Slow onset disasters: where climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction meet

Slow onset disasters: where climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction meet

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

When we think about weather or climate-related disasters, we think mostly of sudden events like floods, hurricanes, or wildfires. These events often threaten people and infrastructure, leading to loss of life and livelihoods. Responses to them are usually regulated through emergency management plans on a national and regional level. Slow onset disasters, on the other hand, creep up on communities. While their relatively slow evolution offers an opportunity to prepare appropriate responses, the perceived lack of urgency can pose a significant challenge for those affected.

Gaps in relevant policy frameworks might fail to address slow onset disasters and leave whole communities vulnerable and exposed to slow onset disasters. Such disasters can be catastrophic, such as in the case of an Alaskan community whose village is literally crumbling into a river. In such cases disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) can help, especially if they learn from each other.

Subtle differences but common goals

CCA and DRR are covered by separate policy frameworks, funding sources, and implementation mechanisms. However, they share a fundamental aim: reducing the vulnerability and building the resilience of communities and areas affected by shocks and stresses. DRR does this through systematically analysing and managing the causes of disaster, like exposure to hazards, vulnerability, and improved preparedness for shocks. CCA, on the other hand, aims at adjusting natural or human systems as a response to climatic changes, reducing potential harm and exploiting beneficial opportunities.

The DRR discipline has historically relied on climate and weather risk scenarios that are based on past disaster events, in order to assess disaster risk. However, these scenarios are becoming less reliable due to climate change. The changing risk landscape poses a challenge to traditional DRR strategies. This is where CCA can usefully inform the discussion, as it incorporates climate projections and assesses how risks change over time.

These changes in risk scenarios are crucial for the management of slow onset disasters. Take for example the rate at which land ice is melting. Recent reports suggest that rate is increasing faster than expected because the Arctic is experiencing disproportionate warming compared to the rest of the globe. This will inevitably contribute to an increase in sea level rise and affect vulnerable island and coastal communities. While DRR has decades of experience working with communities on the ground, CCA offers expertise in managing climate risk increments; collaboration and knowledge exchange between the two could, thus, significantly improve resilience building.

An opportunity to prepare

Slow onset disasters are happening all over the world. Bangladesh, for example, is facing (among several other threats) sea level rise and waste-clogged rivers that are causing water logging and salt water intrusion, as well as erosion in coastal zones. The loss of arable land, potable water and habitable land is slowly forcing people to move away from their homes and livelihoods. Projections estimate that the country will experience between 28-98 cm of sea level rise by 2100. A 90 cm rise would submerge almost 20 percent of the country and displace over 30 million people.

Due to its geography, Bangladesh is naturally prone to flooding on coasts and inland. However, a combination of socio-economic factors, like population growth and poverty, in combination with increasing risks from climate change are exacerbating these issues. While the disaster management approach in the country used to focus a lot on relief, there is agreement now that resilience building and risk reduction should be prioritised.

In many regards, Bangladesh is now leading the way in terms of climate change policiesfunding resilience, and integrating CCA and DRR. The country is taking the opportunity to adapt to and reduce risks from climate change as best as it can in the available timeframes. It has a disaster management plan that clearly links DRR efforts to the national climate action plan and CCA.

The plan states “disaster risk reduction options that best suit the user and [are] accepted by them will eventually emerge as adaptation options,” offering another viewpoint on how DRR and CCA interact: the former engaging with communities using bottom-up approaches, and the latter learning from those approaches influencing government and policy.

When no one is responsible

The most important part of dealing with slow onset disasters is recognising that they are, in fact, disasters. A clear designation guarantees, at least to some extent, that there will be clear responsibilities in government, especially if there are disaster management and/or climate adaptation policies in place. A nightmarish example from the US illustrates why.

Earlier this year, before the end of the Obama administration, the Alaskan village Newtok requested a federal disaster declaration in order to finance the relocation of their village. The village, which lies on the shores of the Nigliq river, is being threatened by erosion and melting permafrost. Important infrastructure like the barge landing, sewage lagoon, and landfill are already gone; six homes and the local drinking water source are said to be lost by the end of this year. While the scenario sounds very much like a disaster, the fact that it is happening over a prolonged period of time meant that the village was denied disaster relief funds. Previously it had applied for a resilience grant, but the community did not get those funds either. Right now, Newtok is left in limbo without foreseeable solutions to their sinking village – a risk, the US General Accounting Office warned about 14 years ago, that is now reality and worse than expected due to climate change.

An area for intense cooperation

Climate change is not a problem of the future, its impacts are being felt here and now. This means that risk scenarios that were once useful for DRR are becoming less reliable and need to be re-evaluated. One focus of CCA is changing physical, biological, and socio-economic patterns connected to climate change over longer periods of time and managing those evolving conditions. CCA practitioners have experience anticipating and responding to the consequences of climate change, and can offer valuable insights to inform DRR. One possible area of collaboration would be the development of iterative risk management frameworks, which might take the form of ongoing assessments, responses, and actions geared towards increasing climate resilience.

Given their timeframes, slow onset disasters offer an opportunity for cooperation between the DRR and CCA communities to increase resilience to climate risks. Be it in Bangladesh, Alaska, or in other at risk places, like small Pacific Island States losing land, or drought-prone areas such as the southwestern US and the Horn of Africa; the knowledge exchange and collaboration could yield positive results.

Cover photo by Shykh Seraj (CC by 2.0)

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