Flooding in Pakistan for the fourth consecutive year has put the spotlight on fledgling programs meant to improve infrastructure and humanitarian aid policies. A combination of monsoon rains and melted glacier water convened, causing rivers to overflow into towns, bringing massive destruction in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces as well as Baluchistan and Giljit Baltistan. In the Chitral district, water washed away more than 28 villages, leaving the area completely inaccessible by car and depleted of food, drinking water and communication technology.

More than 500,000 people have been affected and experts report the accelerated spread of disease in affected areas. This is the fourth consecutive year that the country has seen such conditions; in 2010, 20% of the country was underwater and 20 million people were displaced. Though this year’s floodwaters do not pose such grave dangers, Pakistani activists and politicians have been calling for political reform and funding to help lessen the impact of seemingly inevitable annual flooding.

In 2013, the Pakistani government adapted the National Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) policy, which increased funding for disaster management to $1.6 million. The DRR policy plans to strengthen institutions that will work solely to tackle challenges posed by natural disasters and better prepare the country for such occurrences. The policy plans on passing new laws, including those related to fire safety, industrial hazards, construction, land use and building codes. It plans on expanding its Emergency Rescue Service, reviving civilian humanitarian organizations, and partnering with NGOs and local organizations to support disaster-prone areas of the country. The policy will also help pass on information to communities on more resilient innovations in home construction techniques, water and sanitation systems and alternative sources of electricity.

However, critics say the government isn’t working fast enough. The country’s water management system, for example, will continue to be overwhelmed by extreme amounts of water until the system is completely overhauled. A more proactive stance, critics say, that prevents the effects of flooding before they occur, is crucial. Rolling out programs such as the National Disaster Risk Reduction policy will help build stronger, better-informed communities that will cooperate with local organizations to improve technology and design. Doing so will create more sustainable regions that can both use their resources more efficiently and withstand the threat of natural disasters, a seemingly inevitable fact of life these days.

– Jenna Wheeler

Sources: Irin News, Prevention Web
Photo: Flickr

Flooding and extremely heavy rains have accounted for about 150,000 displaced people in Myanmar and the death of 27 people thus far. These extreme conditions were initially attributed to Cyclone Komen, which hit the region of southeast Asia, followed by intense rain.

These rains have lead to flooding, landslides and other disasters, which have completely destroyed specific regions in Myanmar. Heavy rains that have plagued the region in past weeks are unfortunately expected to continue over the next few weeks, furthering the disaster and mess that fills the region. There are images and videos of people using rafts and boats to maneuver through city streets, where cars were meant to be driven.

This is an issue of security for the government of Myanmar as well as private actors that are trying to assist displaced people in the region. Though the disaster occurred a few days ago, both government officials and members of other organizations such as the Red Cross predict that they will not able to reach any people caught in the disaster for days. Because the flooding and landslides are so intense and extreme, it is difficult for anyone on the outside to make their way into the disaster efficiently or safely. This also means it is near impossible for those stuck in the floods to make their way out to safety.

The extent of damage varies throughout the region. Not only have homes been washed away and roads completely submerged in water, but even bridges have been washed away and large buildings have collapsed. The United Nations has said there are about 140,000 people left from the flood and disaster currently living in camps in the region’s capital after managing to escape the horrible conditions.

These floods will have a detrimental long-term impact as well. Numerous crop fields, including about half a million rice paddy fields, have been flooded and destroyed. The economic toll of such destruction has yet to be determined.

There is hope that the extreme weather conditions will ease soon, thus making relief aid more readily available and able to enter the region to help those who are trapped.

Alexandrea Jacinto

Sources: CNN, BBC
Photo: BBC


Ripped apart by rivers, drenched by monsoons and floating just above the sea, Bangladesh is like the toe that the Himalayas are using to test the waters of the Indian Ocean. All of this exposure to water leads to yearly flooding, an immense challenge for the developing nation of 156 million. From crop loss to infrastructure damage, the costs of flooding are massive hurdles to poverty reduction; the floods in 2004 costed the country seven billion dollars. Perhaps the most insidious impacts of the floods is their disruptive effects on education in Bangladesh.

Founded in 1998, the Bangladesh nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, recognized how the floods prohibited students from making it to school and decided to bring the school to them. They achieve this by bringing boats up the flooded waterways, which serve as both school buses and schools.

A fleet of 22 boats sail up the swollen rivers stopping to pick up children before they dock and class begins. Each boat takes around 30 children and has a small library and access to the world’s largest library through computers hooked up to the Internet and powered by solar panels.

With primary school attendance around 80%, increasing access to education is high on the agenda. The boat schools provide classes to an estimated 1,810 children. Although many more remain in need, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha reaches some of the most vulnerable.

