By Julian Borger
The Guardian UK – Friday 05 October 2007
Emergency relief chief calls for swift action. 12 out of 13 « flash » appeals in 2007 related to weather.
A record number of floods, droughts and storms around the world this year amount to a climate change « mega disaster », the United Nation’s emergency relief coordinator, Sir John Holmes, has warned.
Sir John, a British diplomat who is also known as the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said dire predictions about the impact of global warming on humanity were already coming true.
« We are seeing the effects of climate change. Any year can be a freak but the pattern looks pretty clear to be honest. That’s why we’re trying … to say, of course you’ve got to deal with mitigation of emissions, but this is here and now, this is with us already, » he said.
As a measure of the worsening situation, Ocha, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – part of the UN secretariat that employs Sir John – has issued 13 emergency « flash » appeals so far this year. The number is three more than in 2005, which held the previous record.
Two years ago only half the international disasters dealt with by Ocha had anything to do with the climate; this year all but one of the 13 emergency appeals is climate-related. « And 2007 is not finished. We will certainly have more by the end of the year, I fear, » added Sir John, who is in charge of channelling international relief efforts to disaster areas.
More appeals were likely in the coming weeks, as floods hit west Africa. « All these events on their own didn’t have massive death tolls, but if you add all these little disasters together you get a mega disaster, » he said.
The only one of this year’s emergency appeals not connected to the climate was an earthquake in Peru, in August. The others arose after an unprecedented string of catastrophic floods across much of Africa, south Asia and North Korea, and followed severe drought in southern Africa, Nicaragua’s category-five hurricane, and extreme climate conditions in Bolivia, which brought both drought and floods.
The Ocha appeals represent the tip of an iceberg since they are launched only with the agreement of the affected country. India was badly affected by floods that hit the rest of the Asian region in July. But unlike its neighbour, Pakistan, India did not call on the UN for help.
Ocha believes that 66 million people were made homeless or were otherwise affected across south Asia. The lives of several million more people were turned upside down across Africa. Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia and Uganda experienced disastrous floods, and Swaziland and Lesotho declared emergencies because of severe drought that reduced harvests by half.
The latest appeal from Ocha was launched yesterday, to try to raise emergency relief funds for Ghana, where more than 400,000 people are reported to be homeless as a result of flooding. Appeals may also be started for Togo and Burkina Faso.
« The flooding in Africa just now is the worst anyone can remember, » Sir John said, expressing frustration at how little media attention in the west was being devoted to what he terms creeping climatic catastrophe.
Flooding is likely to be common for a warming planet, and climate change has a double effect – causing an increase in the frequency of storms, while higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide curb the ability of plants to draw groundwater.
A climate-change summit is to be held in Bali in December, with the aim of agreeing the principles of a new international treaty to replace Kyoto, the accord that expires in 2012. But the talks face determined US opposition to mandatory emissions targets, and most climate negotiators doubt a real breakthrough can be achieved before the Bush government leaves office in 2009.
Sir John argues that whatever is done on greenhouse gas emissions, money has to be spent now on mitigating the impact that climate change is already having. « You can’t actually stop disasters happening but you can do a lot to reduce their impact and reduce people’s vulnerability to them by making sure people don’t live on the coast or river plains, and that roads are raised and dams are in reasonable shape. »
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is leading research on the issue, global warming will disrupt and potentially devastate the lives of billions of people.
And, just as global warming starts to make itself felt, there are signs that « donor fatigue » has set in. Of about $338 million (£166 million) requested for Ocha’s 13 flash appeals this year, only $114 million has so far come from donors.