SOHS in conversation: A climate scientist and a frontline humanitarian practitioner talk climate change

05 November 2014

Erin Coughlan de Perez, a climate scientist with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Tufts University in the US, is unlikely to end up in the same room or field assignment as Liza Khan, Program Head with SHIFA Welfare Association, a local NGO based in Pakistan. Our Research Fellow Jen Doherty brought them together to talk about climate change and humanitarianism. 

ALNAP's State of the Humanitarian System 2022 report cautions that climate change has already produced some of the key disasters in the period under study (2018-2021) and will likely increase the scale and geographic spread of future ones. What type of effects are we seeing, or are we likely to experience in coming years that are of most concern to you? 
ERIN: That is a hard question because climate change is everywhere. If you say one thing you're most concerned about, people get very focused, and don't think about all the other ways that climate change is affecting them. However, one thing I'm very concerned about are heatwaves, partly because people don't pay attention to them. We've started to see that heat waves are starting to take top place in terms of deadliest disasters in several countries around the world. They are insidious because they are silent disasters – people are dying, because they have pre-existing conditions or vulnerabilities, and it's not talked about. 

We live in a fundamentally different climate today. It's not always appropriate to plan based on the past anymore, but changing that mentality is difficult.

Unprecedented extremes are also of concern to me. We have a habit of preparing for disasters that we've experienced in the past. If you look at interviews with residents or disaster managers, they're always saying, “Oh, well, last storm…. we did x, therefore we're going to do x again”. But we live in a different climate today – it is fundamentally different from the climate of my grandmother. It's not always appropriate to plan based on the past anymore, but changing that mentality is difficult. 
That idea of things being unprecedented is probably something Liza could speak to with the difference between the flooding in 2010 in Pakistan and what you're seeing now. Liza, how is the situation different to the past?  

Pakistan floods

LIZA: In 2022, the floods have hit many more districts than in the past. In the 2010 floods about 20% of the land area of Pakistan and over 20 million people were affected. But in 2022, over 33 million people have been affected. If we talk about the houses or the households which were destroyed, in 2010, more than 1.1 million houses were completely destroyed or damaged but in 2022, many more are damaged. This time, this is the biggest biggest, biggest challenge for the whole of Pakistan.  

Is this new scale of flooding being attributed to climate change in Pakistan as opposed to other factors?  
LIZA: Yes, this has been announced as climate change. But many actors have done nothing. Not any preparedness, not any anticipatory action for this flooding. However, they already know about climate change, and they are working globally and going to conferences, but they did nothing for that.

It’s in our control to break the link between the event, and the deaths and the disaster outcomes. There's no such thing as a natural disaster.

ERIN: People should not blame things on climate change too quickly –  even using it as a scapegoat. Even though we have climate change, if there's a lot of vulnerability, is it completely the fault of climate change? No. We should be careful about what we blame entirely on climate change. There was a study done showing that climate change increased the intensity of precipitation in this recent disaster in Pakistan. So yes, climate change is a factor and we absolutely need to prepare for more intense and more frequent disasters. But that doesn't mean that we can just blame climate change for this event. I think we really need to look very, carefully at why were people so vulnerable? Why was this event so deadly? Why did this event cause the destruction of so many households? It’s in our control to break the link between the event, and the deaths and the disaster outcomes. There's no such thing as a natural disaster.  
In our report we say that some organisations within the humanitarian system are more aware of their own impacts on the environment and how they might be contributing to climate change. Some are beginning to do things a bit differently. What do you see as important steps the sector can take?  

We should really push the accountability side of these commitments so that you can't just sign up for fun, but there are actual expectations for people to follow up.

ERIN: I would say if the humanitarian sector wants to reduce emissions one of the easier ways to do this might be reducing flights, and thinking of ways to do so could also be an exciting way of thinking about localisation. During the pandemic, when people couldn’t fly around the world, we saw trends of more decision making and delegation of authority to local actors. So, can we do that explicitly and intentionally? I would love to see a move in that direction.  
I do think the Climate and Environment Charter is a good step in that direction. Commitments can be motivating. They're not the only way to affect change, but they are one of the tools in our toolbox to change things.  We should really push the accountability side of these commitments so that you can't just sign up for fun, but there are actual expectations for people to follow up.  
The biggest role that the humanitarian sector has, however, is in how to adapt to climate change and how to avoid disasters. Of course, we need to reduce our own footprints, but we shouldn't do that and then forget about focusing on the increasing disasters and risk reduction. That is where we have a very unique opportunity to be a trusted voice to communities and help push disaster risk reduction.  
Liza, Erin mentioned a shift towards a greater role of local actors in humanitarian response as a possible contribution to more sustainable practices. Are you seeing stronger linkages between national actors, like yourself, and international responses that are allowing you to have more of a role in the response?  

