World

Under Pressure: Reducing disaster risk and enhancing US emergency response capacity in an era of climate change

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With disasters—and particularly climate-related disasters—on the rise, the global humanitarian response system is under increased pressure to assist growing numbers of people. The US government is the leading global player in this system. The US approach seeks to encompass a broad range of activities and allow humanitarian agencies flexibility in their missions and response. However, as a result, the myriad interconnected US agencies involved—civilian and sometimes military—are without clear leadership and mission, beholden to various legislative constraints, and focused more on disaster response than on proactive disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Disaster data through 2007 indicate increases in the frequency of climate-related disasters, the damage caused, and the number of people affected. On average, during 1998–2007, disasters affected 250 million people a year, with 98 percent affected by climate-related disasters. In 2007, the global humanitarian community spent $700 million (10 percent of all humanitarian assistance) in response to "natural hazard disasters." Oxfam research projects that, with business as usual, climate-related disasters will affect 375 million people a year by 2015. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most vulnerable regions are Africa and South Asia, where hunger and poverty are already heavily concentrated.

As climate disasters increase in frequency and intensity, the impacts of climate change on food and water security, human health, vulnerability, migration patterns, and conflict potential will likely create increased humanitarian need. If developing-country governments and communities, who are the first responders to these impacts, fail to become more resilient, they may call more frequently upon international disaster responders. Additionally, if a state tips from vulnerability into instability, the presence of a security situation will have implications for the US government. Humanitarian organizations could face a staggering challenge in the coming years, with 634 million people—nearly onetenth of the world's current population—living in at-risk coastal areas and 2 billion living in arid regions expected to become severely water-stressed.