Looking Ahead: Natural Disasters, Protection and Climate Change

September 16, 2009

The effects of rapid climate change have led to an increase in natural disasters. Governments, the United Nations and other international organizations are seeking to strengthen and expand their approaches in responding to natural disasters, to include prevention and preparation through promoting sustainable development. New strategies to confront the perils of climate change reflect a sense of urgency and fresh perspectives. These strategies center on correcting the inherent weaknesses in current international responses, which lack coordination and sustainable development approaches, often failing to protect the rights of displaced persons. A more coordinated, adaptable and rights-based approach to sustainable development may offer vulnerable populations the ability to protect themselves from natural disasters.

On Wednesday, September 16, as part of an ongoing series on natural disasters, the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement hosted a roundtable on the future challenges of climate change and the role of the international community. Rod Snider, of the American Red Cross, opened the discussion by outlining the rapid increase of natural disasters worldwide and the pressing need for adaptable international responses. Brookings Senior Fellow Elizabeth Ferris added to the discussion a response stressing the need for a rights-based approach with the specific intent to protect vulnerable populations affected by natural disasters. Building on these presentations, Anne Castleton, of Church World Service, and Edward Cameron, of the World Bank, emphasized the need to build local capacity and the importance of promoting sustainable development. The discussion was concluded by World Bank Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist Margaret Arnold, who reiterated that the ability to protect and recover from natural disasters rests on a strong development framework. Brookings Fellow Noam Unger moderated the discussion.

Rod Snider, Senior Technical Advisor at the American Red Cross, opened the discussion by emphasizing the correlation between climate change and increase of natural disasters. The international disaster response mechanism is not equipped to deal with the heightened risks of natural disasters, at least in part because of its poor structure. Snider argues that the international community should change how it responds to natural disasters, particularly in smaller, more localized disasters. While it is important to learn from past successes and failures, international responses should not be based on a single model. Rather, a more holistic model would foster a more effective international response.

The current international response approach to natural disasters poses several challenges. In the current approach to natural disasters, gaining access to the affected region can be limited by a lack of coordination and adaptability. Uncoordinated efforts have resulted in less effective responses and differing approaches often conflict with one another. Organizations and governments must coordinate their operations better and share information with one another.

Snider suggests that local capacity is fundamental to protecting societies against natural disasters. Because local capacity is changing, and in many places becoming stronger, international responses should reflect this reality and expand local capacity and community building projects. In addition, greater flexibility and adaptability is needed for responding within local contexts. Snider suggests that improving our efforts at the local and domestic levels, will lead to improvements in the international response. In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, Snider acknowledges that humanitarian efforts have become more effective at saving lives. However, he also noted that these efforts must expand their focus and look at recovery from the beginning. Further, such efforts must involve the affected community in recovery activities in a real and participatory way.

Elizabeth Ferris, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, began by comparing those affected by natural disasters and conflicts. Similarities include the human experience of loss, feelings of anger and abandonment towards the government, displacement, gender-based violence, greater suffering of vulnerable populations, discrimination in assistance, breakdown of social norms, lawlessness, and political consequences.

However, Ferris also noted that there are important differences between natural disasters and conflicts. In natural disasters, most of those displaced remain within their borders, rather than fleeing as refugees abroad. Solutions for those displaced by natural disasters are often different from those in conflict situations. For example, following a natural disaster, often those displaced cannot return to their community of origin. Finally, the approach to prevention in natural disasters is significantly different from prevention measures taken to avoid conflict. In some cases, the government may have to physically relocate people to protect them from impending natural disasters.

The international community must insure the protection of those affected by a natural disaster. Ferris outlines the approach taken in the IASC Operational Guidelines to formulate a hierarchy of rights for people affected by a natural disaster. At the top of this hierarchy is the right to life, illustrating that physically protecting people must be a top priority. Once the right to life is protected, the focus should shift to ensuring that basic needs are met. Finally, economic, social, and cultural and then civil political rights can be addressed in the aftermath of a natural disaster.[1]

Ferris notes that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, oftentimes people’s rights are violated unintentionally. For example, sometimes, NGOs unknowingly replicate and reproduce the domestic caste structure within their own staff, fostering inherent discrimination. In a series of workshops convened by the Brookings-Bern Project and the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (RSG) in South Asia, Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and Central America, participants noted similar cases of rights violations occurring in their very different experiences with disaster response. During the workshops, participants were able to see the human rights implications of disaster response and welcomed existing tools to assist them in adapting a rights-based approach.[2]

A rights-based approach could help prevent both intentional and unintentional violations of rights did not happen. Ferris does acknowledge the challenges to this type of approach, particularly when rights conflict with one another. Ferris concludes that when it comes to protection and natural disasters, the international response is still very weak, as evidenced by the lack of a designated lead agency for protection in natural disasters.

