As I join my colleagues this week in Cape Town (South Africa), to exchange positive experiences on climate resilience at the 2018 Adaptation Futures Conference, I could be somber. The world’s premier knowledge event related to adaptation is taking place in a city coping with its worst drought ever. Signs at the airport, throughout the city and the hotel warn: “Don’t Waste a Drop!”, “Every Drop Counts” or simply “Save Water.”
Being from Kolkata, I have always been used to floods. Prolonged flooding typically meant schools and offices closed, traffic jams and a much-needed respite from the tropical summer heat. However, it was during a field visit to the flood prone northeastern border of Bangladesh, where rivers from India flow downstream into Bangladesh, that I fully appreciated the importance of disaster early warning systems and regional collaboration in saving lives, property, enabling communities to evacuate and prepare for extreme weather events.
Disaster early warning systems, along with other information services based on weather, water and climate data (sometimes known as “hydromet” or “climate services”) play a key role in disaster preparedness and improving the productivity and performance of climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture. Along with investments in resilient infrastructure, risk financing strategies and capacity building measures, they are a key part of a toolkit for strengthening disaster and climate resilience. Research shows that for every dollar spent on disaster early warning systems, the benefits range from $2-10. In South Asia, these are particularly important given the region’s extreme vulnerability to climate risks and staggering socio-economic costs arising from extreme weather events.
The year 2017 was momentous for Somalia, with the inauguration of a new president and parliament following a historic electoral process, and also the launch of a National Development Plan (2017–19). However, the peaceful transition of power was soon followed by the declaration of a “natural disaster” in the form of a prolonged drought that sparked fears of famine. By the end of 2017, 6.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and over 1 million people internally displaced.
One year ago, we did not know how many Somalis were poor and how programs and policies could help to reduce poverty or at least build resilience against falling deeper into poverty. We knew that Somalis receive an estimated $1.4 billion (24 percent of GDP) in remittances every year. But we did not know whether the poor received the remittances and whether they helped mitigate the impact of poverty. To overcome this dearth of information, we implemented the Somali High Frequency Survey and established a near real-time market price monitoring system.
The media, with few exceptions, have moved on to other topics and a sense of calm pervades.
We are in the eye of the storm -- that misleading lull before mother nature unleashes her fury once again.
In Sri Lanka alone, costs from natural disasters, losses from damage to housing, infrastructure, agriculture, and from relief are estimated at LKR 50 billion (approx. USD 327 million). The highest annual expected losses are from floods (LKR 32 billion), cyclones or high winds (LKR 11 billion), droughts (LKR 5.2 billion) and landslides (LKR 1.8 billion). This is equivalent to 0.4 percent of GDP or 2.1 percent of government expenditure. (#SLDU2017). Floods and landslides in May 2016 caused damages amounting to US$572 million.
These numbers do not paint the full picture of impact for those most affected, who lost loved ones, irreplaceable belongings, or livestock and more so for those who are back to square one on the socio-economic ladder.
Even more alarming, these numbers are likely to rise as droughts and floods triggered by climate change will become more frequent and severe. And the brief respite in between will only get shorter, leaving less time to prepare for the hard days to come.
Therefore, better planning is even more necessary. Sri Lanka, like many other countries has started to invest in data that highlights areas at risk, and early warning systems to ensure that people move to safer locations with speed and effect.
Experience demonstrates that the eye of the storm is the time to look to the future, ready up citizens and institutions in case of extreme weather.
Now is the time to double down on preparing national plans to respond to disasters and build resilience.
It’s the time to test our systems and get all citizens familiar with emergency drills. But, more importantly, we need to build back better and stronger. In drought-affected areas, we can’t wait for the rains and revert to the same old farming practices. It’s time to innovate and stock up on critical supplies and be prepared when a disaster hits.
It’s the time to plan for better shelters that are safe and where people can store their hard-earned possessions.
Mobilizing and empowering communities is essential. But to do this, we must know who is vulnerable – and whether they should stay or move. Saving lives is first priority, no doubt. Second, we should also have the necessary systems and equipment to respond with speed and effect in times of disasters. Third, a plan must be in place to help affected families without much delay.
Fortunately, many ongoing initiatives aim to do just that.
In East Africa and West Africa, about 300 million people living in dryland areas rely on natural, resource-based activities for their livelihood. By 2030, this number could increase to 540 million. At the same time, climate change could result in an expansion of Africa’s drylands by as much as 20%.
This past February, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta officially declared the drought in his country a national disaster. No rain had fallen for months in East Africa, causing a dire living situation.
Tribes migrated to find water and food, and we saw an increase in the amount and severity of conflicts, specifically between herders and owners of large farms.
In the cities, the situation is not much better. Nairobi’s main water supply is a dam which is currently only 20% full. The Nairobi Water Company is rationing water, and many people only have running water once a week.
Agriculture is suffering; the price of milk has risen from 40 to 65 Kenyan Shillings (KES) for half a liter in just six months. Maize meal, a staple food, has gone up nearly 40%, with the state recently announcing a subsidy for maize.
In the face of the Southern California’s semi-arid Mediterranean climate, compounded by several years of drought throughout the state, the region has developed local resilience through state-of-the-art groundwater management.
The State has long faced water security challenges, marked by physical water scarcity, increasing economic expansion, and reliance on imported water. Traditionally water-strapped regions such as Orange County are faced with the difficult task of delivering safe and sustainable water to more than 3 million inhabitants. Situated on the coast of Southern California, Orange County includes many economically successful cities and draws the majority of its water resources from the large groundwater basin that underlies Northern and Central Orange County.