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U.N. Summit: Climate-Related Disasters Getting Worse, Funds To Help Falling Short

A man stands in his wrecked home in Macomia, Mozambique, after Cyclone Kenneth in April. It was the second intense cyclone to strike the country in six weeks.
Tommy Trenchard for NPR
A man stands in his wrecked home in Macomia, Mozambique, after Cyclone Kenneth in April. It was the second intense cyclone to strike the country in six weeks.

In March, when Cyclone Idai made landfall in central Mozambique and became one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the country's history, Jose Mucote was ready.

He runs a local humanitarian aid nonprofit and had been working since 2008 to set up a cyclone response system in the town of Estaquinha that included solar-powered radios, a warehouse stocked with emergency supplies and an evacuation boat.

Within days of the storm, Mucote's group had helped evacuate more than 1,000 people from the town, even as hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans elsewhere in the country were stranded amid floodwaters while first responders struggled to reach them. Six months later, many of those families remain in dire straits, Mucote says, and continue to rely on aid organizations for food, water and shelter. But the advance preparation helped ensure, at a minimum, that no lives were lost in the town (across southern Africa, the cyclone was responsible for at least 1,000 deaths).

Mucote was in New York City on Monday for the Climate Action Summit, a meeting in the midst of the annual United Nations General Assembly that came after a weekend of youth-led climate protests. The primary purpose of the summit was to give global political leaders a platform to announce new initiatives to curb their greenhouse gas emissions in the hope of limiting future global warming.

But Mucote was there to press a different issue — one echoed throughout the day in speeches by the heads of countries from West Africa to Southeast Asia to the Caribbean: Low- and middle-income countries lack the resources to effectively cope with the onslaught of climate-linked natural disasters already wreaking havoc.

And despite a few new pledges of financial assistance for climate change adaptation made by development banks and wealthy countries on Monday, the world is still tens of billions of dollars short of what is needed to expand disaster response strategies such as Mucote's to other high-risk communities, according to climate change and disaster adaptation experts and global leaders at the summit.

"The intensity of disasters is building, and as a result vulnerability and poverty are increasing," Mucote says. But people in developing countries "are not receiving the support they need to prepare for and respond to the climate crisis."

This year has seen plenty of evidence of that trend, including Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas; drought in Afghanistan, Somalia and Central America; and Cyclone Fani in India. According to a report released over the weekend by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, nearly 110 million people worldwide required humanitarian assistance in 2018 because of disasters including floods, storms, droughts and wildfires. That number is on track to double by 2050, the report found, with costs that could rise from between $3.5 billion and $12 billion today to $20 billion per year by 2030.

"Seeing those images of destruction in the Bahamas makes me angry," Achim Steiner, who leads the U.N. Development Programme, said in a speech on Sunday. "Because the tragic truth is that there's a lack of action on climate adaptation, even though the impact is unfolding right before our eyes."

Back in 2009, at a major climate summit in Copenhagen, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced her peers to rally around a commitment that rich countries should raise at least $100 billion per year by 2020 to help poorer countries respond to climate change. According to an Oxfam America report released over the weekend, that goal is currently only about half met. Just one-fifth of that funding is dedicated to adaptation (as opposed to greenhouse gas mitigation measures, such as installing solar panels), the report found, and of that, only a small portion is ultimately delivered to the 48 least-developed countries, including Mozambique. Overall, the report concluded that those countries have received around $3 per person per year for climate adaptation.

"The situation is quite bad," said Sonam Wangdi, secretary of the National Environment Commission of Bhutan and the chairperson of the least-developed countries coalition at the Summit, in a press conference on Monday. "With the pledges, we are nowhere near where we should be."

There were some steps forward on Monday. A coalition of international development banks promised to raise $18 billion by 2025. Qatar said it will give $100 million to small island nations. The United Kingdom announced the creation of a $220 million project to support disaster early warning systems and emergency relief plans in developing countries. And Bill Gates announced that his foundation (which is a funder of NPR and this blog) would partner with the World Bank and several European governments to spend nearly $800 million on projects to improve the resilience of smallholder farmers. (The U.S. made no announcements at summit; President Trump was stared at intenselyin a hallway by youth activist Greta Thunberg, then left after around 14 minutes).

Still, piecemeal donations like these are unlikely to meet the scale of the challenge, says Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, director of sustainable finance at the World Resources Institute.

"Overall, [the pledges on Monday] were really underwhelming," he says. "To get where we need to go, we need systemic change and sustained commitments with much larger sums."

In addition to better early warning systems, there are a few other priorities for improving disaster response in developing countries, the Red Cross report notes: Countries need to invest in climate-savvy infrastructure like stronger buildings, seawalls and floodwater pumping stations. In the aftermath of a storm, they need to rebuild with climate change in mind — which might mean relocating high-risk communities — and not simply reproduce what was there before.

It's not just a matter of raising more money — Julie Arrighi, an author of the report, adds that the way disaster adaptation funding is handled also needs to be reformed. The U.N., which manages much of the climate funding raised by rich countries, needs to make the money more easily accessible to the least-developed countries, whose governments often lack staff trained to navigate complex global finance bureaucracy, she says. And she says humanitarian groups need to find creative ways to collect and stockpile disaster response funding in advance rather than relying on fundraising in the aftermath.

Monday's summit wasn't the last opportunity to raise money for climate adaptation. In October, representatives from Canada, France, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom will meet in Paris to discuss increasing their contributions to the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund. In the meantime, Mucote says people in Mozambique who are still recovering from Idai are terrified of what might be in store as the fall cyclone season gathers steam.

"We have enough money in the world to assist everyone," he says. "We just lack the intention to do it."

Tim McDonnell is a journalist covering the environment, conflict and related issues in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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