Opinion: 5 steps to tackle climate disasters during a pandemic

With IFRC’s forecast-based financing approach, 2,000 herder families received cash grants and animal care kits in response to anticipated extreme winters in Mongolia. Photo by: Mongolia Red Cross

When you start a new job, the first thing you must do is listen to people who understand the situation better than you do. As a new regional director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the Asia-Pacific, I have spent my first three months on the job listening to over 40 leaders of humanitarian organizations, from Afghanistan to Fiji. All of these leaders are facing challenges in their pandemic responses, in addition to other challenges like population movement and increasingly frequent climate disasters.

These leaders cover a diverse range of contexts. Yet when I have asked the question, “How are we going to respond to the humanitarian risks of climate events in the region?” their responses were largely consistent.

Each leader focused on the specific needs in their own contexts. But when consolidated, their answers offer a useful guide on how localized humanitarian work can help respond to cyclical climate disasters in the most disaster-prone places in the world.

Here are some of the top messages I have heard over the last few months:

First, the quality of the humanitarian response will depend on the readiness of the communities and institutions involved in the response. This requires investment. This observation is not new, but goes to the heart of the case for localizing aid. It also shows that humanitarian financing remains heavily biased in favor of international bodies. Many of our partners in Asia and the Pacific have grown beyond these concerns and rely on national investment for core funding. Fragile states and low-income countries, though, continue to rely on external support. The quality of this support determines their readiness.

There are good examples to learn from. The Australian government and USAID are funding an initiative called Red Ready, which invests in the legal, financial, logistical, and human resources base of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. More donors and partners need to support such localization initiatives as part of a long-term strategy to ensure a local response capacity is in place to address climate change’s humanitarian risks.

Second, the humanitarian logistics of disaster response need to become further decentralized, and merge with cash-based assistance plans. In recent weeks, we have seen successful local responses with pre-positioned relief as the Philippines and Fiji coped with their first big storms of the year. In India, local responders were well equipped to help their communities after the tragic landslides linked to glaciers in Uttarakhand.

Preparing for a disaster in the middle of a pandemic

When disaster strikes amid COVID-19, how can people be safely evacuated and sheltered?

Disaster laws are also helping to facilitate fast and efficient responses. Yet the more remote a disaster is, the more likely it is that there will be a delay in humanitarian response. Humanitarian leaders in the region have emphasized that even regionalized relief supplies don’t move fast enough for many disaster-affected communities.

At the same time, political resistance and a lack of cash-based programming are still keeping the fastest and most dignified options for support off the table. Leaders want to work on these issues in tandem: Pre-investing in local relief support, while also working with governments on supporting cash-based assistance.

Third, given that many climate events are predictable, humanitarian leaders want to accelerate the use of anticipatory financing to release money ahead of a potential disaster. This saves both lives and money. Anticipatory financing also allows people to take mitigative action. We’ve seen this in Mongolia, where early financing is allowing herders to keep livestock safe through a harsh winter, preserving livelihoods and reducing recovery costs. This funding approach also addresses risks of a slow supply chain of relief items by enabling prepositioning of stocks, especially in multiple-island states such as the Philippines, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea.

Fourth, there needs to be a fast and flexible funding mechanism for local responses to small- and medium-scale disasters. The START Network, Central Emergency Response Fund, and Disaster Relief Emergency Fund are key examples of such flexible, emergency funding mechanisms as the first line of defense against small- and medium-scale disasters. Climate disasters are happening more often and this is stretching the humanitarian system to a breaking point. Leaders underlined the importance of these financing mechanisms.

Finally, in the more than 400 climate and earthquake disasters that triggered emergency responses in 2020, all the affected communities were also at risk for COVID-19. The same goes for humanitarian responders. Leaders underline that all frontline responders, including staff and volunteers of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, need to be prioritized for vaccination, as a critical enabler of their emergency response work.

Faced with converging threats of pandemics and climate change, the sharp end of disaster response is far from the only thing we need to get right. There are more durable solutions that need attention. But for the sake of people experiencing extreme hardships, we need a global plan and solutions for improving localized, emergency responses. The steps outlined by humanitarian leaders in Asia and the Pacific provide helpful pointers. They are realistic, affordable, and, most critically, can save lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Alexander Matheou

    Alexander Matheou is the Asia Pacific director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.