When disasters, climate change and conflict collide: can the World Humanitarian Summit succeed where Sendai failed?

November 1, 2015
Katie Peters
A man in front of the pile of rubble that once was the Université Caraibes, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) involve policymakers and practitioners that, based on evidence and experiences on the ground, should be concerned with the compounding impact of climate change, disasters and conflict. There is an intersection of vulnerability and risk (from the ‘collision’ of disasters, climate change and conflict) and this is being recognised in the preparatory documents for WHS. What concerns me, is that the experience from Sendai may repeat itself in Istanbul. Let me explain.

For a year prior to governments signing the SFDRR, I worked with governments, NGOs and representatives of UN agencies. They championed and supported requests for there to be more explicit recognition of the need for action on disaster risk reduction (DRR) in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS).

Based on disaster trends, as well as experience from practitioners on the ground the rationale was clear: some of the largest natural hazard-related disasters (NHrD) (in terms of numbers of people killed or affected) have occurred in challenging governance contexts. These include the tsunami in Aceh in 2004, Haiti earthquake of 2010, Chad drought of 2009, and the Myanmar cyclone in 2008. Disaster response has been costly for those affected and raised questions about the lack of pre-emptive action in complex conditions to build the capacity of states and societies to manage disaster risk.

What is more, these aren’t isolated examples. Between 2005 and 2009 more than 50% people impacted by NHrD lived in FCAS, and for some years that figure was more than 80%.

And so the call to action in the run up to Sendai was this:

The successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action must do more to support effective DRR in these complex contexts as a starting point to building resilience.

It may come as no surprise that the links between vulnerabilities related to disasters, climate change and conflict in the preparatory documents running up to Sendai were loud and clear; in the Chair’s Summary, the Mid Term Review, and the Declaration of the 3rd African Ministerial Meeting for DRR.

Despite these statements,  in the early hours of the final day of negotiations in Japan, I sat and listened to the one remaining reference to conflict and violence as an underlying driver of vulnerability and risk to NHrD be deleted from the Sendai text.

Unfortunately this is not a unique experience. Explicit recognition of the interconnectedness of different types of risks and vulnerabilities is missing from many of our 2015 international policy frameworks.

While the Sustainable Development Goals for example, include references to conflict, natural disasters and climate, they lack the weight of emphasis needed on the connections between them. The latest COP21 text featured neither conflict nor migration, and much of climate change community are not aware of, or engaged in, either the Sendai or WHS processes.

And so despite quite a lot of discontent about the WHS process, I think the Global Synthesis report of the WHS has got right, where others have not, the explicit recognition of the connection between disasters, conflict and climate change (see Section 5.4 ‘New and colliding threats’).

I was honoured to speak on a ‘New and Colliding Threats’ panel in the Global Consultation and as a result a set of recommendations were put forward. But this is where I get nervous; we saw a similar process in Sendai but at the last minute the ‘rug was pulled from under us’ (‘us’ being the group of like-minded champions of this topic).

The WHS is being pitched as a potential game-changer for the humanitarian system, as an opportunity to ignite a new paradigm, and as a way to instigate more effective and sustainable means of addressing growing humanitarian need. This cannot be achieved unless the interconnections between disasters, climate change and conflict are realised.

So how do we ensure ‘the rug stays put’? Vocal champions are needed to ensure this stays on the agenda; from those experiencing the ’collision’ in real life, to governments, through to representatives of NGOs and UN agencies. The WHS is the product of its contributions, so our contributions must be loud and must be heard.

Katie Peters is a Research Fellow with the Climate and Environment programme at the Overseas Development Institute. Katie specialises in disaster risk management, climate change, resilience and conflict. She has worked extensively across Asia, the Pacific and Africa.


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