By Megan Rowling
Most aid workers know it doesn't make sense to build a house or install a water pump in a spot that's flooded every year, nor to get farmers to switch to crops that will make them more money now but yield less as temperatures rise. Yet there's no guarantee those types of mistakes still aren't being made, despite growing awareness of the extra complications climate change brings.
Experts who have worked on the nexus between climate change, disaster risk reduction and development for years say the three strands still aren't fully joined up when it comes to projects on the ground – and they have produced a new guide that aims to speed up progress in linking the three.
Some progress is being made, but it has been pretty slow. This is frustrating when it's increasingly recognised that extreme weather and rising seas are likely to bring more disasters and displacement as the planet warms, setting development back by decades in the worst-hit places.
"The three tribes know each other exist, and they barter a bit, but they aren't connected enough," says Terry Cannon, director of the Strengthening Climate Resilience (SCR) project, a consortium of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University and the non-governmental organisations Plan International and Christian Aid.
The consortium has just released a new guide, "Changing climate, changing disasters: pathways to integration", which outlines a step-by-step approach to help disaster risk practitioners in NGOs and governments incorporate climate knowledge into their programmes.
"If you're working on food security in Kenya, and you're told droughts are going to start happening every three years, you probably just want to run away and hide," says Cannon. "Acquiring a whole set of new knowledge is quite a burden."
In the past decade or so, U.N. agencies and donors have started making the necessary links between disasters, vulnerability and poverty. But adding climate science to that mix has been a challenge, and not everyone has worked out how to do it yet.
In most international NGOs, the person (or team) working on disaster risk reduction (DRR) is often separate from the climate change officer, and there'll be someone else dealing with livelihoods.
They might go to meetings together and even work on some of the same programmes. But often they seem to talk a different language with their own interpretations of terms like "vulnerability", "uncertainty" and "adaptive capacity", says the guide.
"The result: dangerous oversight caused by a failure to connect, draw on each other's experience and integrate the way we prepare (for) and respond to sudden and chronic disasters," it warns, adding that this applies especially to disasters exacerbated by climate change.
Cannon argues that this state of affairs has come about partly because NGOs have historically responded to fresh approaches to development without thinking through remits.
In the 1990s, the idea came along that it was better to prevent disasters than respond to them, followed in the 21st century by the conviction that climate change was going to make life much harder for poor people. In response to demand from donors and academics, NGOs hired someone who specialises in this new expertise. Job done?
Not exactly. The uphill struggle to get the aid system to invest more time and money in disaster risk reduction - even though it clearly makes more economic sense than mopping up afterwards - suggests that grasping the potential solution to a problem is only half the battle.
John Holmes, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator from 2007-2010, recently told me there's no easy answer to the conceptual divide over where responsibility for DRR should lie. The humanitarian sector has taken it on, he believes, when it's really a task for development people.
"We (humanitarians) do it because the development community has traditionally ignored it, or given it not enough attention or money," said Holmes, who is now director of the Ditchley Foundation, an international policy thinktank. "But it still needs to mainstream into all that development work, otherwise it’s not going to happen really. We’re moving in that direction, but it’s pretty glacial to say the least."
Africa's recurring hunger crises, for example, present a clear-cut case for doing more to help farmers cope with crop-wrecking droughts and flash floods. And yet we're just coming out of a famine in Somalia, while another food emergency is looming in the Sahel.
This is where approaches like "climate-smart disaster risk management", promoted in the new guide, are meant to come in. It's not about implementing a prescribed set of projects, but rather finding entry points, asking questions and following steps that should help organisations and their staff make climate change considerations a key part of everything they do.
The methods outlined in the guide are flexible, and designed to be picked up, used and adapted as needed. There are examples of how it's been done in practice - ranging from a local field office in Sudan's north Darfur region working out how to build climate resilience in a volatile conflict setting, to enabling children in the Philippines to come up with measures to protect themselves and their communities from climate-related disasters.
"The 'climate-smart' approach offers a way of speeding up the process (of integrating climate change, DRR and development), and getting people to reflect on how best to do that," says IDS research fellow Cannon.