Climate and Calamity

Big changes in global weather mean rethinking how we respond to natural disasters—and we better think quickly

illustration of an emergency aid container in a muddy river

Stories about severe flooding in the Philippine capital of Manila were splashed across U.S. newspapers and other media last summer: people thigh-high in water, cars nearly submerged on city streets, water-borne disease a clear threat. It was yet another natural disaster with more people in crisis, and humanitarian groups were poised to act.

On the ground, though, Filipinos were ready. The floods come almost every year. Armed with one of the highest densities of smartphone coverage in the world, metro Manila residents texted and tweeted continual updates about conditions at the street level; a Filipino-developed computer program collated the messages, tracked the rapidly changing conditions and alerted authorities about where help was needed most. The army, the Red Cross and the municipal authorities all had agreed-upon roles to play and got down to the business of cleaning up the mess.

Weather-related crises—floods, droughts, powerful cyclones and hurricanes—are likely to increase as global temperatures continue to rise, according to climate scientists’ latest projections. But most governments and humanitarian organizations are not as well prepared as those in Manila. Even in Boston, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in late October, some scientists say the city needs to do much more to gird itself for dangerous storms and rising sea levels.

If natural disasters become the new normal, being ready to adapt to those changing conditions, as the Filipinos have done, becomes more and more urgent, says Peter Walker, the Rosenberg Professor of Nutrition and Human Security and director of the Feinstein International Center, which is based at the Friedman School.

It won’t be easy. Governments need to anticipate dangerous weather patterns and become more agile in responding when storms strike. Outside humanitarian organizations need to change the way they approach such crises—the standard tactic of parachuting in and taking charge just won’t work.

Walker is the coauthor of the recent Feinstein Center report “Climate Change as a Driver of Humanitarian Crises and Response,” commissioned by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, which outlines many of the challenges facing governments and NGOs and recommends more effective ways to respond. Drawing on the historical record of climate change, Walker says impending weather-related disasters will have widespread implications and therefore require more sophisticated responses.

“All the analyses show that in the future, we will have more frequent extreme weather events,” says William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at the Fletcher School and a longtime member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Generally, he says, “the wet places are getting wetter, and the dry places are getting drier.” The IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, noted in a report issued that year that warming of the climate system “is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.”

Climate change “is highly likely to generate the sorts of natural hazards that can prove disastrous to many communities,” the Feinstein report warns, including more intense cyclones, major flooding, droughts, food and water shortages and changes in the frequency and patterns of disease.

The effects of those fluctuating weather patterns are already being felt. The World Health Organization says that “global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140,000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004.” Most of these were due to diarrheal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue, which are “highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes.”

These impacts of climate change will hit poor people and poor countries disproportionately, according to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The cyclone that hit Myanmar in 2008 and killed more than 140,000 people, and the 2010 floods in Pakistan, which put almost a third of the country underwater and left 20 million people displaced, point to increasing devastation. “A long time ago it was recognized that climate change will have property-damage effects in the developed countries, and life losses in the poor countries,” says Moomaw.

Get Used to It

Climate change doesn’t lead only to sudden, cataclysmic natural disasters. Rising temperatures, for example, mean that malaria will likely spread into now-temperate regions. The above-average summer temperatures in Russia last year, for example, led to many more fires than usual, damaging the wheat crop. Grain yields fell, and shortages hit the global grain market. The ensuing price increases led to political instability in a number of countries; many feared a repeat of the 2009 food riots that hit 61 countries.

"Unless agriculture adapts very quickly to climate change in Africa, there will be widespread malnutrition," says Peter Walker. Illustration: Holly Lindem"Unless agriculture adapts very quickly to climate change in Africa, there will be widespread malnutrition," says Peter Walker. Illustration: Holly Lindem
In its 2007 report, the IPCC examined the potential effects of rising temperatures worldwide and found that for Africa, rain-fed agricultural yields could drop by up to 50 percent in just the next eight years. “Unless agriculture adapts very quickly in Africa, there will be widespread malnutrition,” Walker says. That’s even more likely given the increasing commodification of food, as speculators bid up prices worldwide.

Climate change, in other words, isn’t just about hurricanes and other bad weather. The consequences are going to be more far-reaching than most people anticipate. The more governments and others are aware of that, Walker says, the wiser their responses will be.

Until recently, crisis was an abnormal state, and natural disasters were an exception. In the future, Walker says, calamities could become routine. That’s a significant change, and one that goes against the grain of how governments and aid agencies think and work.

“Our field experience tells us that there’s a difference between communities that are hit unexpectedly by one-off disasters and struggle, and communities that have grown used to a pattern of disasters,” says Walker. “If you know that on average, every third year you’re going to get whacked by a flood, you adapt.” Such was the case in Manila.

