Compounding vulnerabilities

Jerome Fontana
Saturday 5 Nov 2022

People living in fragile contexts who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis are among the most neglected by climate action and finance, writes Jerome Fontana


Today’s climate and environmental crises cannot be swept under the rug. The impact of climate change is steadily being felt in all aspects of our lives, from our physical and mental health, to our food, water and livelihoods.

Many people are no longer able to recognise their environment as the weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable. We have seen recently how susceptible the Middle East and Africa regions are to extreme climate hazards and rising temperatures which have a significant impact on people’s lives and health.

We may all be impacted by these crises one way or another but we are not all affected to the same degree. Our capacities to fight and adapt to climate change are not equal.

Countries enduring conflict are disproportionately affected by climate change and climate variability. When we look at the University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), we see immediately that of the 25 states deemed most vulnerable to climate change, over half are mired in conflict.

This is not to say that there is a direct correlation between climate change and conflict. Scientists generally agree that climate change does not directly cause armed conflict. But what the data shows is that countries enduring conflict are less able to cope with climate change, precisely because their ability to adapt is weakened by conflict which often damages or destroys infrastructure needed for essential services and governance – such as water and electricity plants and health centres – that are critical for coping with climate change.  

Since we work in places affected by armed conflict and/or violence, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sees first-hand how climate change is deepening the vulnerability of communities impacted by conflict. People frequently tell us about the massive environmental changes they are witnessing. Their daily lives are not only made more difficult by the violence they experience, but also by a changing climate and degraded environment.

People have conveyed to us a deep sense of loss and disorientation as they can no longer recognise their environment or read the weather and are ill-prepared for repeated climate hazards.

The climate crisis is deeply unsettling as it forces people to reinvent their ways of life. We have heard this from livestock herders in Mali and the Central African Republic, as they describe how they lost their livestock and were forced to change their way of life. There, being a herder is more than a profession; it is at the core of a people’s identity and lineage.

We have further heard of the grief of Central Africans who have been forced to leave their island on the Ubangi River and lost their homes, harvests and belongings to floods.

Yet despite their acute vulnerability and severe capacity constraints, the plight of communities living through conflict is not nearly high enough on the global climate agenda. They remain among those most neglected by climate action and finance. This is in part because of the challenges attached to working in such surroundings.

However, these challenges cannot allow millions of people to remain excluded from support. Adapted climate action in these locations is critical to reduce humanitarian needs, preserve development gains and avoid systemic breakdowns and lasting fragility.

In our capacity as humanitarians, we know that we must change how we work to ensure that we respond effectively. We realise that these risks demand preventive and longer-term responses that strengthen people’s resilience and adaptive capacities. For example, in the Sahel region, we are currently working to help farmers and herders cope with increasing variability in rainfall and periods of water scarcity by supporting the rehabilitation of irrigation schemes, and the production of animal feed or seed and its storage.

However, the responses that could help these communities respond to risks go beyond what humanitarians can provide. What is required is an approach rooted in inclusive development and climate adaptation.

As we move towards COP27, it’s important to acknowledge the high vulnerability to climate risks of countries enduring conflict due to their limited adaptive capacity. This is essential to ensure adequate climate action in these settings.

The ICRC urges parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to scale up efforts to reinforce climate action in countries affected by conflict, particularly by strengthening knowledge and practice to prepare for, respond to and build resilience against loss and damage associated with climate change in these locations.

Climate action should be adequately supported by fit-for-purpose and accessible climate finance. We call on parties to review how the financing mechanisms are governed to ensure that risk aversity does not exclude millions of people from receiving much needed support.

We hope that COP27 will serve as an opportunity for states to discuss providing support to the most vulnerable. They should not be left out.

*The writer is head of the delegation to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Egypt.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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