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Dec. 12, 2007

New Partnership Aims to Improve Response
to Humanitarian Impact of Climate Change

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), part of Columbia University's Earth Institute, is developing tailored forecasting and monitoring products to help the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) improve its capabilities to both respond to and prepare for disasters. The need to incorporate climate information into disaster-risk reduction and decision making is urgent, evidenced by the increasing frequency, intensity and humanitarian consequences of disasters around the world.

Floods in Kenya, September 2007. A number of key bridges and roads have been washed away across the country making transportation a nightmare for commuters, students and humanitarian agencies attempting to deliver relief supplies. Photo by Anthony Mwangi/Kenya Red Cross

In September 2007, floods in Kenya washed away a number of key bridges and roads across the country, making transportation a nightmare for humanitarian agencies attempting to deliver relief supplies.
Photo by Anthony Mwangi, Kenya Red Cross

According to the IFRC, the number of weather-related disasters each year has doubled since the early 1990s. A changing climate coupled with changes in land use and population patterns means more people will be living in locations vulnerable to storms, droughts, floods and other climate risks. In addition to the immediate impacts on lives and livelihoods, disasters can also lead to disease outbreaks. The flood-related cholera epidemics in Senegal in 2005, for example, affected more than 30,000 people and killed nearly 500. Recently in Bangladesh, Cyclone Sidr forced millions from their homes and killed thousands. Events such as these — expected to become more frequent due to climate change — will place an increasing burden on governments and humanitarian organizations, which are responsible for mitigating impacts and saving lives.

Related Links

Columbia Experts Join UN Climate Meeting in Indonesia, Columbia News, Dec. 4, 2007

University Study Shows Climate Change Impacts May Be Worse Than Expected, Earth Institute News, Dec. 3, 2007

Earth Institute Colleagues Share in the Nobel Peace Prize, Earth Institute News, Oct. 12, 2007

The partnership will mobilize Columbia’s expertise in climate forecasting to help improve global humanitarian preparedness and response. The IRI's collaboration with the International Federation — the largest humanitarian organization in the world, with tens of millions of volunteers — provides an enormous opportunity for improved early warning and early action at global and local levels. 

"We are thrilled to be working with the International Federation to help them better anticipate and respond to extreme weather and climate events. As a global leader in disaster response, it is an ideal partner to connect new knowledge and information with best practices throughout the world," said Steven Zebiak, director-general of IRI, which is based at Columbia University’s Lamont campus in Palisades, New York.

"Based on our initial interactions, I feel we're not far from a time when we can say that thanks to this particular partnership, we've been able to save more lives," says Peter Rees-Gildea, who directs the International Federation's operations support department.

When responding to disasters such as droughts, floods and epidemics, humanitarian organizations must often make split-second decisions, including when and where to send aid. Since both time and resources are limited, determining which areas are likely to be hit first or hardest by disaster can mean the difference between life and death.

Also critical is predicting the "hotspots," or areas that are at high risk of one or more disasters because of their location and the vulnerability of their populations. Examples include densely populated flood plains.

The IRI's climate-risk management approach involves combining state-of-the-art climate information with knowledge on vulnerability and sector-specific impacts. Over the last 11 years, the IRI has developed a variety of tools to better understand, anticipate and respond to climate and weather events and their impacts. They can also be used to enhance the International Federation’s community-based response.

Preparations for and response to disaster-related impacts on human health can benefit immediately from tools, such as the Malaria Early Warning System (MEWS). Developed by the IRI, the World Health Organization and partners, MEWS incorporates vulnerability assessment, seasonal forecasting, climate and environmental monitoring and health surveillance. It is already being used operationally in Africa, where the information is integrated into epidemic prevention and control. The IRI is also working on similar systems for epidemic meningitis, Rift Valley Fever, cholera and other diarrheal diseases, all of which have direct relevance to the International Federation’s health operations.