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The human face of weather

The priority now is to keep natural disasters from making the lives of millions of people worse

Samuel Rodríguez Benin: poverty, delayed plans and vulnerabilitySamuel Rodríguez

Maria Neira is running against time. As the head of the public health and environment team at WHO – World Health Organization in Geneva, she will have to complete, by the beginning of next year, the action plan requested by 193 Health ministers to prevent and contain the natural disasters that are expected to become worse and more frequent as a result of climate change. In June, in the presence of representatives from more than 37 countries, Alexander Bedritsky presented the proposal of the WMO -World Meteorological Organization, over which he presides, to make weather forecasts more precise, faster and more useful, in order to avoid the social tragedies brought on by increasingly likely, imminent and extreme climate events, such as droughts, floods and desertification. Shortly before this, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, as chairman of the Global Humanitarian Forum had brought together some 300 leaders of financial institutions, governments and international organizations, to whom he presented the Global Alliance for Climate Justice, a plan to protect poorer countries in particular, as they are also the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

The priority of these and of other institutions, now, is the so-called human face of climate change, expressed by the possibility of hurricanes, droughts and storms destroying the social and economic structures of cities or countries, making hunger and violence more severe across the world, expanding epidemics of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, increasing social marginalization and causing millions of people to migrate. “Climate change represents an additional risk for 600 million people in a state of chronic malnutrition; cases of malaria may increase by 400 million and force the dislocation of 332 million people living on coastal areas,” commented Cecília Ugaz, director of the United National Development Program (UNDP) and coordinator of the human development report released at the end of last year, which details the vulnerability of human population in the face of climate transformation. The heat wave that killed 70 thousand people in Europe in 2003, Catarina, the first hurricane on record in the South Atlantic which surprised the South of Brazil in 2004, and Katrina, which destroyed the city of New Orleans and caused the death of almost 2 thousand people in 2005, regardless of whether they were caused by climate mutations, have become examples of what may happen more often in the future. They also show what one should do – or what should have been done – to avoid and manage the damage that these natural disasters leave in their wake.

“We must learn from disasters,” suggests Maryam Golnaraghi, head of the disaster risk reduction division of the WMO. “Why weren’t the inhabitants of New Orleans prepared? We could have had good weather forecasting, the information should have reached the community and investments in infrastructure should have been made in the area.” All countries are now vulnerable, to a greater or lesser extent. “New Orleans had the same problems as Bangladesh,” notes Suren Erkman, a professor from the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. Surrounded by mountains in the north and by the sea in the south, Bangladesh has been buffeted by severe flooding of the rivers that cross this country of 150 million inhabitants, filling homes with water, covering cities and destroying plantations.

“We must adapt, starting right now, to short-term climate change, which may have a major social impact, and we must prepare for long-term oscillations,” proposes Antonio Divino Moura, director of Inmet (Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology) and third vice-president of WMO. “The drought in the Amazon region in 2005 was forecast, but nobody did anything about it. The rivers dried up and food for the population was scarce. We must be creative and use the information to make decisions.” As an example of action against climate fluctuations, Moura mentioned the work of the meteorologists, anthropologists and sociologists who talked to farmers and jointly found ways to reduce the impact of drought in the state of Ceará. As a result, since 1992, the state government has been speeding up civil construction, and promoting public works that employ workers that can no longer make a living out of farming (on which almost half the population depends), in the imminence of severe drought.

Samuel Rodríguez West African plains: threatened by erosion and floodingSamuel Rodríguez

Celebrated in the last few years, the mathematical models that indicate climate trends in coming years continue to be important, but concerns are now broader. At present, the expression “climate change” not only inspires moving scenes of polar bears isolated on disintegrating glaciers, but also drives urgent plans that consider the limits and the needs of each city or region, and attribute clear roles to institutions and people. According to Maryam, the prevention and detection of natural disasters – and, after they occur, response and recovery – require coordination by institutions and national and local government, plus the coordinated action of the services of meteorology, hydrology, geology, health and the navy, besides the development of  awareness, participation and cooperation of society at large, based on planning and laws that can function before, during and after tragedies.

Walter Fust, director-general of the Global Humanitarian Forum, an NGO that has been in operation for one year, knows that it will be hard to help poor countries – which will possibly be the ones hardest hit – to take precautions against bad weather. According to him, public policy formulators do not feel responsible for the economic and social tragedies, such as the loss of homes and jobs, which cast a shadow over natural disaster survivors. Arguments that might persuade politicians to take action are plentiful. Some countries, such as Russia, may gain agricultural areas, but the negative effects will more likely predominate. “Agricultural output should drop, even with a small increase in the mean annual temperature of just 1 or 2 degrees” states Manama Siva Kumar, head of WHO’s agricultural meteorology division. With greater fluctuations, of as much as 5o Celsius, the production of rice and wheat might fall by half in India.

