The recent monsoon floods hitting South Asia have been among the most severe in years, leaving some 1,400 people dead, millions displaced and worsening the plight of hundreds of thousands fleeing violence in Myanmar to seek safety in Bangladesh. But what role does climate change play in these developments and how is the Red Cross Red Crescent helping people to adapt? Media IFRC spoke to Donna Lagdameo, Technical Adviser for Asia Pacific with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center:

What can we say about the role of climate change in leading to the catastrophic monsoon flooding in South Asia these last few weeks?

There hasn’t yet been an in-depth study of this specific monsoon so it is too early to comment authoritatively on the role of climate change in causing it.  But we do know that an increase in extreme rainfall in South Asia is consistent with what we expect to see with a changing climate.  Scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looking at data for more than the past half century for India, believe they have evidence that the frequency of intense downpours is increasing.  More generally in South Asia, climate models show that climate change is likely to lead to more intense monsoons because the air over the land is warming more than air over the sea.

Can you give one or two concrete examples of how people are adapting to climate change on the ground in this region and how the Red Cross Red Crescent is supporting it?

Many National Societies, in their disaster management planning – from national to community level – are increasingly trying to consider “worst case scenarios” that are more extreme than in the past. This means preparing contingency plans, evacuation procedures etc. for floods that reach higher levels and maybe occur at odd times of the year – and making people aware of the changing risks and how to react properly to early warnings.

Likewise, preparedness for an often-forgotten health-related disaster, heat waves, which can be predicted days or weeks ahead, is being stepped up in many countries, including South Asia. It includes heat wave action plans and awareness raising towards vulnerable populations on how to “stay cool” and avoid dehydration. This is work in progress and needs to be scaled up.

But do farmers in this region need this kind of help and support or are they the ones who know best how to adapt?

Agricultural systems and production has successfully adapted for millennia so farmers certainly know a range of options for handling annual weather variability. But during this time of rapid change and increasing demand for food, increased weather variability and changing seasonality they may need support to, for example, access and test new crop types (more drought, flood or salt tolerant varieties) and enhanced water harvesting/conservation and soil management practises – and make better use of seasonal forecasts when deciding on how to diversify crops in a given planting season.

Here, government agriculture extension services and research agencies have a huge task to help meet the needs. Although farming is outside regular Red Cross Red Crescent expertise, National Societies can be an effective partner to extend the information into marginalised communities.

One area which the Red Cross Red Crescent has been working to develop is getting crucial financial support to people before a disaster actually strikes – for example in Bangladesh. Can you explain how this works?

Yes, these initiatives are called Forecast-based Financing (FbF) systems. For most climate-related hazards we can get information about when and where extreme events like storms, floods and droughts are expected.

The key is to make better use of that window between a forecast and the likely disastrous event – and have a procedure for releasing funds to take action before the event, not just humanitarian action after a disaster has struck.

Forecast-based Financing (FbF) is an institutional mechanism that enhances Early Warning Early Action. FbF sets up an automatic system that triggers and funds preparedness actions before the disaster strikes. A key element of FbF is that the allocation of resources is agreed in advance, so donors and stakeholders can weigh the risk of occasionally acting in vain against consistently failing to take early action.  FbF is envisioned to contribute in building community resilience especially if done alongside climate-smart disaster risk reduction and response efforts.