Climate Change Now the Main Driver of Natural Disasters

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, December 2, 2008 (ENS) – Ministers from more than 40 Asia-Pacific countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur today seeking ways to reduce the social and financial impact of natural disasters in the region – many of them linked to the rising global temperature. The ministers are developing regional cooperation systems for disaster preparedness and early warning systems.

The Asia-Pacific ministers are meeting as half-way across the world in Poznan, Poland some 11,000 participants in the annual UN climate conference are negotiating an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions that will kick in when the current Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

Most natural disasters today are linked to climate change, says John Holmes, UN emergency relief coordinator and head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA.

OCHA today launched a campaign to raise awareness of the humanitarian implications of climate change, calling for improved disaster preparedness and response measures in countries that suffer most from extreme weather events.

“This campaign highlights our huge concerns about the humanitarian impact of climate change,” said Holmes. “Any credible vision of the future must recognize that humanitarian needs are increasing and that climate change is the main driver. We are already seeing its effects, in terms of the numbers of people affected and in the rising cost of response.”

“Improving our ability to respond effectively to increasing and increasingly extreme climatic events is now a priority part of our business. This calls for a systemic shift of attention, resources and expertise to improve disaster preparedness,” said Holmes.

From 1988 through 2007, over 75 percent of all disaster events were climate-related and accounted for 45 percent of deaths and 80 percent of the economic losses caused by natural hazards.

The most vulnerable are impoverished people living in risk-prone hotspot countries, where the risks from extreme climatic events overlap with human vulnerability

In 2007, OCHA issued an unprecedented 15 funding appeals for sudden natural disasters, five more than the previous annual record – all but one due to climatic events.

“So welcome to the ‘new normal’ of extreme weather. Climate change may well exacerbate chronic hunger and malnutrition across much of the developing world,” wrote Holmes in the current issue of “The Economist” magazine. “And it will almost certainly precipitate battles over resources.”

Labutta is one of the hardest hit areas in
the Irrawaddy delta region of Myanmar.
Houses were blown apart by Cyclone
Nargis which hit the region on May 2,
2008 at wind speeds of up to 190 kph
(118 mph). (Photo courtesy IFRC)

Data from the Centre of Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters shows that this year alone, more than 230,000 people were killed and over 47 million affected by two major disasters in Asia – the earthquake in China and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

The Asia-Pacific region is not only one of the most populous in the world but also, by far, the most affected by disasters in terms of human and economic impacts, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, UNISDR.

Salvano Briceno, director of the UNISDR secretariat, views this ministerial conference as a forum to make disaster risk reduction a priority at the local level and to mobilize more resources for implementing disaster risk reduction policies, which are vital to development and poverty reduction.

“This is a unique opportunity to identify gaps and bring governments and civil society together to fill them,” he said.

Every dollar invested in disaster preparedness not only saves lives, but can also save between $4 and $7 in humanitarian relief and reconstruction costs after a disaster happens, head of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific told the ministers. “With this level of returns, these investments may be some of the best bargains available,” said Noeleen Heyzer.

While some view climate change as a future threat, humanitarian relief workers are seeing its impact now.

In the last 20 years, the number of recorded disasters has doubled from about 200 to more than 400 per year. Disasters caused by floods are more frequent – up from about 50 in 1985 to more than 200 in 2005 – and floods damage larger areas than they did 20 years ago.

The worst floods in 10 years inundated Jakarta,
Indonesia Feburary 2, 2007. (Photo by
A. Imam Alka)

In a new report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned today that disasters linked to climate change such as cyclones, flash floods and droughts are likely to have a serious impact on food production in Pacific island nations, and called for urgent measures to adapt to expected losses.

The report, “Climate Change and Food Security in Pacific Island Countries,” finds that development efforts in the islands have been constrained by disasters.

As a result, these countries appear to be in a “constant mode of recovery,” says the report, published jointly by FAO, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme and the University of the South Pacific.

“Climate projections for the Pacific island countries are bleak and indicate reduced food security, especially for households,” said Alexander Mueller, FAO assistant director-general.

“It is critical to build resilience of food systems to avoid enormous future economic losses in agriculture, fisheries and forestry,” he warned. “Countries will have to assess how vulnerable their food systems are and how they can adapt agriculture, forestry and fisheries to future climate-related disasters. There is a need to act urgently.”

While Pacific island countries have already committed to a number of global and regional agreements to tackle climate change, the report highlights the need for a more systematic approach, with national plans involving governments, the private sector and civil society.

Mueller said, “Integrating climate change adaptation into national policies, strategies, programs and budgets related to agriculture, forestry and fisheries should become a major priority.”

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