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How humanitarians must adapt now to climate change

Written by Jennifer Doherty

Image credit:European Union/Dominique Catton Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

People’s lives and livelihoods around the world are already being threatened by climate change in the form of floods, heatwaves, tropical storms and forest fires. These threats require immediate action and adaptations to the way we work as a humanitarian system.

While adaptation is one of the four goals of COP26, the goal of mitigation will likely get the lion’s share of attention at the Glasgow summit. Mitigating climate change is vital to help reduce predicted devastating effects for the environment and human lives. But for many people those effects are already a reality. Strong commitments at COP could put much needed momentum behind the adaptation agenda and – due to new research – we already know some of the changes that the humanitarian system should be making.

Based on a review of humanitarian action in previous climate-related disasters, ALNAP’s latest paper shares key lessons on how the humanitarian system can adapt to the effects of climate change. Multiple shifts are required across the system to organisational strategy, structure and programming. But several of these changes point to three common factors:

  1. We need to become more flexible
  2. We need to develop collaborative partnerships
  3. We need to have more meaningful engagement with communities vulnerable to climate change.

Why become more flexible?

We know that climate change does and will pose a threat to lives across the world – but the exact form and scale of those threats is harder to predict. We will see the climate-related disasters that humanitarian actors are quite used to responding to, but with new characteristics, such as increased frequency or occurrence in new locations. We will see disasters that we do not yet perfectly understand – such as tropical storms behaving in new and unpredictable ways. And we will likely see largely unknown disasters that we have no previous experience of, such as intense heatwaves or entirely new cascading disasters. The system must become much more flexible to deal with this level of uncertainty.

That flexibility can be added at multiple levels. Operational organisations can embrace decentralised decision-making structures to respond more quickly to changing local needs. They can also add stronger contingency planning and modification funding into their strategies to support programme changes as situations quickly evolve. However, it can be difficult for NGOs to make those changes on their own. Changes in donor practices are needed to support that operational flexibility by committing more funds that aren’t too strictly tied to individual programmes or specific project activities within them.

Yet the potential flexibility created in structures and policies will only be maximised if humanitarians feel empowered to be adaptive when faced with evolving climate threats. The START Fund has already begun training their managers to take effective decisions and commit funding as disasters occur. Both operational and donor agencies should consider similar ways of encouraging individual flexibility.

Why develop collaborative partnerships?

Despite that level of uncertainty, the threats posed by climate change are likely to be large, widespread and multi-sectoral. For example, tropical storms may lead to flash floods, landslides and diseases, while heatwaves can have complex effects on health and livelihoods. Humanitarians will need to work together with other actors to maximise resources, share skills and leverage networks. Collaborative partnership is needed in three main areas:

1. Within organisations to promote joined up thinking and action on climate change

Organisations with both a humanitarian and development mandate should encourage stronger cooperation between teams on joint analysis, programme design and implementation. Such collaboration is important for both operational organisations and donors. The Department for International Development (DFID) demonstrated this approach in Nepal by using a shared analysis to create a joint climate change and humanitarian business plan to strengthen resilience to natural disasters.

2. Across different actors working on climate change

Cooperation between humanitarian actors, local governments and academic institutions can lead to both an exchange of knowledge and a pooling of financial resources. One such collaboration in the city of Ahmedabad in India saw multiple organisations sharing their ideas on how to respond to extreme heat. Scale up of a heat action plan in the same city was also funded by multiple organisations.

3. Between international and local organisations

The importance of locally-led humanitarian action has been increasingly recognised by the sector – local institutions will be essential to responding to climate change. Not only can small local organisations typically make changes much quicker than larger bureaucratic international ones, but building on existing structures for aid delivery also supports sustainability. This approach can help even in conflict affected regions. For example, resilience and emergency work in Yemen by the World Bank and UNICEF used the government social welfare beneficiary registry and standards from the pre-war period for their interventions. Adopting a locally-developed system creates the potential for the government to continue the practice when a conflict ends.

Why engage meaningfully with communities vulnerable to climate-disaster?

Climate change programmes for preparedness, anticipation, adaption and response all need to be co-designed with communities. Understanding their varying needs, resources and social networks is essential to successful implementation.

For example, residents of informal settings in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania are more vulnerable to heatwaves than other city dwellers due to their low-quality housing and limited access to information on heat risks, but mapping their vulnerabilities and their resources enables tailored plans to be made. One such plan is to tap into their informal leaders’ network to share information on heat risks. Similarly, individual identity characteristics can also influence both risk and resilience to climate-related disasters. While Muslim men over 50 were affected particularly badly when a heatwave hit Sindh in Pakistan when they were fasting during Ramadan, women market vendors in Vanuatu showed great ability to adapt their farming methods in the wake of Cyclone Pam.

Engagement isn’t just about humanitarian actors supporting communities. By working closely with local people, humanitarian actors can also learn about useful community climate change responses. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, it was local indigenous communities who predicted it before official announcements by scientific institutions. Valuing that local knowledge and linking humanitarian actors to community information sources could help future anticipation activities. Indeed, learning from local communities and exchanging knowledge between countries affected by similar climate-related disasters will be increasingly important to tackle this global challenge.

COP26: adaptation should not be forgotten

If strong mitigation commitments are made and – importantly – implemented from COP26, the extent of climate threats we face in the future may be reduced. But for many people these threats are already their reality; as humanitarians we must be ready to respond by making adaptations now. Important shifts can be made by operational organisations and individuals working within them, but they need support from donors and policy-makers to make larger scale changes that will have meaningful effects for communities vulnerable to climate-related disasters. The COP26 discussions are an opportunity for humanitarian organisations to call for that support and for policy-makers to commit to prioritising more adaptation.