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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