Fletcher Features

Preparation Needed to Avert Humanitarian Crises: Profs. Moomaw and Hammock

Climate and Calamity


Stories about severe flooding in the Philippine capital of Manila were splashed across U.S. newspapers and other media last summer: people thigh-high in water, cars nearly submerged on city streets, water-borne disease a clear threat. It was yet another natural disaster with more people in crisis, and humanitarian groups were poised to act.

On the ground, though, Filipinos were ready. The floods come almost every year. Armed with one of the highest densities of smartphone coverage in the world, metro Manila residents texted and tweeted continual updates about conditions at the street level; a Filipino-developed computer program collated the messages, tracked the rapidly changing conditions and alerted authorities about where help was needed most. The army, the Red Cross and the municipal authorities all had agreed-upon roles to play and got down to the business of cleaning up the mess.

Weather-related crises—floods, droughts, powerful cyclones and hurricanes—are likely to increase as global temperatures continue to rise, according to climate scientists’ latest projections. But most governments and humanitarian organizations are not as well prepared as those in Manila. Even in Boston, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in late October, some scientists say the city needs to do much more to gird itself for dangerous storms and rising sea levels. …

… “All the analyses show that in the future, we will have more frequent extreme weather events,” says William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at the Fletcher School and a longtime member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Generally, he says, “the wet places are getting wetter, and the dry places are getting drier.” The IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, noted in a report issued that year that warming of the climate system “is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.” …

…The humanitarian aid system typically operates by having outsiders come in and fix immediate problems. However, that interventionist reaction to periodic crises is increasingly unrealistic. “I think the whole one-off response approach is wrong,” says John Hammock, F68, F71, an associate professor of public policy at the Fletcher School and an adjunct professor at the Friedman School. “We have to respond—things happen, no doubt about it. But the best way to deal with them is to do it before they happen.”

(Reprinted from TuftsNow)

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