“What is lacking is social organization to deal with these problems,” says Wolfgang Grabs, head of the WMO division of water resources. The notion of danger may escape not only the public policy formulators, but also farmers in poor countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh, who are loath to abandon their land even when it is under water. Because they lack legal title to the land, they fear losing it to others should they leave and therefore chose to believe that the weather forecasts may be wrong. The World Bank emphasizes the need for local action and international cooperation among governmental and private-sector institutions, and civil society groups, in a document released for public consultation and due to be voted on this month, proposing innovative mechanisms to put into practice measures for adapting to climate change. “Avoiding the worst,” says Cecilia Ugaz, “implies more decentralized models of the State and of social and economic development, with commitment by society at large.”

In Geneva, the weather shows no signs of cruelty, other than for a summer that began intensely and suddenly, reaching 37º C. Even so, the inhabitants are mobilizing – and not only to bathe or sail in the vast lake of cold water that runs down from the Alps. “Everyone can participate,” says Alexandre Epalle, coordinator of the city’s sustainable development service. The sustainable life guide that he helped to create motivated the 180 thousand residents to change their habits and to prefer locally produced food, to eat less meat and to care how the things they consume are produced. With the guidance of leaflets, booklets and manuals, they also pay attention to recycling: out of a total of 600 thousand tons of waste produced by the city every year, 350 thousand, or 63%, are recycled (vs. only 12% in Brazil), whole 160 thousand are incinerated to produce energy. “Everyone uses recycled paper, even the president of the Republic,” comments Martial Honsberger, responsible for the management and recycling of waste at one of the recycling plants, which runs on weekends up to 9:00 p.m. and serves 25 thousand people. Switzerland ranked first in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) from the universities of Yale and Columbia (USA); out of 149 countries, Brazil ranked 35th, as a result of having pioneered the production of clean energy, in particular fuel alcohol, but its ranking was held back by industrial pollution and by the high ratio of destruction of native forests.

Samuel Rodríguez For Maria Neira, from WHO, taking more buses or trains and driving less, another recommendation that the Geneva inhabitants have embraced, does not merely help to delay the wrath of the climate, as transportation accounts for 25% of the consumption of energy and the emission of greenhouse gases, one of the causes of climate change: it is also a way of improving health, fighting obesity and sedentariness and, with fewer vehicles in the streets and less pollution in the air, to reduce the incidence of asthma and cancer. “If the population becomes aware of the health benefits, it will push for improvements in the urban environment,” she says. The WHO recommendations, primarily geared toward poor countries, include reinforcing the healthcare teams and infrastructure to hold epidemics – expected to become stronger – in check. “We must be prepared to do what in any event has to be done to avoid   already bad situations becoming worse.”

Michel Jarraud, WMO secretary-general, emphasizes: “We must reduce the impact of a climate change while also adapting to it.” The recommendation is perhaps more warmly received and better implemented among the Swiss than among the inhabitants of poor countries such as Benin, in West Africa. The old port from which some two million blacks sailed to become slaves in Brazil, Benin ranks 163rd among the 177 countries of the UN’s 2007-2008 Human Development Index. It is one of the 40 poorest countries in the world. Juliette Koudenoukpo, Minister of the Environment, recognizes that the government is well behind with a plan that could reduce the country’s vulnerability to the impact of climate change, since most of its nine million inhabitants live off subsistence farming on the coastal plains, subject to erosion and the rising of the sea level. Most of these farmers have already realized that the weather’s behavior during the course of the seasons of the year has changed, and that the rains have decreased: whereas before they used to harvest two corn crops, now, with luck, they get one. Many now prefer to plant the physic nut (Jatropha curcas), that still yields two crops a year and that is used to produce biodiesel in homes. The women plant trees to contain the transformation of the climate, but they chose a species that environmental specialists do not like much, because it absorbs a lot of water: the eucalyptus.

Cotonu, a port and the country’s financial center, with 800 thousand inhabitants, is one of the world’s most polluted cities, as a result of its hot humid weather and the exhaust fumes of thousands of moto-taxis in constant use (there are no buses). Their drivers wear yellow shirts, do not dream of wearing helmets – regarded as equally dispensable for their passengers – and buy poor quality gasoline from the neighboring country of Nigeria, sold in bottles at improvised street stands. “Driving a moto-taxi is just temporary, while I don’t have anything better,” comments Sebastien Djossa, aged 32, in the face of the shortage of jobs even for those with higher education. “It’s not a shameful occupation and it’s better than going hungry.” One of the rare people able to speak English in a French-speaking nation, Djossa tells us that every night his bones ache and that he prays not to have any accidents the following day.

Hamsah Fatay, aged 52, resells Chinese motorbikes that he buys from a distributor in Nigeria and was still unaware that the president of Benin had obtained a loan from the International Monetary Fund to subsidize agriculture and contain the rising cost of food. “I hope that this money is also used to educate adults; that way I could go back to school and learn English,” he commented. His dream was to get a visa and find a better job in another country. “There is no future for me here.”

*The following contributed to this article: Lina Sagaral Reyes, Naftali K. Mungai and Samuel Rodríguez (photos), from Cotonu, Benin. The authors of this article traveled at the invitation of the Media21 Global Journalism Network.