54% increase in number of people affected by climate disasters by 2015 could overwhelm emergency responses

Published: 21st April 2009

Urgent reforms needed to outdated and unfair humanitarian system.

In six years time the number of people affected by climatic crises is projected to rise by 54 per cent to 375 million people, threatening to overwhelm the humanitarian aid system, said international agency Oxfam today.The projected rise is due to a combination of entrenched poverty and people migrating to densely populated slums which are prone to the increasing number of climatic events. This is compounded by the political failure to address these risks and a humanitarian system which is not fit for purpose. In its report, The Right to Survive, Oxfam says the world needs to re-engineer the way it responds to, prepare for and prevents disasters.Oxfam used the best-available data of 6,500 climate-related disasters since 1980 to project that the number of people affected by climatic disaster will rise by 133 million to 375 million people a year on average by 2015. This does not include people hit by other disasters such as wars, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.The world needs to increase its humanitarian aid spending from 2006 levels of $14.2 billion to at least $25 billion a year just to deal with these rising numbers of people. Even this increase in money – the equivalent of only $50 per affected person – is still woefully inadequate to meet their basic needs.“The humanitarian system works as if it’s a global card game dealing out aid randomly, not based on people’s needs. The response is often fickle – too little, too late and not good enough. The world barely copes with the current level of disasters. A big increase in the numbers of people affected will overwhelm it unless there is fundamental reform of the system that puts those in need at its centre,” said Oxfam International’s Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs.Oxfam says that the international humanitarian system needs to act swiftly and impartially after a disaster, investing money and effort commensurate with the levels of need. Aid is often given on the basis of political or other preferences making it unfair. In 2004, an average of $1,241 was spent for each victim of the Asian tsunami, while an average of only $23 was spent per person affected by the humanitarian crisis in Chad.The world must change the way it delivers aid so that it builds on the country’s ability to prepare and withstand future shocks. National governments, with the help of the international community, need to invest more in reducing the risk of disasters.And as climate change gathers pace, this trend is likely to continue to increase well beyond 2015. Rich countries must commit now to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global warming as far below 2°C as possible, and to provide at least $50 billion a year in finance to help poor countries adapt to unavoidable climate change.“While there has been a steady increase in climate related events, it is poverty and political indifference that make a storm a disaster,” said Jeremy Hobbs.More people are now living in urban slums built on land prone to weather shocks. More than 50 per cent of inhabitants of Mumbai, for instance, live in slums, many of them built on reclaimed swamplands. In 2005, widespread flooding in the city caused the deaths of around 900 people, most of them killed by landslips and collapsed buildings.Hunger is on the increase, caused by drought, population density and an increasing demand for meat and dairy products in emerging economies. People are being driven from their homes – it is estimated up to a billion people will be forced from their homes by 2050 due to climate change, environmental degradation, and conflict. And finally more people are losing their jobs due to the global economic crisis.However, despite their poverty, some countries such as Cuba, Mozambique and Bangladesh have invested heavily in protecting their people from storms. Following the 1972 super cyclone that killed a quarter of a million people, Bangladesh invested heavily in prevention and protection measures. The death toll from super cyclones in Bangladesh is in the low thousands – still far too high, but much less devastating. The experience of Cuba, Mozambique and Bangladesh shows that with sufficient help, even the world’s poorest countries can better protect their citizens.Oxfam also notes that while the total number of conflicts has reduced over the years, a number remain intractable. “Entire generations of people have been displaced three, four or five times, and know nothing but armed violence and displacement,” said Hobbs. More than 18 million people could not get enough humanitarian aid because of conflict in 2007, according to UN figures.Oxfam is shifting the way it responds to emergencies in the face of increasing climatic disasters investment, toward helping to reduce poor people vulnerability to disasters while still remaining a front-line agency that responds to humanitarian crises.“Climate change is already threatening our work to overcome poverty, increasing the pressure on an already-difficult task of bringing relief to millions. It is crucial that we tackle climate change head-on. We need governments to raise their game. The world must agree a global deal to avoid catastrophic climate change, stop the fickle way it delivers aid, and radically improve how it responds to disasters.

The humanitarian system works as if it’s a global card game dealing out aid randomly, not based on people’s needs.
Jeremy Hobbs
Executive Director, Oxfam International

Notes to editors

  1. Oxfam analyzed data from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at Louvain University in Belgium to make its projection. The data covered more than 6,500 climate-related disasters since 1980 and the numbers of people affected.
  2. The definition of people “affected” by a disaster includes those who suffer physical injuries or illness, as well as those made homeless or who otherwise required immediate assistance during a period of emergency.
  3. In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, global warming must be kept as far below 2°C as possible. This requires industrialized countries as a group to cut their emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. This commitment must be made at the latest when they meet in Copenhagen at the end of this year to agree a new global deal on climate change.