What’s more, the boat schools provide critically-needed adult education that focuses on sustainable agriculture, healthcare and climate change adaptation. These programs holistically target the restraints that keep them in poverty.

For example, the climate change workshops help farmers develop production methods, such as floating vegetable gardens and raising fish and ducks, that can endure longer flooding periods and raising sea levels, both of which are effects of a changing climate. The lessons on sustainable agriculture help farmers to reduce erosion and pollution, and increase yields. These programs work together to clean the environment, increase access to food and boost incomes. Healthcare, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s other focus, brings medicines and doctors to rural parts of the country that have no access to clinics, keeping the populations healthy throughout the year.

What is even more important is that the success of the floating school model appears to be scalable. Many other parts of the world face similar issues that climate change will exacerbate. Cambodia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Vietnam and Zambia are all testing this innovative development strategy. The humanitarian arm of the United Nations that focuses on children and mothers, UNICEF, praises this method as “having a transformative impact upon education and communities in flood-prone regions.”

– John Wachter

Sources: Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, World Bank BBC, UNICEF 1 UNICEF 2
Photo: Tenders On Time

Extreme Weather Brings Demand for Financial Services in Disaster-Prone Regions
With global climate change causing increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters around the world, people in disaster-prone regions often find themselves without the resources to recover damaged property or develop increased resilience to future disasters. Those people are often left without the means of repaying high-interest loans or in a state of dependence on nonprofit organizations for access to basic necessities.

In November 2013, the Philippines was struck by Typhoon Haiyan, the most destructive storm to hit land on record. The storm resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 people and caused nearly $15 billion in structural damage, affecting the lives of over 4 million Filipinos. The city of Tacloban reported that 90% of its structures were either damaged or entirely destroyed, resulting in the displacement of thousands of civilians into surrounding areas. That damage included the devastation of entire livelihoods; the coconut industry, upon which many Filipinos depend for income, saw 80% of its crop base destroyed.

Such damage generally leaves relief for disaster victims to the discretion of external organizations and donor countries. But recent revelations about the lack of accountability in post-disaster aid operations like those in Haiti have raised doubts of the efficacy of such donations. This has presented a new challenge for development and relief organizations: how can people in disaster-prone regions decrease their reliance on relief aid and increase their capacity to recover lost property and resilience to future disasters?

After Typhoon Haiyan, Mercy Corps provided Filipinos with unconditional electronic cash transfers and access to long-term financial services in order to provide households and businesses more freedom to spend relief money. This allowed them to recover lost investments in addition to purchasing basic necessities like food and water. Unconditional relief also liberated recipients from the bondage of high-interest loans that they are often otherwise forced to pursue.

Beyond the immediacy of property recovery, financial services provide households and village-level businesses access to savings and insurance products to protect their families and investments from future disasters.

“[L]oans allow people to diversify their sources of income into ones that aren’t as prone to disaster damage. Insurance can help them access cash in the event of the death of a primary income earner, or if their property is destroyed,” wrote Mercy Corps workers Anna Chilczuk and Thea Anderson in an article for The Guardian. “And having savings means people have money to buy what they need immediately following an emergency.”

One example is affordable agriculture insurance, which helps rural farmers whose operations are threatened by conditions beyond their control, such as the coconut farmers in the Philippines. Because agriculture is the main source of income for many rural communities (over 2 billion people depend on “smallholder” farms for income), farmers often have to take out loans to maintain and invest in operations. Disasters like Typhoon Haiyan often leave them without the means for recovering lost investments or repaying high-interest loans. Insurance coverage for those farmers makes it more likely for credit to be extended to them on reasonable terms, increases their capacity to repair damaged land and promotes resilience to future disasters.

While regions like Southeast Asia are prone to natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, demand for access to long-term financial services provides an opportunity for American investors to establish a presence in those increasingly stable markets. As households and local businesses become more able to build resilience to future disasters and establish economic stability, those markets will become less vulnerable to natural disasters. That will allow civilians to become more financially autonomous and less dependent on the discretion of external donations from organizations like Mercy Corps.

– Zach VeShancey

Sources: The Guardian, Mercy Corps
Photo: VABAA

climate_change_in_bangladeshWithin the scientific community, it is a foregone conclusion that developing coastal nations with lowland geography are the most susceptible to impending climatic changes. Bangladesh has recently begun to see these effects with sea levels rising and more frequent and intensified weather conditions. Being situated in Southeast Asia, the country is already susceptible to monsoons, landslides, hurricanes and natural flooding. These factors present an alarming set of natural environmental implications.

