IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy on a visit to Zimbabwe last May at the height of the El Niño-related drought, hearing from a villager how he digs water out of the bed of the River Mudzi that would normally dry up only in September. Lessons from the 2015–16 El Niño episode were discussed this week at ECOSOC humanitarian session in Geneva, where Mr Sy called for smarter humanitarian response to climate-related disasters and greater investment ahead of crises. Photo: IFRC

By Tessa Kelly, IFRC

IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy has issued an impassioned plea for smarter humanitarian response to climate-related disasters and greater investment ahead of crises.

Speaking on a high-level panel at the end of the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s annual ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment, Mr Sy presented ideas for how communities can be helped to withstand predictable shocks, recover faster, and operate from a “very different baseline”.

He told the panel, firstly, that “we collectively need to be smarter in the way we prepare for, anticipate and respond to climate disasters or shocks, and we need to invest at a much larger scale ahead of crises,” something the international community was still struggling to do.

He added that “we need to recognize that improving responses and reducing the risks of climate-related displacement requires a starting point of community resilience… We need to strengthen the ability of communities to bounce back without having to leave homes and livelihoods in search of safer places.”

Mr Sy argued that displacement was “still often seen solely through the prism of migration – it seems that we still design solutions based on how to address migration rather than the actual needs of people.”

Thirdly, he said, “we will only succeed if we empower local organizations to manage climate shocks and climate-disaster response.

“It’s at the local level that risks are most severely felt, and it’s also most appropriate to intervene at the local level,” where there was a higher level of acceptance for community-based organizations and volunteers.

Mr Sy cited forecast-based financing as an example approach that enables “quick and early action by communities and local authorities,” and welcomed the German government’s ongoing support for it.

Climate information

Last month’s forecast-based cash transfer operation by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society before Cyclone Mora made landfall had seen nearly 3,000 households get the equivalent of 60 euro.

This allowed families to meet their immediate needs when the cyclone hit, rather than having them waiting for humanitarian assistance to arrive some time afterwards.

The result, Mr Sy added, was “a crucial sense of dignity and empowerment among the communities at risk.”

Also in the area of forecast-based preparedness, Mr Sy referred to work done by the Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda Red Cross Societies with local meteorological and hydrological departments to get weather and climate information to communities, and training on how to prepare for extreme events.

“This pays off every time,” he said, “and we need to do more of it.”

Anticipatory approach

The IFRC secretary general concluded: “Reaching communities is often seen as the ‘last mile’, and we all are ready to walk the last mile.

“Let us all together turn that last mile into a first mile – to the hardest people to reach, to the most vulnerable, for whom it’s often a matter of life and death.”

The high-level event was chaired by Jürgen Schulz, Germany’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Vice-President of ECOSOC, and moderated by Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Its agenda was to explore how governments and humanitarians can understand the risks and vulnerabilities linked to disasters and climate change, and “take a forward-looking, anticipatory approach to humanitarian assistance,” according to the UN.

The ICRC took part in two further high-level panels at the three-day session, which ended today, covering international humanitarian law and protracted crises; other side-events that included IFRC or ICRC specialists centred on humanitarian financing, medical work, and the 40th anniversary of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

ECOSOC’s humanitarian segment provides a key opportunity for member states, UN entities, humanitarian and development partners, the private sector and affected communities to discuss emerging and pressing humanitarian issues.