Red Cross Red Crescent Annual Report 2016: Addressing climate risk in a year of hunger


AS THE YEAR 2016 drew to a close, we faced what UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien would tell the Security Council was the “largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations”. Much though by no means all of this food security emergency was the result of conflict – in Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, three countries he had just visited.

But also on Mr O’Brien’s acute list was Kenya, with millions of people affected. Attribution scientists later concluded that drought there was actually fairly frequent and that rising temperatures may have added to the problem. The Kenya Red Cross, through its own work on the ground and messages to policy-makers and the media, emphasized the need to do things differently: not just responding after the fact but investing in resilience and acting on warnings.

With a slightly different humanitarian geography in mind, the IFRC said recently that the lives of nearly 20 million people are at risk in the Horn of Africa and Nigeria in “one of the worst hunger crises in recent history.” This will be repeated, our colleagues argued, without “concerted efforts to build resilience on the continent”. Said Dr Fatoumata Nafo-Traore, IFRC Regional Director for Africa: “As long as we have conflicts and do not take strong measures to mitigate the effects of climate change, food insecurity will be with us. As we respond to the risk of imminent mass starvation in Africa, we also need to invest in community-level capacities and systems, so that local communities are prepared for any future shocks.”

In short, on the ground in the most vulnerable parts of the world, 2016 did not end well; we have called it ‘a year of hunger’, and it was climate – both climate change and variability as much as conflict – that inflicted this suffering. The year started with the remains of the strong 2015–16 El Niño, transitioning to a La Niña that helped explain the drought in Somalia, for example.

And it is with community-level systems that we in the Climate Centre hope to make our contribution. Ironically, at the end of an exceptionally engaged and busy year for us, we allowed ourselves a moment of optimism as we believed we saw international action on climate moving forward; perhaps even gaining momentum.

The historic Paris agreement was not only ratified quicker than hoped, it also crossed the ‘55-55’ threshold that meant the UN was able to announce it was coming into force much faster than anyone foresaw. The first round of high-level climate negotiations after Paris, COP 22 in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, straddling the US presidential election, ended without major setback.

An op-ed argued that 2016 saw one of the first real examples of international action bridging humanitarian, development and climate work, in the form of the UN special envoys on El Niño and climate who presented for a blueprint for action, highlighting the need to invest on a much larger scale ahead of predictable crises. We also detected a much stronger emphasis on climate risk in development planning (the World Bank, for example, one of our key external partners, now integrates climate risk into its investments).

Last but not least, the year did see some practical, if limited, examples of climate risks being anticipated before they turned into disasters – an encouraging story of a bumper harvest from Kitui county in Kenya, for example.

As we entered 2017 it seemed clear that overlaps between climate action and humanitarian concerns are bound to grow. There is indeed increased attention, for example, to the interaction between climate, migration and conflict. But after a period of rapid expansion in 2015–17, and as several of the major global programmes we’re involved in, like Partners for Resilience (PfR) and forecast-based financing (FbF), formally move into new phases, we believe the Climate Centre is well positioned to try to address these challenges and contribute to solutions; all the more so as we move or expand in new areas like health education and social protection.

And we are doing so in ever closer collaboration with the IFRC secretariat, recently welcoming our new Geneva-based climate coordinator, Tessa Kelly, who will help our efforts contribute to the entire Red Cross Red Crescent family. We also intensified collaboration with the ICRC, including a presentation to Geneva staff on the Paris agreement and the way we believe climate affects the International Committee’s work.

In fact, in early 2017 we are looking further ahead still, helping to build scientific foundations for climate decisions for many years to come. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, is commencing work on its special report on ‘1.5 degrees’ as well as its next full assessment cycle, ‘AR6’. So the big picture now? Cautious optimism tempered by concern.