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'Haiyan: the new normal?'

09 December 2013

Dr Mohamed Ashmawey, CEO, Islamic Relief Worldwide
Islamic Relief
"As humanitarian aid pours into the Philippines for relief and reconstruction, we must ask what is being done to better protect poor communities from the next severe typhoon, or flood, or famine."

In the Philippines the super-typhoon known internationally as Haiyan, is called Yolanda – the local name chosen by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA). But, Filipinos are also calling this ferocious storm something else that ought to make complacent policy makers around the world take notice: ‘the new normal’.

In a host of countries from Bangladesh to the Philippines, from Niger to Ethiopia, climate change is not a future threat but a current and real danger. By 2015, it is estimated that climate-related disasters could affect 375 million people across the globe.

The international community deserves considerable credit for the way it has united to pick up the pieces after Haiyan. But, as humanitarian aid pours into the Philippines for relief and reconstruction, we must ask what is being done to better protect poor communities from the next severe typhoon, or flood, or famine.
We know which countries are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, and the Philippines is among the most vulnerable on the planet. In just two decades Filipinos have suffered over 300 disasters - and the authorities report an increasing severity that is attributed, in part, to climate change. In an average year, the archipelago is battered by 19 typhoons.

So, do we write off countries like the Philippines as simply ‘disaster-prone’, and ready our emergency relief teams for the next Haiyan? Absolutely not: in the knowledge that climate change is driving an increase in extreme weather, we must act now to provide better protection against the impact of climate-related disasters.

Right now, Islamic Relief is responding not only to Typhoon Haiyan but also to an almost unreported tropical cyclone that left 30,000 Somalis in need of emergency aid. In India we are supporting communities that were ripped apart by Cyclone Phailin, just weeks ago. We are also responding to floods that are sweeping swathes of Sudan, and helping communities in China, Ethiopia and Kenya to cope with drought.

However, the climate challenges are mounting. In the past four years alone we have seen record-breaking heatwaves and drought in Russia and the United States, 20 million Pakistanis suffering the worst floods in living memory, and an estimated 230,000 people dying in East Africa’s worst drought for 60 years. The cost of responding to climate-related disasters is doubling every 12 years.

In countries with significant development challenges, recurrent disasters place an incredible strain on already limited resources. Scarce funds are being diverted away from longer-term solutions that could make communities more resilient in the face of calamity. In 2010 the world spent 23 times as much on emergency relief for the ten developing countries hit hardest by disasters as it spent on disaster prevention and preparedness. The overall support from donor countries for ‘disaster risk reduction’ is a mere one per cent of development aid.

If the international community is serious about eradicating poverty, this must change. With fewer resources to protect themselves, poor communities routinely suffer the most when disaster strikes.

For years, Islamic Relief has been delivering disaster risk reduction programmes in countries that are vulnerable to disasters. In Bangladesh we are helping people adapt to a changing environment by raising the level of vulnerable homes in the flood plain and switching to flood-resistant crops and alternative livelihoods. In Mali we are protecting the environment with tree plantations, and helping communities to set up cereal banks to boost their resilience to drought.

In the Philippines, our efforts are currently focused solely on emergency relief, as we work with a local Catholic organisation to distribute life-saving food, water and shelter. But we are determined to also help people ‘build back better’, so they are better prepared for future disasters.

Governments and aid agencies large and small need to embrace this approach, as the post-2015 development agenda is being shaped. Now is the time to significantly shift the balance of climate finance – which helps poor countries adapt – and aid finance, from relief to prevention. Disaster risk reduction must be embedded into all aid programmes. This can actually save money, as well as lives.

For instance, it costs $648 for Islamic Relief to protect a family in Bangladesh’s Gaibanda district from floods for five years, by raising their lands - less than the $713 in emergency aid the same family would need in just one month, if they lost everything in a major flood.

Decisive action is needed now, to prevent the world’s most vulnerable people – in the Philippines and elsewhere – from paying such a heavy a price for global climate change. We owe our poor communities the support they need to prepare for the worst, rather than standing by and hoping for the best.