This summer the climate crisis moved to Europe’s front door and dominated its headlines. Up close and in real-time, we watched swift devastation, heart-breaking loss and harrowing rescues by local responders as floodwaters inundated communities in western Europe.
And despite the tireless efforts of firefighters and volunteers across the Mediterranean region, the worst wildfires in memory continued to ravage forests and residential areas.
Over the past decade, extreme weather events have affected more than 1.7 billion people worldwide and killed almost half a million. These events are undeniably on the rise, occurring with increasing frequency and intensity all over the world.
But while everyone is aware of the mega-disasters, the vast majority of climate-induced emergencies are happening out of the global spotlight. They are devastating lives, livelihoods, infrastructure and economies, in countries and communities with limited resources or capacity to prepare and respond.
Take Algeria, Albania and North Macedonia, where deadly wildfires, sparked by record high temperatures, have been scorching villages, farms and forests. This caused the displacement of tens of thousands people, all amid alarming surges in COVID-19 cases.
In Burundi, Yemen, Mongolia and Panama, heavy rains and floods in recent months have wreaked havoc for hundreds of thousands of people, on top of other ongoing humanitarian emergencies.
The real, often unnoticed impact of climate change is in the rapidly rising tide of smaller climate-related disasters like these, which disproportionately affect already vulnerable populations.
We must improve capabilities where people live
It may sound obvious, but whatever and wherever the disaster is, whether the onset is slow and gruelling or fast and furious, far more lives could be saved if resources are channelled quickly and directly to strong local actors who have the trust of affected communities and access to them.
Already on the ground, it’s local people and local actors that are best positioned to respond to early warnings and forecasts, prepare for disasters before they hit, and provide critical help in their aftermath. This is as true for Belgium as it is for Bangladesh.
International actors will always play a vital role in humanitarian action, particularly for large and complex emergencies. But when it comes to most disaster response operations, the traditional approach of funding international agencies who sub-contract to local groups needs to complement agile local action.
Far more investment must be made at the local level to ensure vulnerable communities can anticipate risk, prepare for extreme weather events, act early to protect themselves and reduce impact, and respond quickly and effectively when they need to, because that’s what saves lives and money.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and its largest donor, the European Commission, are committed to building community resilience, investing in early, local and cost-effective action and strengthening in-country capacity, coordination and accountability.
One of the fastest, most effective and most transparent mechanisms to do this is the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, which channels resources directly to national societies already embedded in communities on the frontline of climate change.
On average, the fund supports more than 100 responses to small and medium-sized disasters every year — enabling teams to anticipate hazards, prepare for disasters before they happen and kickstart life-saving services after they hit.
COVID-19 exposed the weak points
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored something that we’ve known for a long time: the future of disaster response must be local.
The crisis brought by the pandemic was a hard blow, as international and travel restrictions dramatically reduced international deployments. Local responders still had to respond to extreme weather events and other emergencies, made worse by the pandemic.
The pandemic also exposed extreme vulnerabilities and inequalities in countries and systems, and made crystal clear the need and value in funding preparedness and early action.
We urge governments and other international donors to make this investment and do it at the local level, where it has the greatest impact.
To this end, IFRC is hosting a pledging conference on October 18, 2021, to be co-chaired by the European Commission, aimed at scaling up the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund.
Now more than ever, it is vital to expand the resource base for local anticipatory action and response, to close the growing gap between humanitarian needs and global donations, and to continue using scarce resources wisely.
Janez Lenarčič is the European Commissioner for Crisis Management. Jagan Chapagain is secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.