A planet of extremes

As the planet warms due to climate change, weather patterns are changing and in many cases becoming more extreme. Heatwaves are getting hotter, droughts are drier and longer, monsoons rains are heavier and storms more frequent and ferocious, while the rise in sea levels means storm surges are having a more severe impact on coastal communities. There are solutions, however. Ambitious global targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions could prevent further warming, while investment in local resilience building and disaster risk reduction can help reduce the damage and the human costs.

The adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction earlier this year, along with efforts such as the IFRC’s One Billion Coalition for Resilience, are helping to make preparedness for climate-related disaster a key part of both the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, also called ‘COP21’, in December. These global policy efforts, however, must be linked to national policies and concrete, locally-driven solutions. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has long been engaged at the global level and on the front lines, using a mix of new technology and approaches with older, traditional practices to reduce risk in communities most affected by our changing climate.


Plants that protect

Like many countries in South-East Asia, Viet Nam is vulnerable to storm surges, flooding and droughts that increasingly threaten the country’s verdant shorelines and extensive deltas. With some 3,260 kilometres of coastline and an average of six to eight typhoons annually, the country is ranked among the nations most affected in terms of fatalities and economic losses.

If sea levels along Viet Nam’s coastal regions rise between 65 to 100 centimetres by 2100, as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the impact on the coastal population, some 6 million people, could be severe.

At the same time, rapid population and economic growth, along with expansion and intensification of agriculture, wetland conversion and urbanization have increased the coastal regions’ vulnerability.

Rapid development of shrimp farms and other industrial and urbanization projects, for example, have led to a significant decrease in mangrove forests, which provide nutrients for the marine life that many local people depend on for food and income. Mangroves also protect communities from storm surges and erosion by capturing soil during periods of heavy precipitation and thus stabilizing shorelines.

For this reason, the restoration of mangrove forests has been a central focus of both governmental and non-governmental actors in the region, including the Viet Nam Red Cross Society, which has played a leading role in the efforts.

A recent evaluation found that these efforts have had a significant impact in reducing disaster risk and enhancing local livelihoods. Roughly 2 million people were indirectly protected through the forestation efforts, according to the report. By comparing the damage caused by similar typhoons before and after the intervention, the evaluation found that damages to dykes were reduced by US$ 80,000 to US$ 295,000 – savings which represent less than the cost of planting mangroves. However, total savings due to avoided risks in the communities at large were roughly US$ 15 million.

Meanwhile, the per-hectare yield of aquaculture products such as shellfish rose between 209 and 789 per cent, depending on the shellfish in question. Direct economic benefits of these and other activities were found to be between US$ 344,000 and US$ 6.7 million in the communities selected for the evaluation.

Photo: Jenelle Eli/American Red Cross

National Societies throughout South-East Asia and the Pacific region help rebuild natural protections from storms by planting mangrove trees and other plants that fortify coastal areas from erosion and storm surges. Above, a volunteer from the Indonesian Red Cross Society works in a nursery for mangrove trees. Below, mangrove seedlings are planted by the Philippine Red Cross. Grown trees planted by the Kiribati Red Cross Society line a beach front while in Viet Nam, long-time mangrove planting has paid off in the form of increased yields of shellfish.

Cash, seeds and training

Already the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia is increasingly suffering from droughts. In the north of the country, where tribal groups depend on crops or cattle, the Namibia Red Cross is helping people prepare by providing training and cash grants while they recover from the effects of drought.

In a country where 70 per cent of the population works in agriculture, drought affects hundreds of thousands of people. Crops suffer, pasture for livestock becomes scarcer and boreholes dry up, meaning farmers have to travel greater distances to find grazing land for their animals. Families also resort to drinking dirty water.

Working with the Namibia Red Cross, the IFRC responded in four of the worst-affected regions in the north of the country. The immediate need was to get food, clean water and sanitation facilities — water tanks, jerrycans and purification tablets — to the people affected. Water points, such as boreholes, were also repaired.

But as the southern African country is regularly hit by natural disasters, merely responding to crisis is not enough. Much of the Red Cross work in Namibia, therefore, focuses on supporting communities to take responsibility for their own futures. “The impact of climate change is very real and communities have to continually respond to changes in the environment,” says Kenny Hamilton, a British Red Cross delegate working with the IFRC. “There’s greater pressure on land resources so we have to make sure that communities have better access to water, improved farming or agricultural techniques and an increased understanding of the effects of climate change and how to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

Training is being provided to pastoral communities to help them manage cattle more sustainably, while seeds and tools are distributed to farmers who are also given information about more sustainable agriculture practices.

Households in tribal communities are also being given grants to enable them to buy breeding livestock or seeds, depending on the tribe. The cash grants mean people don’t have to sell or slaughter their livestock for food and can instead use the money as they choose, which in turn helps to support local businesses and strengthens the local economy.

Photo: Hanna Butler/IFRC

The purok advantage

As part of the Typhoon Haiyan recovery operation, the Philippine Red Cross is working to promote disaster risk reduction in some of the remote Calamian island communities in northern Palawan, the most westerly province in the Philippines.

Among them are members of the Tagbanwa people, many of whom live in isolated villages two hours or more by boat from the main island of Busuanga.

