Humanitarianism and climate change: Let's rethink the future

A woman carrying a child stands among rubble and debris in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines. The cost of global humanitarian action is set to keep rising. Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

At the recent World Humanitarian Summit regional consultation for East Asia, a survivor of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines stood at the podium.

Victoria Arnaiz-Lanting’s voice was breaking as she relived painful memories, telling us how the number of lives lost during the disaster had pushed humanitarians to question the effectiveness of preparedness and response efforts.

She called for international actors to do more to build resilience at the local level. They must trust local actors, she said, working with them to ensure that preparedness becomes a way of life.

As world leaders gather this week for the U.N. Climate Change Summit, Victoria’s words still resonate with me: “Don’t forget that the lowest common denominator is people.”

Over the next two years, the international community will get together several times to shape future approaches to climate change (Paris 2015), disaster risk reduction (Sendai 2015) and humanitarian action (Istanbul 2016). There has never been a more opportune time to reshape the way we manage and respond to crises. But for any strategy to work, we must put people at the center of these processes and create a cohesive approach to reduce the underlying causes of vulnerability to climate shocks.

Increasing humanitarian needs

The time for this is now.

Humanitarian needs have more than doubled in the past 10 years and are expected to rise further. In the first half of 2014 alone, 102 million people were in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and protection. This number is the equivalent of the entire population of the Philippines, or one of every three people in the United States. According to the recently released Global Humanitarian Assistance report, the cost of global humanitarian action was a record $22 billion in 2013 and is set to continue increasing.

The impact of climate change is recognized as some of the major drivers of stresses that break down resilience. Humanitarian crises occur when coping mechanisms fail in a catastrophic way due to sudden events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 or decades of cyclical drought and weak health systems leading to malnutrition in Africa’s Sahel region. In addition, there are increasing concerns that the impact of climate change contributes to aggravating conflict and insecurity.

Against the backdrop of global trends like climate change, urbanization, food-price volatility, water shortages and rapid population growth, humanitarian emergencies are becoming more complex and protracted. The recurrent humanitarian crises caused by the impact of drought, floods, food-price insecurity, water shortage, weak institutions and conflict in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan are becoming the norm. Humanitarian actors are finding themselves with a long-term presence in these complex environments. In some places, the same communities have been receiving humanitarian aid continuously for over a decade.

From crisis response to crisis risk management

Despite these trends and for the most part, the global community still assumes that humanitarian crises are aberrant events. This has given rise to an international humanitarian system that is not well-adapted to the demands of recurrent or protracted crises.

Humanitarian funding is struggling to keep pace with the growing needs. Despite record levels of expenditure, less than two-thirds of the needs outlined in U.N.-coordinated appeals were met last year. Humanitarian actors, including donor and crisis-affected governments, are calling for urgent efficiency gains. We must therefore rethink our approach to humanitarian action in our rapidly changing world.

“Don’t forget that the lowest common denominator is people.”

Echoing Victoria’s call, humanitarians are increasingly calling for a shift from crisis response to crisis risk management. Sadly, less than 0.5 percent of all international development assistance over the past 20 years was directed to prevention and preparedness activities.

In reality, the humanitarian system is not set up to address the root causes of vulnerability nor should it be responsible for doing so. It’s time to shift toward longer-term solutions specific to the local context, and involve and support crisis-prone governments and local actors where feasible. Development actors must step in where absent and step up where present.

The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul is an opportunity to rethink the way we plan for and respond to humanitarian crises. We need to acknowledge that not many humanitarian crises have purely humanitarian solutions. To meet the humanitarian challenges in the decades to come, we must put disaster and conflict-affected people in the driver’s seat.

We must also work together to create nuanced and context-specific solutions to strengthen local and national capacities to respond to all but the most catastrophic shocks. Although effective humanitarian response is critical, climate and development finance must step up to robustly support prevention and mitigation activities — and ultimately build resilience.

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About the author

  • Jemilah mahmood profile

    Jemilah Mahmood

    Dr. Jemilah Mahmood is the chief of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat. For her work in humanitarian response and peace building she has been conferred numerous national and international awards, and has been a member of several humanitarian international boards. She is a medical physician and the founder of MERCY Malaysia. Mahmood was the co-founder of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network in 2004, and the Chief of Humanitarian Response at UNFPA in New York from 2009-2011.