Climate Information Helps Prepare for Disasters

Climate-related disasters can have a devastating impact on human life and development. Globally, climate events including floods, droughts, cyclones, heat waves and mudslides contribute to tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of injuries and billions of dollars in economic losses each year. In recent years, it’s become clear that such losses can be greatly reduced when climate information is used for early warning and preparedness. It’s also increasingly clear that climate information is most effective when the climate and humanitarian communities work together.

To help bridge the gap between these two communities,the International Research Institute for Climate and Society has teamed up with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. The team recently wrapped up its first activity: a two-day workshop in Nairobi, Kenya designed to give humanitarian actors in East Africa a better sense of the kinds of climate information tools available and provide concrete examples of how these tools can be used to inform disaster risk management.

With support from the IFRC, RC/RC Climate Centre, OCHA and the IRI, Meaghan Daly travelled to Nairobi to organize and run the workshop. A recent graduate of Columbia University’s Climate and Society master’s program, Daly currently serves as a technical advisor on climate-related issues. Her mission is to help members of the humanitarian community understand how climate information, properly used, can reduce the impacts of disasters on people’s lives and livelihoods.

“There has to be an ongoing conversation between the humanitarian community and the climate community so that humanitarian agencies can learn what’s available in terms of climate information products, and the climate scientists can determine what’s actually needed,” Daly says.

The workshop brought together staff from a number of nongovernmental and United Nations organizations (for a complete list, please download the workshop report). Representatives from the climate community, including the Kenya Meteorological Department and the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre, were also on hand to answer questions, give presentations and gain a better understanding of the needs of the humanitarian community.

This was critical because in order to be successful, communication between the climate and humanitarian communities must go both ways. According to Daly, “One of the most important outcomes of the process was that we were able to summarize our workshop proceedings for the Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum, essentially giving the humanitarian community an opportunity to speak directly to the climate community”.

The forum, which currently occurs twice a year, convenes the Greater Horn climate community to formulate consensus forecasts for the region’s March-to-May and September-to-December rainy seasons. Government representatives, including those from climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, health and water also attend the conference in order to gain a better sense of how the forecasts could help with their decision-making.

“Humanitarian actors have a clear interest in using top-notch climate and climate change science to help save lives and livelihoods, but it isn’t always clear to nonspecialists how to do that,” says Jenty Kirsch-Wood, a humanitarian affairs officer at OCHA.

As for the workshop, Kirsch-Wood says that, “OCHA is interested in making sure we can use projects like this to inform our own policies and action, but also to increase the access of the wider humanitarian community to information that can help us collectively prepare and respond to hazard-related disasters”.

To help humanitarian actors get comfortable using climate information, the workshop speakers highlighted several new forecast products and outlined ways in which they could be incorporated into planning. Workshop discussions also explored factors that prevent humanitarian organizations from making better use of the products already available.

Importantly, the workshop marks the first step toward the next issue of IRI’s Climate and Society publication. The lessons learned from the workshop will be folded into the upcoming publication, A Better Climate for Disaster Risk Management, to be published in partnership with the IFRC, RC/RC Climate Centre, OCHA, the World Food Programme and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration early in 2011.

“The long-term goal, really, is for the humanitarian community to be better able to prepare for and respond to climate-related disasters. This requires sustainable, active partnerships between the local humanitarian and climate communities so that they can work effectively together in practice. We hope the workshop, the partnership and the publication all contribute to that,” explains IRI’s Molly Hellmuth, who oversees the Climate and Society publication.

The lessons learned will also be incorporated by the conference partners. Over the next few years, IRI, IFRC, and OCHA will work together to develop new climate information products for East Africa, including a regional online map room and near-term climate change projections.

“We are trying to address the problem of climate information that is currently available but may be very difficult to use,” explains IRI’s chief climate scientist Simon Mason. “The key is to provide forecasts of what the users care about rather than what the forecasters care about.”

As for Meaghan Daly, her efforts to make sure climate information is used for humanitarian decision-making will now take her to South Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. “The key is to engage local actors in constructive dialogue. What really matters is communication. When the humanitarian and climate science communities start interacting, the result is improved information that leads to action”.

A full report on the workshop is available here.

Cathy Vaughan is a program coordinator at the IRI. 

Related Organizations

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

The World Food Programme

IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre

Related Links

Learning from 10 Years of Climate Outlook Forums in Africa