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The right to survive

The world's major cities are increasingly under threat from climate-related disasters. A greater awa

The hero of Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal Malik, faces many hazards before he can win the game-show and get the girl: growing up in a Mumbai slum, orphaned in religious violence, living on a rubbish dump, getting caught up with gangsters. But the film misses out on an increasingly dangerous threat to Jamal and his ilk – the weather.

Mumbai is one of the world’s cities most vulnerable to flooding, with over half the population living in slums, many built on reclaimed swampland. In July 2005 floods caused 900 deaths, mostly by landslips and collapsed buildings. With its crumbling drainage system, uncontrolled development and the destruction of mangrove swamps that once soaked up intense rains, the urban poor are facing increasing risks from the weather in this 21st century megacity.

It’s not just Mumbai. In rapidly swelling cities across Asia, Africa and the Americas, from Jakarta to Lagos to Port-au-Prince, rapid urbanisation is pushing people to live on marginal land at risk of flooding and other climatic disasters.

At the same time climate change is bringing new and unpredictable weather patterns, increasing the number of storms and their intensity. Rising sea levels will leave 200m people living in coastal floodplains at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods.

The effects will be huge. Research collated by Oxfam shows that in only six years time the number of people affected by climate-related crises is projected to rise by 54 per cent, from 250 million people currently to 375 million. This doesn’t include the huge numbers of people affected by wars, volcanoes and earthquakes.

It takes poverty to turn a storm into a full-blown disaster. The United States saw this very clearly when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Poor people are more likely to live in densely populated areas, in rickety houses, without savings or access to health care. Living so close to the edge they are easily killed or pushed into utter destitution.

Their country cousins remain vulnerable too. Huge numbers of people in East and Central Africa and South Asia are growing ever more vulnerable to an annual drought and flood cycle. In 2008, failed rains in Ethiopia left millions in need of food aid. Nearly four million people, mostly peasants, were affected by floods in Bihar, India in 2008.

Many climate disasters don’t make the headlines. Who remembers that Haiti was hit by four hurricanes last year, or that swathes of Mexico were flooded the year before? But the cumulative effect is huge. As John Holmes, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator said: “All these events on their own didn’t have massive death tolls, but if you add them together you get a mega-disaster.”

The massive increase in disasters would be shocking enough if the world could cope with the current humanitarian situations. But the international system struggles to cope with current crises, like the millions going hungry in Somalia and hundreds of thousands adrift and homeless in the jungles of the Congo.

In 2006 the world spent an estimated $14.2 billion (£9.5 billion) on international humanitarian aid, less than the amount spent on video games. Keeping pace with the expected increase in disasters means the world will have to spend around $25 billion (£16.8 billion) to maintain the current levels of humanitarian aid. But at $50 per person this isn’t enough to meet their basic needs. In 2007 in Bangladesh families were still living under plastic sheeting months after Cyclone Sidr hit because the $70 government housing grant wasn’t enough to rebuild their homes.

If the world’s rich governments in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development gave as much as the OECD’s ten most generous countries, then global humanitarian aid would increase to $42 billion. In comparison, the UK government’s bank bailout in September 2008 cost $55 billion (£37 billion).

Aid must not only be increased, it must be spent more fairly. In 2004, victims of the Asian tsunami received aid at an average of $1,241 (£832) per head. In Chad, which received far less media coverage than the tsunami, only $23 (£15) per head was spent on similarly destitute people. Their misfortune was to suffer a disaster that was slow, quiet and insidious.

The world humanitarian system, comprising of the UN, national governments and aid agencies (both western and non-western) needs to be much more timely, adequately funded and impartial. It also needs to go beyond a sticking-plaster approach and help poor countries to withstand future shocks.

In Bolivia, Oxfam worked with local authorities to find a more permanent solution after flooding devastated tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land in 2007. Elevated seedbeds surrounded by water channels protect crops from water surges and keep them irrigated during drier periods. The cost of implementing such programmes to prepare for disasters is a fraction of providing post-disaster relief.

Poor countries can do a lot to deal with the effects of storms and flooding - if the political will is there. Bangladesh, Cuba and Mozambique have all invested heavily in protecting their people, and suffer much less loss of life in disasters than other poor countries. With extra help from the rich world more vulnerable countries will be able to follow their example.

As well as improved and increased aid, the rich world must also help poor countries to cope with the extra stress of climate change. Oxfam estimates that they need to provide at least $50 billion (£33 billion) annually – in addition to their aid budgets - to help people protect themselves from climate change, for example developing drought or flood-tolerant crops, or for training and equipment for rainwater harvesting to cope with altered rainfall patterns. Infrastructure also needs urgent improvement, raising bridges and roads in flood-prone areas or strengthening buildings to cope with increasing numbers of hurricanes.

Stress-proofing entire regions against weather disasters is a long, hard slog. Few Western politicians are going to win plaudits for increasing aid budgets in a recession, or tackling the tough job of improving the humanitarian system. There are no awards for directors making films about an Indian boy building an embankment to save his slum. This doesn’t make it any less urgent or important.

Oxfam's recently published report, The Right to Survive, examines the humanitarian implications of climate-related disasters

Barbara Stocking is the Chief Executive of Oxfam

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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