01 March 2017

Climate-induced humanitarian settings: the impacts on health and wellbeing

22 February 2017 | New York—At the third panel in the series on the humanitarian dimension of women’s, children’s, and adolescents’ health, the UAE and Norway turned the spotlight on climate change as a rapidly growing driver of health crises.  Gender, age, health, crisis, and climate are now widely understood to form a nexus, underscored daily by both small and large, short-term and long-term manifestations around the world.  The nexus will require shifts in funding and programming from both humanitarian and development actors.


Looking at three main climate-linked drivers in humanitarian settings—(1) harsher and erratic weather, (2) the spread of disease, and (3) food insecurity, political instability, and migration—the panel aimed to outline both the changing scope of health needs for women, children and adolescents, as well as impactful solutions that can holistically address the nexus.  The panel was moderated by H.R.H. Princess Sarah Zeid, Co-Chair of Every Woman Every Child Everywhere, the platform that extends the Every Woman Every Child Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health to humanitarian and fragile settings.


H.E. Lana Nusseibeh, Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations, highlighted that the nexus is now crystal-clear, citing recent examples from East Africa, Bangladesh, Lake Chad, and disease outbreaks.  She said that donors must take responsibility to shift funding toward preventative efforts in regions of high climate-risk, and that they must be supported by strong campaigning from the UN, at-risk countries, and NGOs for prevention.  She added that development and humanitarian actors must also ensure that staffing, reporting lines, and budgeting reflect the nexus, or else it would not be effectively mainstreamed in planning and response.  She labelled climate mitigation as the “elephant in the room”—and the single biggest contribution countries can make to eventually reducing the impact of climate on health.  She emphasized that the UAE recognizes the need for continued ambition beyond its new energy strategy, which calls for a 70% drop in GHG emissions by 2050.


H.E. Geir O. Pedersen, Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations, stressed that achievement of the SDG agenda will depend on reaching women, children and adolescents in humanitarian settings, who are at a high risk of being “left behind.”  He agreed that climate is now a major contributor to humanitarian situations, and often strikes countries that are least able to manage, with downstream implications for refugees and migration (estimates range from 50 to over 250 million climate refugees if Paris targets are not reached).  Climate change therefore underscores the need to bridge the humanitarian-development divide and move funding toward prevention, which he saw as more of a bureaucratic than political challenge.  The nexus also requires swift and full implementation of the Paris Agreement.  He emphasized that where donors can strengthen national health systems, results are best, evidenced by Ethiopia’s relative resilience during the recent El Niño occurrence.


H.R.H Princess Sarah Zeid, Co-Chair of Every Woman Every Child Everywhere, contextualized the discussion with trenchant examples from only the last few days: (1) the horrific concurrence of official famine in South Sudan and the placement of Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen on the famine watchlist, (2) the sinking of sections of Mexico City, and (3) another season of rainfall failure in rural Bolivia.  She reminded the audience that women and men experience disasters differently, with very different health and mortality outcomes, and she echoed the Pentagon’s elevation of climate change as a “threat multiplier.”  She quoted the New York Times on Mexico City: “The effects of climate change are varied and opportunistic, but one thing is consistent: They are like sparks in the tinder. They expose [the] biggest vulnerabilities, inflaming troubles … And they spread outward, defying borders.”  She accordingly implored panelists to identify what could accelerate the shift from reactive to preventative interventions, especially given that we already know climate-inducted humanitarian situations will continue to worsen and grow in number, and that they will disproportionately affect women, children and adolescents.


Ms. Erin Coughlan de Perez, Manager of the Climate Science Team at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (IFRC), flagged the persistent disconnect between early warnings and response.  Scientists can and do—with high accuracy—predict harsh weather events, famines, and other climate-linked disasters, yet funding remains largely available only post-disaster.  She cited the example of Somalia, where it has been known for months that famine is imminent, as was also the case in 2011 when over 250,000 people died.  She outlined five solutions IFRC is working on: (1) forecast-based financing, in which cash transfers are made available to people in areas where disaster is imminent (she noted that the cash transfers can also have strong gender co-benefits, for instance by allowing women to retain jewelry and other limited personal assets instead of selling them during crises), (2) protocols to follow when early warnings are registered, (3) strengthening of local capacities to prepare for climate shocks, especially health services, noting it takes considerable political will from national governments, (4) linking governments to local scientists who can provide early warnings, and (5) community consultations.