This is especially true for a country where a quarter of the land area is less than 7 feet above sea level. Bangladeshi scientists have estimated that by 2050, 17 percent of the country area will have been submerged. This would displace roughly 18 million people and, in turn, significantly cut the country’s food supply.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated and underdeveloped countries in the world. The country has roughly a fifth of the land area of France and contains a population of about 166 Million. This has resulted in an incredibly high population density at 755 persons per km. This set of circumstances poses a serious problem for almost all current climate projections and estimates.

The overpopulation has also caused a great strain upon the country’s remaining fertile lands. Bangladesh lies in the Ganges River Delta which is made up of over 230 rivers and streams. Approximately 55 percent of the country’s low lying geography is arable land, making agriculture one of Bangladesh’s biggest industries. Currently, 45 percent of the country’s workforce lives in and relies upon a suddenly shrinking agriculture industry.

As flooding increases and sea levels rise, there is simply not enough arable land to sustain a country of over 160 million people. The country’s economy is mostly agrarian-based and many residents are subsistence farmers. The floods have completely destroyed many of the county’s rice crops which are a staple of the Bangladeshi diet and crucial for many farmers’ livelihoods.

Historical data shows that floods have increased in frequency, intensity and duration since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. This past summer, flooding in Northern Bangladesh left half a million people displaced and homeless. The two main rivers of Bangladesh, the Meghna and the Brahmaputra, rose to dangerous levels and completely flooded 14 of the country’s 64 districts. Being displaced from their homes, people sought refuge in makeshift shelters, and in some cases, schools.

In response to these conditions, Bangladesh has initiated a National Plan of Action and National Climate Change Strategy. The programs have begun a process of dredging rivers, raising levees and pumping water to compensate for increased flood conditions. The programs have also focused on creating early warning systems and have built over 2,500 concrete storm shelters. Almost 6,000 km of embankments have been constructed in efforts to combat heightened flood conditions. Additionally, 200 flood shelters have been built as well as almost 5,000 km of drainage channels meant to redirect the flow of floods.

These measures have made a significant impact on short term disaster safety. In 1970, before any sort of emergency response infrastructure, Cyclone Bhola killed an estimated 550,000 Bangladeshis. This stands in comparison to 200 casualties during Cyclone Aila in 2009. While the latter was still a disaster of immense proportions, the disaster preparedness and response measures were clearly evident and effective in terms of saving lives.

In 2013, emergency measures were once again tested when tropical storm Mahasen broke Bangladeshi shores. An estimated one million people from 13 coastal districts were evacuated north to shelters and fortified locations. This was accomplished through a procedure of government alerts, notifications and by collaboration of thousands of volunteers.

A statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs read, “While tropical storm Mahasen reached the coastline of Bangladesh on Thursday weaker than anticipated, the preparedness work undertaken by the Government and humanitarian partners saved countless lives.” This provides further evidence that the disaster mitigation protocols have been effective.

However, being a developing nation in an increasingly dangerous climate, Bangladesh is still relying upon developed countries and NGOs to jointly make changes in both emissions standards and practices. Acute response tactics can certainly provide temporary solutions for saving lives and crops, but measures with a long term focus are necessary for a solution to a much greater global issue.

The Borgen Project

Sources: BBC, New York Times, United Nations Environmental Programme, Science Direct
Photo: Oxfam

hurricane arthur
When Hurricane Arthur touched down on the east coast of the U.S., he blew in with a new tool that would help coastal residents understand–and react to–stormy water conditions.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) released a Google map-powered water surge tracking system that visually represents the risk posed to those whose homes are within the scope of upcoming tropical cyclones. Most coastal residents are familiar with the concept of storm surges but often underestimate the potential impact they could make. Many others are simply reluctant to believe that harm could reach them.

Jamie Rhome, who runs the NHC’s Storm Surge Unit, has attested to the doubtful demeanor of coastal inlanders. “We could convince people right along the beach that the ocean has a potential to invade their home, that was a relatively easy sell,” said Rhome in an interview with Public Radio International. “But what was really, really hard is to convince people that might be 10, 15, 20 miles inland that saltwater could invade their homes; it was really hard to get people to evacuate during a storm.”

A surge occurs when winds and low atmospheric pressure combine to raise sea level and push water inshore. Consequences are flooding, water damage to buildings and death to those who caught in the worst circumstances. The NHC hopes to prevent each of these outcomes as best as possible by educating the public with their storm surge maps.

Storms on the eastern and southern coasts of the United States are frequent enough for their inhabitants to generally understand what may be coming their way. Those living close enough to the coast but at a questionable distance are less aware, the most reluctant to take action and will benefit most from the new technology.

Storm surges are becoming increasingly problematic even for seasoned coastal dwellers due to rising sea levels and the growing populations of seaside cities. “That means more people, more things, harder evacuations,” stated Rhome.

