Is aid without climate adaptation a waste of time?

Climate disaster

Climate change is exacerbating problems that NGOs are already dealing with

Aid agencies are well resourced and quick to act, but not enough of them appear to be using their power to tackle the long term problems posed by climate change. Tom Levitt reports

Aid agencies are first on the scene of many of the world's trouble spots, and often play a huge role in helping communities get back on their feet.

But many of these areas, notably West Africa and South-East Asia, are also on the front line of climate change, more vulnerable than most to climatic extremes.

So when the aid agency boats, planes and trucks pull up at a disaster zone, shouldn't their staff also have a responsibility to think about the impact of climate change on the adaptations they hope to put in place?

Climate change silence

Unfortunately, there seem to be plenty of examples of aid agencies undertaking humanitarian work which does not take climate impacts into account.

International medical aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, admits to having no in-house climate experts or any organisation-wide plan on climate change, although one employee said that this may change with the recent Lancet publication on human health and climate change.

Save the Children, working in the Kroo Bay slum area of Freetown, Sierra Leone, has told members of the Atlantic Rising project researching sea-level rise in the area they did not want them to meet local participants in their project because it would add to their list of worries.

This, points out Tim Bromfield from the project, is despite flooding in Kroo Bay perennially destroying the slum as a result of factors related to climate change, including intensity of rainfall, storm surges and deforestation in the hills causing increased run-off.

‘Climate change is exacerbating problems that NGOs are already dealing with, and yet considerations of climate change are rarely built into projects,’ says Bromfield. ‘NGOs that seem to be best [in West Africa] already have an environmental focus'.

Megan Rowling, a journalist at AlertNet, a humanitarian news website run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has produced a graph showing the year NGOs started working on climate change, plotted against how far they were judged to have reached, in terms of action on integrating it into their work, as of 2008.

NGOs and climate change

However Rowling remains somewhat sympathic to agencies like Save the Children, which seem reluctant to engage local communities with issues surrounding climate change. She says the group may fear that highlighting such information could change behaviour for the worse.

‘It could bring a sense of inevitability. An attitude of "we might as well not bother trying to preserve our natural environment but extract as much as possible before it is destroyed".’

A way forward?

Another excuse given more widely by humanitarian agencies is that they have to react to rapid onset disasters, such as the earthquake that struck Haiti earlier this month, rather than working on longer-term development goals.

However, some NGOs have been amending an existing emergency relief strategy, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), to integrate climate science into their work.

DRR uses past events to help the community become more resilient to them in the future. Integrating climate science in DRR plans involves taking account of future predictions for a given area, such as flooding or sea level rises.

‘DRR enables humanitarian agencies to extend the time horizon and to mitigate rather than just respond,' says Dr. Mike Edwards, climate change programme development officer CAFOD.

He adds that in the long-term, effective use of DRR could reduce the scale of emergency relief required. According to the UN, $1 spent on DRR in developing countries saves $7 in economic losses.


Haiti is an illustrative example. The earthquake may have been a rare, non-climatic event but the country was ranked 6th in a recent climate risk list and is predicted to suffer intense climatic events such as hurricanes and flash floods more often in the future.

Bob Hansford, a Disaster Risk Reduction advisor at Tearfund, has been briefing staff working in the country on climatic issues. With virtually all Haiti's forest cover destroyed, he has warned staff to be aware of where there is a risk of future flash flooding and slope erosion.

Haiti'DRR tends to look back to past events, but climate change is often about looking at predictions and convincing people that they need to consider something they have not experienced before,' he said.

Hansford has also been briefing staff about issues such as sustainable building supplies, not using up the remaining timber on the island or worsening deforestation in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, instead considering alternative solutions such as stabilised soil blocks.

However, he admits there is no guarantee other humanitarian relief groups will be thinking through the same issues.

'I can only flag it up with our team members and hope they follow it up with other people when issues like where to drill a borehole are discussed between NGOs and UN bodies,' he said.

Long-term thinking

Emma Visman, a researcher at the Humanitarian Futures Programme, which helps aid agencies prepare for future threats, says it is vital that the other aid agencies do not ignore climate change.
'The huge resources available during disaster responses are only there for a short time and offer an important opportunity to adapt, rather than 'reconstruct' the vulnerabilities which existed prior to the disaster.

‘The resources won't be there in ten years but the boreholes and buildings might well be…and might well no longer be appropriate for the changing environment,’ she says.

Despite these arguments, funding and support for DRR is still difficult. Megan Rowling says its lower profile and longer-term nature does not generally win much attention for donors, unlike responding to an immediate disaster.

Poor forecasting

Another problem faced by all NGOs when trying to integrate climate science into their programmes is that in many cases the climate forecasting is simply not available.

Dr Natasha Grist, from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and previously a researcher at the Tyndall Centre, says the gap is a barrier.

‘It is very difficult for NGOs looking at 5-10 years of planning as there is very little information’.
Kroo Bay
She says in some cases, such as the Burkina Faso floods last year, they might have been predicted by climate forecasters but the predictions would never have been as bad as the events turned out.

‘There is no way an NGO could prepare for that level of flooding when the forecast science is so unclear,' she says.

According to analysts, that lack of accurate forecasting for the less industrialised world is unlikely to change.

The UK Collaborative for Development Science (UKCDS) is publishing a report on the direction of climate research in March 2010. Co-author Andree Carter says the UK for one is investing in global and UK models but not in models for less industrialised nations at the local coastal and city-level where it is needed.

Rachel Berger, from Practical Action, says the lack of immediate, short-term forecasts is forcing them to work longer-term on increasing general resilience to climatic extremes.

Bottom-up integration

It may be that in the short-term the best forecasting comes from the local communities themselves.

Ian Thorpe, from Pump Aid, which provides access to clean water, says that NGOs can avoid falling into the trap of designing 'one-solution-fits all' approaches by developing location-specific, localised projects.

Dr Edwards says CAFOD has been using local indigenous knowledge in Bolivia, such as recording the time of seasons and changing bird migrations, in the hope that it can provide an early warning of climatic changes.

Megan Rowling says this kind of bottom-up approach could see aid agencies initiating positive climate change action.

'It helps build up evidence of climate change, giving it a human face, making connections with people’s lives and inspiring stronger political action.

‘It also offers a chance for aid agencies to forge an environmentally sustainable development vision,’ she said.

Useful links

Climate change adaptation in practice - Oxfam resource
Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) - Oxfam resource
Global Climate risk map
Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction
International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

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