A perfect storm is brewing - and we can prevent it

Wednesday, 26 July 2017 15:00 GMT

Rescue workers drag damaged cars out of debris and mud after a flood in Yongji, Jilin province, China July 17, 2017. CNS/Yang Zaixin via REUTERS

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Better ways of pinning down disaster risks can help save lives, but getting that change in place is hard work

As we move further into the 21st century, all indications are that we will not only see increases in average temperatures, but also more frequent and more intense severe weather, changing rainfall patterns, droughts, floods and sea-level rise around the globe.

Just this month, the city of Jilin in China was severely flooded and more than 110,000 people had to be relocated, with 18 reported dead. The death toll from flooding caused by heavy rain in southern Japan has risen to at least 15. Just last week, a flood at a popular swimming hole in Arizona killed 9.

This threatens each and every single one of us. You might have read all about it in David Wallace-Wells´ recent piece in New York Magazine.

But preventing new and reducing existing climate risks in order to save lives, businesses, communities and countries, is one focus set out in the Sendai Framework, the world’s blueprint for dealing with disasters.

To understand climate change induced-disaster risk, you need the effective deployment of climate and weather monitoring technologies. The data generated from this technology needs to then be used with socio-economic, biophysical and other data to generate estimates of risks. The collection, packaging and distribution of this understanding of risk forms the backbone of early warning systems.

Taken together these “climate services” can save lives from fast-acting storms, protect livelihoods and infrastructure, and work to break the cycle of disaster-risk-and-recovery that forces developing nations to take reactive – rather than proactive – approaches when bad weather hits. This cycle means that all too often vulnerable communities need to start again from zero, infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, and funds need to be re-allocated from key areas that show promise of breaking the poverty cycle such as education and health.  

Unfortunately, this is a step that’s easier said than done. The problem does not only come from a need for better suited technologies, it also comes from challenges to maintain the equipment and the systems that need to be in place to monitor and understand risks, or even overlapping systems that don’t fit well together. Moreover, even if we to get that right, another common constraint is, for a variety of reasons, resistance to behavioral change. That can lead to knock on effects including limited information sharing, a fear of new technologies, new partnerships and new approaches.

Paradigms are not easily shifted.

This is why UNDP is supporting an ongoing dialogue on “A New Vision for Climate Services” that explores a shift in technology and a shift in approaches to ensure end-to-end climate services and their connected early warning systems are easily deployed, affordable, effective and built to last.

The creation of effective early warning systems requires connecting any number of parties and sectors to analyze and distribute actionable early warnings that vulnerable communities can use to get out of harm’s way, protect their goods, and build more climate-resilient livelihoods. The information chain for an early alert extends across National Met Authorities, Disaster Risk Agencies, various ministries, executive branches, the media, and the civil society. With improved, reliable weather information, this information chain can connect diverse sectors to inform improved disaster risk governance, and ultimately, save lives.

Decision makers can use this information to transform the community´s vulnerability into resilience by offering capacities to coping with extreme events such as invest significantly in infrastructure projects for water, energy, transport and flood mitigation. This will strengthen local economies, lower migration caused by climate change, and help build climate-smart infrastructure designed to withstand the risks due to a changing climate. Private sector enterprises can also use the information to inform their own climate adaptation strategies, while on the community level, people can develop climate-resilient strategies to improve local enterprises and protect productive assets.

What´s more investment in effective end-to-end climate services is smart business. The projected cost-benefit ratio is regularly cited as five-to-ten-fold for every dollar spent on climate services. Think about this - over the past three decades, floods and droughts have already cost Zambia $13.8 billion, equivalent to a 0.4 percent loss in annual economic growth.

This said, investments in climate services should not just fall on the public sector alone. While early warnings are an essential public good and a key component of disaster risk reduction, private enterprises certainly benefit from improved weather and climate information, which can be used to avoid crop losses and improve productivity on the farm, support energy and extractive industries, allow for weather insurance, and build responsive business prepared for the new climate realities of the 21st Century. In 2016, droughts, water scarcity and stricter environmental regulations cost businesses a reported $14 billion.

UNDP is working to connect private-sector enterprises with public-sector institutions across the globe in efforts to create integrated climate services. Think about the potential. Telecoms companies can create another revolution by sharing early warnings and improved weather information to mobile users, energy companies and decision makers can make better investments in large infrastructure projects, and, of course, vulnerable communities can make more money on the farm, save money to send their kids to school and the local clinic, and protect against the spread of vector-borne illnesses.

By supporting climate and weather intelligence among vulnerable communities, we can work to reduce the cycle of poverty.

It’s definitely a smart investment. The challenge will be creating the appropriate enabling environments and connected transformative change needed to deploy, monitor and maintain effective end-to-end climate services. In the end, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction are inextricably linked. Improved resiliency on the farm, better decision making in the capital, and improved information sharing across economic sectors, all serve to reduce risks, take proactive steps toward disaster preparation, and avoid for humans to become an endangered species. 

Pradeep Kurukulasuriya is head of climate change adaptation at the Global Environmental Finance Unit, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, United Nations Development Programme.