These tiny rock islands lack viable water sources and have to import water from the mainland. To help them better manage their water, and better prepare for recurring tropical storms, the Philippine Red Cross is sponsoring ‘learning visits’ by community leaders from the Calamian islands to San Francisco, a municipality in the Camotes island group known for its advanced disaster preparedness practices.

A tourist paradise, San Francisco made headline news as one of the very few places in the region to avoid a single loss of life after Haiyan struck in November 2013. The Camotes islands are also known for good water management.

“After visiting Camotes, the leaders and elders will have learned new ideas to have more water,” says Febbie Ann Motin, a Philippine Red Cross volunteer and a community member in Cabugao in the Calamians, where the Red Cross also offers sessions on how to keep water clean for daily use. “Nowadays, there is not enough water for washing clothes and bathing.”

This knowledge could be particularly critical this year, as meteorologists warn that the El Niño phenomenon will likely further reduce rainfall in Palawan.

Catalina Jaime, a disaster risk delegate with the Swiss Red Cross, which supports the programme, says San Francisco has become a model for disaster preparedness in part because of its use of a traditional system for managing local issues and encouraging self-reliance known as purok. In this system, members of the community group or purok are on the disaster front line, to educate, inform and warn people. Residents are prepared for upcoming storms and encouraged to participate in hazard reduction and disease-control programmes.

Participants said the visits were very useful because they could observe first-hand the relationship of municipalities with their respective barangays (districts) and see how they have organized communities at the household level to cope with disaster.

“For example, in Barangay Abaroan, the main hazards they identified are floods, so each family is mobilized to reduce the risks and the adverse impacts from floods,” says Lucy Joy Nery, a Philippine Red Cross volunteer and youth community leader in Maglalambay in the Calamian islands. “The community has also developed an early warning system in which the barangay captain knows the capacities of his community members to prepare for whatever might happen.”

Following the visits, Calamian leaders will receive Red Cross support to replicate San Francisco’s innovations.

Photo: Philippine Red Cross

A region bled dry

Nowhere on earth is the intersection between conflict and water more evident than in the Middle East. Even before the conflicts of recent decades, water use was already at unsustainable levels in many countries in the region.

“This is an area that relies heavily on agriculture and food production, which demands a lot of water,” notes Guillaume Pierrehumbert, ICRC water and habitat coordinator who has worked in several countries throughout the region.

Consider the case of Jordan. Prior to the conflict in Iraq and Syria, and the influx of refugees, water use in the country was already unsustainable. In many parts of the country, local authorities were dealing with declining water-tables, rising pumping costs and increasing salinity of groundwater.

At the same time, the water infrastructure was ageing and was unable to handle demand efficiently, according to a recent ICRC report about water supply in the Middle East entitled Bled Dry: How war in the Middle East is bringing the region’s water supplies to breaking point. The north of Jordan had the highest rate of water loss, as well as problems with water quality and consistency in supply.

At the same time, Jordan has absorbed an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing from Syria, which comes on top of earlier waves of refugees from conflicts in Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Some 80 per cent of Syrian refugees here reside in host communities, while 20 per cent live in camps.

‘Finding’ new water through conservation

“Much of the region depends on ageing infrastructure that requires considerable maintenance,” says Michael Talhami, ICRC regional water and habitat adviser for the Near and Middle East.

When looking to make more water available in arid areas, therefore, the answer is not always to sink another borehole.

“We can’t just work on the supply-side options — i.e., drilling more boreholes to extract more water. That would make the water crisis even worse. Wherever possible, we need to shift to managing demand and helping to conserve water, by reducing losses and improving the efficiency of the whole water-supply system.

“In North Badia in northern Jordan, this is exactly what we’re striving to do,” says Talhami. “By upgrading ageing infrastructure we can significantly reduce the losses in the system and hence make room for considerable gains in water delivery.”

Photo: Philippine Red Cross

A place in the shade

The sun in Paraguay’s north is often so intense, it scorches the earth, making it impossible to grow fruits and vegetables. Here, a resident from the village of Tacuatí Poty spreads a shade net for plants provided as part of an ICRC programme, carried out with the Paraguayan Red Cross, to help rural families cope with the area’s harsh climate. “Without shade, the sun just kills off the plants,” says resident Nélida González. Aimed at helping people affected by violence, the programme provides tools, seed and training, as well as wire, fabric and netting needed to create partial shade.

Photo: Bruno Radicchi/ICRC


What happens when machines can decide who to kill?

It’s the stuff of science fiction: machines that make decisions about who and when to kill. Referred to as “autonomous weapons”, they’re already in use to some degree. But as more sophisticated systems are being developed we wanted to an expert in the field about whether such systems comply with international humanitarian law and what it means for humanity to give machines the power over human life and death.

‘Wildfire diaries’ and radical change in communications

In this episode, we talk with humanitarian communicator Kathy Mueller who produced our first magazine podcast series, The Wildfire Diaries, about massive wildfires in Northern Canada in 2017. We talk about that series, her many international missions, and the big changes in humanitarian communications since she began with the Canadian Red Cross almost 20 years ago.

The power of storytelling

In this episode, we talk about the power of storytelling to inform and inspire. “Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of human communication,” says our guest Prodip, a volunteer and multi-media storyteller for the Bangladesh Red Crescent. “It inspires us to be a hero of our own community.” We also speak with one such community hero, Dalal al-Taji, a longtime volunteer and advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in emergencies response. “In disasters. persons with disabilities sometimes get forgotten.”

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