But some communities face an escalating pattern of disasters, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t keep up. The Horn of Africa, for instance, is now experiencing a recurring pattern of droughts and subsequent crop failures. Somalia and Ethiopia have seen ongoing humanitarian crises in the last several decades, with little letup in sight. “Those are the ones that worry you,” says Walker, who worked for aid organizations in Africa for several decades before coming to Tufts in 2002. “And of course, climate change has the potential to push a number of countries in that direction.”

The humanitarian aid system typically operates by having outsiders come in and fix immediate problems. However, that interventionist reaction to periodic crises is increasingly unrealistic. “I think the whole one-off response approach is wrong,” says John Hammock, F68, F71, an associate professor of public policy at the Fletcher School and an adjunct professor at the Friedman School. “We have to respond—things happen, no doubt about it. But the best way to deal with them is to do it before they happen.”

Hammock speaks from firsthand experience. He led Oxfam America, an international aid agency that provides development assistance to poorer countries, from 1984 to 1995. “I think that the best kind of humanitarian aid is to be prepared, to get people prepared for eventualities that are going to happen,” he says. The best way to bring about change, he adds, is a long-term commitment to help a country develop its resources.

He cites an example closer to home: the San Francisco Bay Area. Californians realize that at some point, a major earthquake will happen, so communities hold regular meetings about what to do in case of emergency. “They know what their vulnerabilities are, and they are prepared to deal with them,” Hammock says.

One way to address the need for better planning is to have a steady presence on the ground, working with local governments and aid organizations. Hammock cites the case of Action Aid, which was involved in development work in Burundi before the genocide in 1993. During the war, agency workers fled the country, but when they got back, they had a much better understanding of the local situation than other people coming in, having worked with Burundians of all backgrounds before the war.

“It’s a lot easier if you’re not flying in by night to help these people,” Hammock says. “Let’s be there to facilitate a development process of change.” Often, the best solutions are found among the people living with the crisis, not the outside experts. “It has to be the local system that is in charge and is running this,” with the aid agencies providing only support, Walker says. In theory, that’s the way it’s supposed to work—the United Nations is very clear that outsiders are guests—but the reality is different.

“We have to learn how to trust people, and listen to people who are poor,” says Hammock. “We treat them as victims, and we treat them as helpless. We don’t have all the answers. People have to have their own answers. We need to build on those and not come in with our own preconceived solutions.”

Agile Adaptation

Climate change isn’t the only aspect of the world that’s in flux, of course. It is one element in a mix of often unpredictable conditions. For starters, the world’s population keeps growing, and more people are living in cities than ever before. In China, for example, more people have moved from the countryside to cities in the past 30 years than at any time in history—often to coastal cities prone to storms and flooding.

“The picture of famine and flood is almost always rural,” Walker says. “Humanitarian agencies have less understanding of how to work in urban areas.” And then there’s economic globalization, which affects the cost of food, with prices of basic commodities like rice and corn increasingly at the whim of market speculators. It all means “a much less predictable future,” Walker says.

Because of that, governments have to be quicker to adapt—which is no easy task. Most are built on the assumption of slow, steady, incremental change, which is just the opposite of what they may soon be facing. “Agile adaptation is what’s going to get you through this,” Walker says. The question, he says, is “how you get these elephants to dance?”

Adaptation is possible, though. Consider Mozambique, in southeastern Africa. “Ten years ago it was a wreck, with massive floods, and most of the response was international,” Walker says. Today the Mozambique authorities do a yearly contingency plan for what-ifs. It is done in collaboration with international agencies, but led by Mozambique. The government holds simulation exercises, going right down to the village level to practice for emergencies and expose the weak points in the response systems.

In Indonesia, the tsunami of 2004 hit and killed more than 130,000 people. Much of the response was international, but now disaster planning is handled by the national government. “It’s turned around,” Walker says. Change like that is impressive, but often it seems it’s more outlier than standard practice. “It’s like wrestling treacle,” Walker says. “How do you get at the things that need to change?”

The experience with the floods in Manila offers up a clue: Usually government at the local level is most responsive. While national governments in many poorer countries are often less than accountable to their citizens, local governments often respond more quickly, Walker says.

A new study published in November by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research makes a dire prediction: Based on the latest data and modeling, they suspect temperatures could increase by 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the century’s end, the high end of previous projections. If so, sea levels would rise dramatically, coastlines would be swamped, and weather patterns would be even more extreme. John Holdren, the senior science adviser to President Obama, has said that we have three choices in dealing with climate change: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. Unless governments learn the hard lessons like those in Manila, there will indeed be more suffering.

As the Feinstein report notes, “Business as usual cannot be expected to work in such unusual times.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

Back to Top