Ms. Carla Mucavi, Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Liaison Office in New York, noted that climate change now constitutes a fundamental threat to agriculture and food production, with the most pronounced impacts on the nutrition and livelihoods of the poorest women and children.  Women comprise around 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, and upwards of 50% in sub-Saharan Africa, and their lower status and resources relative to men are exacerbated by climate change.  She strongly recommended consultation with women in agricultural areas, as they don’t think in “climate,” “health,” “other sector” silos, and directly experience the nexus.  She added that the FAO estimates a potential tripling of rural persons in poverty if Paris targets are not met.


Ambassador Eva Åkerman-Börje, Senior Advisor to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), highlighted the complex but concrete linkage between climate change and the surge in refugees and migrants. Climate change worsens conditions that normally cause people to leave their homes, and is a key part of the IOM’s displacement tracking matrix. While it is challenging to specifically spell out and quantify drivers for migrants and refugees, both often come from areas of high climate impact and risk, and many “economic” migrants are, in fact, also climate migrants.  Perhaps indicatively, in 2015, 19 million people were newly displaced by natural disasters (largely floods and storms), which was twice the number displaced by conflict.  Between 2009 and 2014, such disasters displaced 184 million people.  An IOM study found that if the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement were met, 60 million people would live in places of extreme temperature, prime for migration.  If the 2C target were met, 130 million people would live in such areas.  And if business as usual were to continue, the number would jump to 1 billion.  She emphasized the need for better data collection in vulnerable countries to better understand displacement and migration likelihood.  She also highlighted that the Global Compact for Migration, to be agreed in 2018, could be an opportunity to address climate dimensions, as migration is a relatively new and unformed topic at the UN.  There could be room for experimentation with new migration models, such as temporary or circular, that can support countries’ climate adaptation strategies.  The positive aspects of migration, from new workforces in receiving countries to remittances, could also be emphasized.


Dr. Heather Papowitz, Senior Advisor on Health-Emergencies at the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), noted that climate change, if unchecked, could easily reduce gains made under the MDGs.  In addition to direct impacts (including the re-emergence of diseases like malaria and Yellow Fever as climate zones shift), climate-linked disasters reduce access to health services, further worsening the situation of women, children and adolescents. She cited several solutions: (1) the use of climate-risk assessments, particularly mapped against the resilience of local health systems, (2) more and better sex- and age disaggregated data from crises and at-risk areas, and (3) mainstreaming of climate resilience into development work.  She also highlighted that climate change increases the importance of looking beyond “survive” to “thrive,” as climate change may not necessarily kill children, but often worsens their health and nutrition, dramatically reducing the quality of their lives and their ability to contribute to society and the economy.


H.E. Masud Bin Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations, outlined his country’s existential threat from climate change.  Sea-level rise of 1 meter would mean the displacement of 130 out of 160 million Bangladeshis.  For the country, the focus is now adaptation, and he noted that women and children are at the highest risk.  Bangladesh’s large overseas working population also means women and children are often concentrated in the poorest areas.  In addition to floods and climate-linked disasters, fresh water access and crop failure are now major challenges for them as salinity increases.  He emphasized that involving local women’s groups directly in the design of government programs and policies was crucial, as they best understand their needs.  He added that more regional cooperation was needed, as climate impacts—from storms to displacement—are often transboundary.


Dr. Nata Menabde, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Office at the United Nations in New York, stressed climate’s threat to women and young people from disruption of access to food and health services, noting that reproductive health services are typically the most affected.  She said that strengthening national health systems must be a core part of climate adaptation.  She flagged that mental health is under-served in crises, especially for adolescents, and that it is compounded by the disruption of access to education.  Climate also intensifies adolescents’ and children’s workload related to water and food.  Recognizing climate’s role in health, she noted that the new WHO Global Health Atlas would now include climate change.


A considerable percentage of deaths of women and young people occur in humanitarian settings.  The panel series will next focus on delivering integrated education and health services to women, children and adolescents in humanitarian situations. The results of the panel series will feed into the annual meeting of Every Woman Every Child Everywhere in Abu Dhabi toward the end of 2017.  At the annual meeting, 40 of the world’s largest and most innovative development and humanitarian actors review their programming and internal practices and agree on necessary outcomes and the reforms needed to address this reality.