When you don't have the proper funding, or the proper resources, how can you manage these risks?

LIZA: International organisations globally really rely on local actors, but when it comes to quality funding, and for allocating resources, then there's nothing for local actors. When you don't have the proper funding, or you don't have the proper resources, how can you manage these risks? How can you take the steps? 
The report mentions a growing but inconsistent use of anticipatory action. For example parts of the system have been aware of a challenging situation in Somalia for over a year now. Yet the international humanitarian system only began to act in recent months. What would be useful to help the system better anticipate or respond more quickly to climate induced events?  

Galmudug region, El Gule internally displaced people camp. Millions of people in Somalia continue to face the severe consequences of the drought

ERIN: In Somalia, I think part of the issue is that this is a protracted crisis. We've gone through five failed rainy seasons - we're expecting the sixth. While there were some small dispersements of anticipatory support, essentially giving people cash early, it was really small compared to the wider Humanitarian Response Plan and it didn’t continue. You can’t expect by giving some cash out a year and a half ago to people they're going to be fine three more rainy seasons later. There needs to be a massive scale up of support and early support and sustained support to help people and that's a really big ask.  
In terms of helping the system be more anticipatory, I think having protocols for early actions so that there are roles and responsibilities in place where someone can say it was your job to take early action. You got this forecast, why didn't you do it? So really putting the explicit responsibility on the sector to say we expect you to scale up support early and make sure there are financing mechanisms available to do that, on a large enough scale that it makes a difference. There's quite an agenda here to really turn this into a widespread and scaled way of working. 
ALNAP's State of the Humanitarian System report also mentions that the international humanitarian system is only one player when it comes to saving lives and protecting people from crisis. With the climate crisis, there may be roles for many actors to play from scientists, development organisations, the private sector, financial institutions and government. What kind of cooperation and connections do you think are the most important for organisations, like yours, to strengthen in Pakistan to help protect against future risks?  

Recognising contribution and role [of local organisations] in the humanitarian response is important because these actors don't enjoy the equal leadership, partnership, or funding opportunities as their international fellows.

LIZA: As someone from a local organisation, we really demand a voice and meaningful inclusion of the national and local actors. Recognising their contribution and their role in the humanitarian response is important because these actors don't enjoy the equal leadership, partnership, or funding opportunities as their international fellows. There should be mutual and long-term strategic partnerships with local actors. Donors or INGOs should shorten their due diligence processes, their partnership processes. The Grand Bargain 2.0 and the Charter for Change commandments should be met and 25% of funding should be given to local actors. And we should move the localisation agenda forward and consider the local actors because they are working, they are on the ground. In Pakistan there are examples of some international organisations who are working on the ground giving some funding to local actors and training them. They know that it is not that local actors do not have capacity. It is not to build their capacity, just to strengthen the capacity they already have. 
ERIN: I appreciate the perspective that you shared a lot, Liza. I completely agree about localisation. We need to walk the walk, not talk the talk. What has been delivered on the localisation agenda is just really embarrassing. 
In terms of partnerships with scientists, we could gain a lot if we were able to create better partnerships with the scientific community. This would require universities and other employers of scientists to encourage collaboration with the real world and reward actual impact of people's research, not just publications. You see a lot of publications like ‘oh, we could do this neat thing’. ‘Look, we demonstrated this neat analysis’... and then people move on and they read another paper, but then a lot of it never actually gets implemented in an operational way. I think these communities are too separate and there needs to be more incentives for the two communities to collaborate and really achieve the outcomes that everyone wants to see. 
Thanks to you both for a very thoughtful discussion.    

ALNAP plays a special role in convening important global humanitarian discussions with a view to promoting learning. With the launch of our State of the Humanitarian System 2022 report, we took the opportunity to host a series of ‘improbable dialogues’ about key findings in the report between two humanitarians who might never normally cross paths. We invite you to join us as we listen in and learn from these exchanges of perspectives and experiences, on issues of importance to the sector.