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OPINION: Climate change and COVID show why we must anticipate and act before crises hit

Wednesday, 21 October 2020 16:56 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Residents salvage their belongings from the rubble of a damaged house in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, in South 24 Parganas district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a world of rising risks, the best strategy is to invest in protecting billions of lives before they need saving

We are living in the midst of a climate crisis. Climate change is no longer a distant problem for future generations - it affects all of us living now.

Disasters related to climate extremes are on the increase: Over the last 20 years, climate disasters have almost doubled and 90% of all disasters - which have affected 4 billion people and cost almost $3 trillion worth of damage - have been related to extreme weather.

The effects of climate change are increasing vulnerability and the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance: In 2019, more than one billion people were living in countries affected by long-term humanitarian crises in the wake of natural hazards, conflict and forced displacement.

Of the 20 countries ranked most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to the effects of climate change, 12 are in conflict. And climate extremes have grown as a driver of global hunger and severe food crises. Last year, extreme weather events pushed 34 million people to the brink of starvation. Looking into the future, this will only get worse.

Yet, equipped with advances in weather forecasting and climate modelling, and faced with the clearest picture of increasing risk, we are still failing to invest in prevention. This can be seen around the world as land degradation keeps rising, greenbelts keep disappearing, and humanitarian aid after disasters remains the modus operandi for governments to manage risk.

Investing in disaster risk reduction and resilience can set our planet on a more sustainable pathway. We need to make better use of tools such as forecast-based financing, shock-responsive social protection, and climate-risk insurance programmes.

Activities linked to immediate assistance, and as countries rebuild after crisis, must be risk-informed to protect the investment. For every $100 spent on development aid, just 40 cents have been invested in reducing the risks of disasters. If this proportion does not increase, the rising tide of climate disasters will reverse development gains and increase humanitarian needs at a much larger rate than today.


COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on this reality. It has tested governments’ abilities to manage risks like never before and highlighted the failures of national systems to analyze risk and vulnerabilities, communicate risk information, and quickly activate delivery pathways for assistance to the most vulnerable.

The road to recovery will be long, but it also provides an opportunity to create more sustainable and resilient societies. As countries scramble to reboot economies and consciously make choices that determine our collective future, it becomes clear that we are at a pivotal moment in human history.

Humanitarian and development aid need to be better aligned to combine a strong readiness to respond to more extreme and unpredictable events with a decisive investment in systems and policies for disaster risk reduction. Climate-related security risks need to be considered alongside this change in direction.

We need to invest more in resilience and disaster prevention to ensure countries recover from crisis on a pathway to risk-informed development. Humanitarian actors can be strong partners for governments on this journey: They can help governments lay the groundwork to anticipate climate disasters and prevent predictable emergencies in the future.

On the ground post-disaster, there is no magic handover moment when the humanitarians leave, and the development actors arrive. These elements are all cogs in the same machine as opposed to distinct stages on the development conveyor belt.

In a time in which climate, conflict and economic shocks reverse development progress faster than ever before, a key priority for the international community should be to strengthen resilience through national systems for effective risk management – transferring knowhow on risk and vulnerability assessments, hazard early warning and forecasting, and anticipatory action – so that billions of lives can be protected before they need saving.


There is strong evidence to show that this is not only the most empowering and sustainable way forward, but also the most economical: investing $1.8 trillion in just five key adaptation areas from now until 2030 could generate up to $7.1 trillion in total net benefits. With regard to acting early before disasters strike, $1 invested in forecast-based action can save up to $3 in humanitarian aid.

With climate change on top of pandemics, conflicts and economic downturns, the world is becoming a riskier place. Governments need to be ready to face the heatwaves, epidemics, Category 5 storms and untimely floods of the future.

The path forward is clear. Today’s recovery agenda is an opportunity to hardwire the priorities of climate change mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction into national systems that are not yet fully equipped to deal with the grim realities of a riskier world.

More concrete steps need to be taken. Sweden has today announced its support for the Horn of Africa Partnership for Early Warning and Early Action with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the World Food Programme and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) as partners. A cell will be established at the IGAD Climate Predication and Application Centre in Nairobi to help operationalise a regional multi-hazard early warning system. Special attention will be given to flood and drought risk.

Now is the time to work as one, for a sustainable, resilient future. We need to seize this moment to build resilience from the ashes of a disaster.

Peter Eriksson is Sweden's Minister for International Development Cooperation.

Mami Mizutori is the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.

David Beasley is the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme.