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Why climate action matters for governments battling COVID-19

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Layers of hazards are creating a domino effect of losses - but well-prepared national systems could handle a more risky and uncertain future

By Gernot Laganda, chief of climate and disaster risk reduction programmes at the World Food Programme (WFP)

GENEVA, 12 JUNE 2020 (REUTERS) --- The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented test of governments’ abilities to manage risk.

As livelihoods are stretched to their breaking point, with a staggering 130 million additional people at risk of slipping into severe hunger before the end of the year, countries face not only the pandemic itself but also collisions with other regional or global problems. This includes the global climate crisis, which disrupts outbreak response around the world and exacerbates the unfolding economic recession.

Throughout the months of the outbreak, extreme weather events kept hitting vulnerable countries around the world with increasing severity.

In several Pacific islands, handling of the COVID-19 outbreak was undermined by tropical cyclone Harold, which has wiped out roads, runways and food reserves in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga. In East Africa, heavy flooding and locust invasions have put 90 million hectares of cropland at risk, driving people from their homes and compounding a regional food crisis that is already affecting 27.5 million people.

Cyclones Amphan and Nisarga have hit India and Bangladesh, challenging authorities to maintain social distancing in cyclone shelters and protect health infrastructure that is so vital in managing not only the COVID-19 outbreak, but also the occurrence of increasingly ferocious heatwaves.

These climate hazards keep reminding us that we do not live in a single-hazard world. The world is dynamic and interconnected, and the biggest threats to societies do not emerge one at a time. They materialize in parallel, reach across national borders, and compound each other.

This goes for pandemics, global financial crises and cyber-attacks as much as for climate shocks and stresses which are becoming important risk multipliers as the globe is warming - driving a range of new problems such as conflict and the breakdown of agricultural value chains.

Mounting hazards can quickly make households vulnerable to new risks. Given the multiple effects one crisis can have on people’s incomes and assets, the abilities of households to cope with new and emerging problems can change very rapidly.

In Bangladesh, WFP and its partners are helping the government to complement the COVID-19 response through early warning networks and pre-determined action plans for the flood and cyclone season.

Many people who have experienced the health or economic consequences of the pandemic are now more vulnerable than they were a year ago; preventive cash transfer programs ahead of the monsoon season help the government strengthen safety nets for a greater number of vulnerable people and thereby manage two hazards at the same time.

While immediate steps can be taken with humanitarian aid to minimize loss of life from individual hazards, governments require longer-term strategies and systems to adapt to the realities of a riskier world.

Unlike for COVID-19, there will be no vaccine or cure for runaway climate change. Long after the pandemic is brought under control, smallholder farmers will keep pointing to dried-out fields and empty silos as climatic conditions become ever more extreme and unpredictable.

We will see well-known hazards such as drought, floods and storms being aggravated by new ones such as pest infestations, heatwaves, biodiversity loss and resource-based conflicts; and we will realize how these new realities have been even more destructive than the global health crisis we experienced in 2020.

These realities need to be acknowledged now and integrated into national adaptation plans and systems before it is too late.

Confronted with such new and emerging realities, what can humanitarian organizations contribute? For one, humanitarians have decades of experience grappling with risk. They understand how crises unfold, how governments are forced to repeatedly absorb the same types of shocks, and how much it costs – both in human and financial terms – when action is taken late.

Humanitarians understand the importance of risk reduction and risk transfer programs, even though these are still under-funded at a global scale. And in a context of increasing risk-multipliers, humanitarian institutions can be effective partners for governments to operationalize risk-informed development – helping countries to hardwire nature-based solutions, social safety nets, early-warning systems and emergency preparedness into planning and investment decisions.

Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis has forced many governments to reflect on the realities of the climate crisis. This is often talked about as a global emergency, but not always followed up with concrete actions after international climate negotiations conclude.

We live in a time in which hazards cross borders, and in which these hazards create a domino effect of losses and damages in national economies. Only well-prepared national systems are able to understand and handle a more risky and uncertain future.

Bouncing back from COVID-19 presents not only a challenge, but also an unprecedented opportunity to unlock massive resilience benefits – provided that governments do not launch new fiscal or financial incentives to perpetuate the status quo, and that they recognise the importance of shifting from entrenched practices of fighting fires to a more forward-looking one of managing new types of risk......PACNEWS