Lessons from Pakistan: Why It’s a Mistake to Ignore Climate Disaster Refugees

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Remember the Pakistan floods? The floods that killed nearly 2000 people this summer, left over seven million people —roughly the population of the greater San Francisco area—homeless, and destroyed nearly five million acres of agricultural land? The story has inevitably receded from the international spotlight, as natural disaster stories do, but the onslaught of problems caused by worst recorded flooding in the nation’s history certainly have not, nor has the tab of $9.7 billion in damages that Pakistan sustained.

The ill-preparedness that made Pakistan’s very bad situation worse this summer is the subject of a new report out this week from Refugees International (RI), a U.S.-based refugee advocacy group. RI researchers did field research there after the floods to determine where the system of local and global emergency response broke down, not so much to slap anyone in particular on the wrist (though there is a taste of that) but for the sake of improving the ways we respond to major natural disasters.

What’s the urgency?  Worldwide, the number of recorded natural disasters over in the last two decades has doubled, and today some 36 million people are displaced as a result of them – a surprising 30% more than the number displaced by conflicts. By 2050, a projected 200 million people will be out of their homes from a combination of natural disasters and climate change.

From an organizational perspective, that’s a nightmare, because anticipating the needs of disaster refugees is tricky stuff. There is rarely advance warning when a real calamity will strike, as there usually is when conflict is brewing, and once the disaster does occur, access to the affected areas is usually extremely compromised, as was the case in Pakistan.

According to the report, many Pakistani officials and climate experts blame climate change for the nasty confluence of monsoon and low-pressure events that led to this summer’s floods; they point to the warming of ocean surface temperatures that added excessive water to the atmosphere and fueled the two extreme weather systems that caused the July storms.

But they also agree that the weather alone is not to blame, and that the lack of good coordination in both the government and international aid community exacerbated the effects. Though the Pakistan army was able to respond quickly to help civilians in the north where the military has been stationed fighting the Taliban since 2008, in other areas where security was not an issue like the south, the response was slow and disorganized. Likewise, on an international aid level, there was not enough staff in country, and the staff that was there got overly hung up on bureaucracy and chasing funds, instead of putting all resources into an immediate boots on the ground response. (Not exactly surprising, given the politics of international aid organizations, but I digress.)

RI doesn’t let the U.S. off the hook easy either. As was noted at the time, the U.S. has spent over $15 billion in security assistance to Pakistan since 2001, but has devoted very little attention to helping the nation prepare for disasters like these through funding streams like USAID and federal refugee programs. “If the United States wants to continue to lead the world in humanitarian assistance, it must be prepared to assist the millions of people displaced by climate-related disasters,” the report reads. “The failure to do so could undermine the long-term stability of countries likely to experience increased floods, storms, droughts and other climate-related events.”

Among the more interesting and intuitive recommendations that RI makes is for the U.N. country teams to work with in-country climate experts in vulnerable coutnries to map out areas that are at-risk from extreme weather events, and devise disaster scenarios to figure out plans for dealing with them. I also thought what their explanation of the compound effects that make a country particularly vulnerable to these kind of disasters was interesting:

Climate change vulnerability is not only a function of a country’s exposure to natural hazards, but also its pre-existing vulnerabilities including poverty and the weak capacity of individuals, communities and government institutions to effectively respond to such hazards. Thus, climate change impacts will be felt most severely in some of the world’s poorest countries — for example Bangladesh and Haiti — as well as those that are conflict-prone and important for regional security initiatives of concern to the United States and others, such as Afghanistan, Burma, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

In other words, like Pakistan, the same places where climate change is probably last on the list of domestic and diplomatic priorities — it would be a hard sell for the State Department to get Congress to allocate more money for climate change preparedness in Yemen these days — are the places where people are going to suffer the most if they’re hit by a big event. They’re going to be the places that are most radically destabilized when they are hit. And, to take a market-based approach, they are the places that are going to cost the international community the most to help get back on track when things go wrong. Taking all that into account, a little preventative action doesn’t sound like such a bad plan.