Intervention by USG and ERC John Holmes to the Assembly of Heads of State and Government at the AU Special Summit on Refugees, Returnees and IDPs in Africa

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 22 Oct 2009
Kampala, Uganda, 22 October 2009

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues,

The AU Convention on Protection and Assistance for Internally Displaced Persons in Africa is a ground breaking instrument. One particularly notable feature is its emphasis on natural disasters and climate change as drivers of displacement, as well as conflict. Too often the humanitarian implications of climate change and the need for adaptation to the new, more dangerous reality of more frequent and intense natural disasters are forgotten as the world focuses on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In reality displacement prompted by natural disasters and the resultant food and water shortages promises to be one of the greatest - if not the greatest - challenge many countries will face in the years ahead.

As many countries, and indeed many of you, here today know from recent painful experiences, climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme natural hazard events, particularly floods, storms and droughts.

Recent estimates indicate that last year in Africa, there were 104 internationally reported natural disasters. 99 percent of them climate related. The number of people in Africa affected annually by natural disasters has almost doubled over the last 20 years, from 9 million in 1989 to 16.7 million in 2008. Drought alone accounts for 75 percent of disasters on the continent. Taking into account unrecorded movements and the challenges of identifying this vulnerable group, the real number of climate -related displacements is inevitably much higher than the 700,000 displaced persons officially registered last year.

The interaction of natural hazards with other global trends, such as population growth and urbanization, which are increasing risks to vulnerable populations, and the continuing food and financial crises, further magnifies the threat. Together, these trends are dramatically changing how and where people are able to live their lives.

Just in the past four months, a dozen countries in West Africa were affected by severe floods, with hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes and requiring assistance. Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal in particular have seen significant displacements due to the impact of climate change on the environment and coping mechanisms.

Although the effects of climate change are felt by everyone, it is inevitably the poorest and most vulnerable communities who suffer most. They have the least resources to adapt and in many cases may be the least informed about what is happening to them. Research in sub- Saharan Africa in the 1990s indicated that some 7 million people - out of the 80 million considered to be food insecure - used migration as a coping strategy during drought. And while environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of conflict, recent research suggests that a number of conflicts, including that in Darfur, have as contributing factors contested access to and control of scarce resources such as fertile land and water, involving communities that have lost their traditional coping mechanisms.

These trends are already of great concern, but all the scientific evidence suggests they will accelerate in the coming months and years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects climate change in Africa to decrease grain yields, increase the incidence of droughts and flooding, cause the extinction of several plant and animal species, and lead to coastal erosion and flooding because of sea-level rises.

Estimates suggest that a third of African people live in drought-prone areas and that around 220 million people are already annually exposed to drought - an extraordinary figure. By 2020 rain fed agriculture is expected to have been reduced by half because of shifting rainfall patterns, scattering millions of people across the continent in the search for new livelihoods. The Sahel region, West Africa and Southern Africa are likely to be most affected.

In East Africa in particular, the area of the region affected by drought is expected to double by the end of this century from 25 percent to 50 percent. In North Africa, available drinking water is expected to be reduced by as much as 50 percent by 2050.

Meanwhile, wet areas may well get wetter. Just recently, for example, meteorologists predicted an increase of rainfall in certain locations due to the El Nino phenomenon and warned that this could trigger massive flooding in several countries, which in turn will lead to large displacements of affected populations.

As the Convention rightly notes, internal displacement should not be regarded as inevitable. We must prevent climate-related displacement from occurring as far as we can. Otherwise the changes we are witnessing are going to result in displacement on an almost unimaginable scale, which would quickly overwhelm the capacity of state authorities and the international community to respond.

Nevertheless, entirely preventing displacement as a result of natural disasters will not, of course, be possible. Humanitarian response programmes, generously supported by donors around the world, continue to reach millions of those displaced by droughts, floods, storms, and other disasters, even if, on occasion we still face severe challenges of access to those in need. Timely and unhindered access is critical, and governments' support for this indispensable.

When displaced, these populations' vulnerability is further compounded by all the problems which accompany displacement of any other kind - loss of shelter, access to livelihoods, and the immeasurable psycho-social effects of homelessness and hopelessness among others. By strategically supporting livelihood programmes, in particular, African governments can help IDPs maintain their dignity by being in a position to support themselves, while at the same time mitigating internal displacement as a source of instability - which is clearly mentioned in the convention.

The preamble to the convention refers to a very African quality - the custom of hospitality. African families, often barely able to meet their own needs, have traditionally opened their homes and communities to relatives and strangers. These families themselves need and deserve support, not least because IDPs living in communities and homes enjoy better prospects of a normal life and protection than those living in camps. We don't always need new mechanisms or coping measures - African communities have had these for generations. What we need is to strengthen these with targeted help.

But in parallel to response, major efforts must also be devoted to finding durable solutions, facilitating voluntary, safe and dignified return, resettlement or local integration. This is an essential task, requiring significant commitment. But too often it is neglected. Too many of those displaced are obstructed in realising their rights, whether forced to return to areas that are uninhabitable or present additional dangers, relocated to alternative sites that are unsuitable, or left where they have been displaced with no efforts to provide or augment public services to support their basic needs, or facilitate their integration. This failure can have a far-reaching impact on a society as a whole, undermining national efforts for recovery, development and stability.

Nevertheless there are good examples all around Africa. Countries have already shown how disaster risk reduction and preparedness are a life-saving investment. Uganda for example has a strong IDP policy, an active national disaster risk reduction platform and a draft national disaster risk reduction and management policy.

The Government of Mozambique is showing how disaster risk can be integrated in broader government policies and planning instruments, and lead to real improvements in both the impact of, and responses to, disasters, for example the cyclones and floods in 2007 and 2008, where significantly less people were displaced. In Kenya, the recently established Crisis Response Centre in the Office of the Prime Minister is leading national efforts to prepare for and mitigate the impact of the predicted El Nino floods.

Overall, the first line of response to the rising effects of natural disasters is naturally at national level, through governments and civil society. But the other part of the solution rests at the international level, with the negotiators who will agree the next global climate change deal in Copenhagen later this year. The deal must include funds for adaptation projects, recognising that it is the countries and people that had the least to do with causing climate change who are feeling its most severe effects, and that it is the world's duty to help them.

Meanwhile, governments and those of us working in the development and humanitarian field must work together on how best to help communities cope with the longer term impacts of climate change. This requires a wider recognition of the need to act before disasters happen to reduce the vulnerability of communities and increase their resilience.

Africa already has an agreed agenda for reducing disaster risks and disaster losses called the African Regional Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction. It provides clear ways of integrating risk considerations into sustainable development, mechanisms and capacities at all levels in order to build systemic resilience to extreme weather events. Its implementation and links to this Convention must be a priority.

In conclusion, unless we all act faster and more comprehensively, the problems of natural disasters and displacement could overwhelm us. This Convention must be a catalyst both for information sharing between African states, the African Union, and international partners including the UN, on sustainable ways to prevent disasters from resulting in mass displacement, and for concrete actions to be taken at all levels to ensure its full implementation. The true measure of the success of this Summit and the Convention will be when we start to see a reduction in the scale of displacement, and more effective solutions for those who have been displaced - and above all an end to the enormous suffering that this has brought to so many people on this continent.

Thank you.

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