funding is channelled to anticipatory action.
Extreme climate- and weather-related events are more common and severe, yet most humanitarian responses continue to be launched only after extreme weather events have already resulted in critical damages to the most vulnerable people.
We need to prevent extreme weather events from becoming humanitarian disasters through more effective disaster risk reduction and management, including early warning, anticipatory action and early action.
Keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5°C is a humanitarian imperative.
Climate change is already having major humanitarian consequences. Climate mitigation is the best form of investment in disaster risk reduction. Major and urgent political efforts are critical to help avert the most disastrous consequences on people and the environment.
At the same time, climate action must be inclusive. The most vulnerable and marginalized groups must be prioritized in adaptation, resilience building, disaster risk reduction, and emergency preparedness and response.
All Governments need to scale up their climate-mitigation ambitions while supporting climate adaptation to limit the humanitarian consequences of climate change.
Humanitarian agencies will continue to focus on saving lives, but we need to join with development and scientific institutions to better address the root causes of vulnerability and contain the suffering resulting from the climate crisis.