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Humanitarian costs of climate change unpredictable

A man in coastal Bagerhat District grieves for the lost of his loved ones in the wake of Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh in November 2007 Contributor/IRIN
New projections of the impact of climate change make headlines every day, but a report by a leading research institution has underlined the need for "meaningful data" to help aid agencies prepare for the future.

The report by a group of researchers at the Feinstein International Centre of the US-based Tufts University uses various models to project the likely rise in humanitarian spending over the next 20 years as the frequency and intensity of natural disasters increases.

But Peter Walker, director of the centre and one of the researchers, said the point of the report was not to say, "This is what the future will be ... rather it is to say, 'Stop making wild and sensationalist predictions and admit the real problem is that we have been negligent in the data we collect, and so have placed ourselves in a situation where we are hard-pressed to say anything meaningful about what the future will look like.'"

Natural disasters by number of deaths 2008
Cyclone Nargis Myanmar 138,366
Earthquake China 87,476
Floods India 1,963
Extreme winterconditions Afghanistan 1,317
Typhoon Fenghshen Philippines 644
Hurricane Hanna Haiti 529
Mudslides China 277
Natural disasters affect an average of more than 250 million people per year; since 1992, nearly US$2.7 trillion has been spent on international responses to cyclones, floods and droughts in at least four regions of the world - South-East Asia, India and the neighbouring states, East Africa and Central America - the Feinstein report notes.

The future is "inherently unpredictable", and aid agencies have "to let go of their old comfortable linear models of change" and become "adaptive, flexible, and open to acting upon feedback", said Walker.

The Feinstein report said the likely increases in spending could range from a 32 percent, taking into account changes in the frequency of disasters, to 1,600 percent when other criteria, such as intensity, were also taken into account.

Walker, a leading humanitarian studies scholar, explained by email that it was difficult to project humanitarian costs in the absence of more comprehensive existing data on disasters and spending.

Defining the problem 

Does “humanitarian cost” mean:

1. Total reported insured losses?
2. Total financial value of all assets lost directly as a result of the disaster?
3. Total value of all assets lost, plus income and productivity lost during the disaster?
4. All of the above plus the lost future earnings of those killed or injured?

"Which definition one chooses really depends on why you want the data," Walker wrote. "If you want to calculate the cost of the disaster to the livelihoods and future wellbeing of the survivors, then definition four is probably appropriate; if one wants to calculate some form of social welfare compensation to victims, definition one might be chosen.

"Or we could say that 'humanitarian' cost is the cost to the humanitarian agency," but this also sets up "dubious choices", he noted.

The cost to aid agencies

Is the cost to the humanitarian agency:
1. The financial cost of each disaster as reported by international agencies (the most commonly available figures)?
2. The value of what they appeal for (but often do not get) to respond to disasters?
3. The value of the international response, plus the national response (occasionally published), plus the spontaneous local response (hardly ever
4. The value of what the agencies would have spent if they had responded fully to all disasters?

''Predicting forward 20 years is a very short time in climate change terms; many scientists are reluctant to give any sort of prediction for such a short time period''
In the paper the researchers decided to use the international reported cost of humanitarian agencies responding to disasters. "But we hope the point is well made that we can say nothing definitive about how this relates to any calculation of the true cost of all disasters to those who survive them and have to rebuild their livelihoods," Walker said.

Finding the data on money

The next step was to look at past spending trends on humanitarian disasters to project future spending, but the researchers ran into various walls as they attempted to collect data from major agencies, such as those in the UN system and the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The spending on natural disasters in the UN financial tracking system does not always include the sometimes "considerable NGO spending, and is still a voluntary database and has big gaps in it", wrote Walker.

While the Red Cross had records going back to 1919, "we find they have changed the way they classify disasters on two or three occasions, so it is difficult to build a valid historical record," he commented in his email.

The alternative approach was to "build a model of how you think natural and human systems work, and then run that model to give you an estimate of future events."

Predicting climate

Having done that, the paper then looks at the predictions of future increases in disasters by climate scientists. However, there are three problems here: "Predicting forward 20 years is a very short time in climate change terms; many scientists are reluctant to give any sort of prediction for such a short time period," wrote Walker.

"Second, the differences between the maximum-change models and the minimum ones are large - we have no idea which prediction is more true," he noted.

"Finally, the climate models predict the extreme climate events. We then have to project how you get from a drought to a famine, from a hurricane to a hurricane that causes damage, from a flood to flooded homes; there are huge areas of uncertainty here."

Walker concluded that agencies have to "be more concerned with the rigorous and systematic gathering of data".

The report said, "Once better data is available, more research into the relationship between hazards, vulnerability, climate change and humanitarian response will be needed."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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