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Climate change overwhelming disaster relief: agencies

Overpopulation, the building of homes in vulnerable areas and poor preparedness for catastrophes were other big causes for loss of life and homelessness. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Poznan, Poland (AFP) Dec 3, 2008
Climate change is overwhelming the capacity of relief agencies to cope with people made sick or homeless by natural disasters, humanitarian groups warned here on Wednesday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN climate talks, the heads of three leading agencies said catastrophic droughts and floods were already becoming more frequent, fuelling demands to help those in need.

The problem will amplify in the coming decades as the expected impacts of global warming bite hard, they said.

"The problem we are facing today is that the capacity [of relief agencies] has been overwhelmed," Kasidis Rochanakorn, head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a press conference.

"Climate change is here and it's here now... the impact is clear to us, the burden is getting heavier," he said.

"Over the past 20 years, the number of reported disasters has doubled from roughly 200 [per year] to 400. Today, floods are happening more frequently. In 1985, we used to have 50 floods per year. In 2005, the number jumped to 200."

Reflecting the trend, contributions for natural disaster relief have leapt hugely, from 257 million dollars in 2006 to 808 million in 2007 to 961 million so far this year, he said.

Bekele Geleta, secretary general of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, urged the UN negotiations, being held in the Polish city of Poznan, to factor disaster relief into a future treaty on climate change.

"Climate change is a global problem but its impacts are felt locally. It leads to more frequent and more extreme weather events, and so much more and bigger disasters," he said.

In a landmark report last year, top scientists gathered for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that rising temperatures, stoked by greenhouse-gas emissions, would change weather patterns this century.

Depending on how far temperatures increase, the consequences could be dramatic for many millions of people, the Nobel-winning panel said.

They pointed to worsening water stress and drought, floods, storm surges that could threaten low-lying deltas, hunger and malnutrition, and a threat from cholera, malaria and other diseases.

Charles Vincent, a director of the World Food Programme (WFP), told AFP that it was sometimes difficult to pinpoint climate change as one of the factors that caused disasters today.

Overpopulation, the building of homes in vulnerable areas and poor preparedness for catastrophes were other big causes for loss of life and homelessness, he said.

"However, the number of extreme [weather] events has quadrupled in 20 years. Droughts are longer, and coming more quickly.

"When you look at it closely, [the impact of climate change] is hard to see. It's like looking at the hour hand of your watch. You don't see it move, but somehow it does."

Jose Riera, a senior policy advisor for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that people displaced by future climate change -- sometimes called "climate refugees," a term the UNHCR rejects on legal grounds -- was "the elephant in the room" that everyone tried to ignore.

Predictions of how many people would be forced from their homes by climate damage vary widely, from 250 million to as many as one billion by 2050, he said.

Some experts argue that the the war in Sudan's Darfur is an example where climate change has already driven a badly stressed region over the brink.

One of the triggers for the conflict was below-average rainfall that depleted harvests, amplifying competition, experts say.

The December 1-12 conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is aimed at advancing towards a new pact on reducing carbon emissions that trap the Sun's heat, and on boosting help to poor, vulnerable countries.

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Prepare for disasters despite downturn: UN
Kuala Lumpur (AFP) Dec 2, 2008
UN officials meeting in the Malaysian capital Tuesday warned Asian countries not to cut funding for disaster preparations, despite the global economic downturn.

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