Anne Castleton, NGO Liaison and USG Grants Coordinator at Church World Service, provided a case study of Bangladesh cyclone shelters, illustrating the business case for Disaster Risk Reduction. Outlining the reasons for Bangladesh’s success in decreasing the number of deaths resulting from cyclones, Castleton asserts that implementing Disaster Risk Reduction measures, Bangladesh was able to minimize the damage of cyclones. Compared to other countries facing the same potential damage from cycles, Disaster Risk Reduction programs in Bangladesh have had a huge positive impact.

In the case of natural disasters, a hazard becomes a disaster because of vulnerability. Castleton argues that NGOs’ Disaster Risk Reduction programs support the Hyogo Framework for Action, by identifying, assessing and reducing risk, strengthening resilience and disaster preparedness, and ensuring that Disaster Risk Reduction is a national and local priority. Castleton then outlines the similarities between Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, noting that both focus on risk, examine underlying risk factors, such as poverty, and have similar indirect impacts (e.g., schooling, health, markets). For the most part, Disaster Risk Reduction programs are implemented on the humanitarian side of NGO’s though development programs should have an event stronger incentive to integrate DRR thinking into their perspective in order to protect investments.

Castleton concludes by discussing the relationship between NGOs, the U.S. government and Disaster Risk Reduction, and calls for USAID country missions to support the Hyogo Framework for Action in their DRR programming investments. Castleton suggests that a Disaster Risk Reduction perspective should be included in all USAID development funding in order to protect the investment.

Edward Cameron, Consultant in the Social Development Department at the World Bank, argued for completely changing our current perspective on the issue of climate change. Cameron stressed that climate change must be tackled urgently, with a fresh perspective. Developing greater coherence among different organizations and programs is essential to build local capacity and work across scales at all levels.

After a natural disaster, more long-term and sustainable approaches are needed. Cameron outlined several social dimensions of climate change, including, but not limited to: reconciling socio-ecological systems, complex social responses resulting from climate change, implications of climate change architecture, policy and intervention, a new diagnosis and building new communities.

Although there are differing definitions of vulnerability, Cameron notes that vulnerability includes more than exposure to risk. In addition to exposure, vulnerability includes sensitivity and adaptability, the latter of which is a long-term process that must strengthen both local and national assets. Although people in the developing world are most vulnerable to the implications of climate change, the developed world is causing most of the change in climate. Resilience is the key to empowering these vulnerable populations in the face of harsh climate change.

There are several aspects of climate policy that must be taken into account: mitigation and tackling greenhouse gasses, technology, adaptation, finance and human rights. Cameron described these aspects as Climate Policy Building Blocks and concluded by illustrating the challenges ahead, “The great tragedy of sustainable development is that we have not invented a politics to go with it.”

Margaret Arnold, Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist—Climate Change Adaptation at the World Bank, provided brief comments on the presentations. She asserted that in the end, empowering vulnerable societies to deal with natural disasters is an essential part of good development planning.

Noam Unger then opened up the discussion to the other participants. During the discussion, issues surrounding climate change strategies, existing evidence of climate related migration, and discrepancy between those who are most responsible for climate change and those most eager to address it were addressed.

Regarding climate change strategies, Cameron pointed out that an integral component has to be political will. All groups involved need to discuss and develop synergies for their efforts while tackling incentive structures to encourage cooperation and change.

As the climate changes, Ferris noted that migration is likely to be an adaptation strategy. Some evidence of this is already present, for example migration of Bangladeshis into India as a result of flooding—migration is likely to increase with sea-level rises. The potential of large-scale climate-induced migration raises major political, legal, economic, and security questions. For example, politically, migration could signal the “death” of nations, such as island states. Legally and economically, it is unclear what happens if a nation moves. Who would have the rights to the territory for mineral use, for example?

Finally, a clear discrepancy exists between those responsible for climate change and those most affected by it. Cameron pointed out that between these two groups, those vulnerable to climate change are aware of their vulnerability but do not know what to do to combat it. To the contrary, those responsible for climate change know what to do to combat it, but have become complacent.

Prepared by Sarah Moore and Erin Williams

[1] These rights are explained in Protecting Persons Affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, available at

[2] Reports of these workshops can be downloaded from the Project’s website. Central America: South Asia:,-d-,aspx.aspx.