It is hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina happened almost ten years ago, especially since its devastating effects are still felt today. Cases like Katrina and the more recent Ike and Sandy are constant reminders to not take threat of tropical cyclones lightly, but stubbornness often prevents people from burdening themselves with over-preparedness. The NHC hopes that with its real-time storm surge maps, people will make better educated decisions at any point within a storm’s lifespan for their own safety.

The storm surge maps are the first of their kind and will undergo a two-year trial period to gauge their impact and effectiveness. The NHC is emphasizing user experience research during its trial period to improve the usability and readability as the technology develops. If successful, the storm surge maps could be released worldwide where the effects of tropical cyclones are even more devastating.

For most U.S. residents, evacuating from an upcoming storm is doable. Although there are disadvantaged Americans with less agency to prepare for or flee from a hurricane, the U.S. infrastructure is generally more resilient than many other areas in the world.

Developing island nations such as Haiti, who was hit by four tropical cyclones in 2008 alone, are the most vulnerable.

In the near future, it is hoped that technology and a solid internet connection will be accessible by all, including the NHC’s surge maps equipped to display storm conditions for any area in the world. At the end of the day, natural disasters are harmful regardless of where they occur and remain the most uncontrollable threat to global health. Circumstances are severely worsened when poverty is thrown into the mix.

Even if it is difficult for people to evacuate, seeing the danger before it arrives might compel people to make the decision to flee. No matter how inconvenient it is to pack up and go, a human life is worth more than taking the risk to stay. That is the sentiment the NHC hopes to instill.

Edward Heinrich

Sources: PRI, NOLA.com
Photo: CNN

Poised to become the next humanitarian crisis, Kenya is suffering the consequences of a year-long drought. The BBC reports more than one million in need of food and other aid to survive this persistent dry spell. Women and children bear the burden of this drought, as 30,000 young men migrate with cattle to neighboring Uganda. Consequently, those remaining in the Turkana region must rely on roots, berries, and stray dogs.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network reports more than 34% of children under the age of 5 are at risk of malnutrition. This indicates a 7% increase from the five-year average. Reports predict a rise in malnutrition rates if the drought continues.

With a forecast predicting “subnormal” rains, Sam Owilly of Practical Action cautions the need for action before a full crisis arises. The Government succeeded in slowing the progression of food insecurity, yet severe malnutrition endures. The next four to eight weeks stand at a critical point; the Turkana region demands immediate water and food, in addition to “supplementary feeding and medical care of livestock.”

Though Owilly credits the government for its current efforts, Oxfam and Save the Children attribute the crisis to inaction. The joint report remarks:

“A culture of risk aversion caused a six-month delay in the large-scale aid effort because humanitarian agencies and national governments were too slow to scale up their response to the crisis, and many doctors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one.”

The drought in Kenya highlights the prevailing pattern of desertification in East Africa. A number of warning signs, as early as 2011, indicated a dramatic decline in rainfall in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. That year, a drought in east Africa claimed nearly 100,000 lives. More than half of those affected died before the age of 5, reports the United Kingdom Department for International Development.

To increase resiliency in these trying times, aid must focus on development of sustainable technology. Oxfam and Save the Children subsequently aim to “break down the divisions between humanitarian and development work.” In this crisis, these agencies advocate for lasting reform to lower present and future risks.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development supports this objective, investing in technology to support dryland agriculture. This specialized agency of the United Nations harnesses information and technology to help rural farmers survive water scarcity. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) promotes investment in technology. Satellite imaging, for instance, provides data on the rainfall and other weather conditions. This tactic better predicts the crop yields, and subsequently allows for “timely assistance.”

A billion people live on these dry lands and face the risks of climate change. Rising temperatures exacerbate food insecurity in this region, so, in response, relief agencies should invest in technology to identify the driest seasons. This early detection promises immediate relief in the form of food and water to the most at-risk nations.

– Ellery Spahr

Sources: The Guardian, BBC, IFAD

dry spell
February 2014 was the driest month in Singapore since 1869. Only seven brief sprinkles fell, giving the area an underwhelming .2 mm of rain. Malaysia has also felt the drought’s impact, as the state of Selangor and the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, have begun water rationing.

Singapore relies heavily on Malaysia for its water supply, importing nearly 60% of its water from the region. Under a 1962 water agreement, Singapore imports most of its water from the Malay state of Johore. The agreement has caused tension between the two countries in the past, and Singapore has decided not to pursue a renewal of the agreement past its 2061 expiration.

Therefore, Singapore has increasingly focused on improving its water self-sufficiency. Currently, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources estimates that Singapore could potentially provide up to 55% of the country’s water needs. The government has increasingly emphasized building up desalination and recycled water technology while also pushing to increase the country’s water catchment area.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s current water supply does not stack up to the potential effects of the current drought. The National Environment Agency predicts the dry spell will continue into early March. With the poor weather set to continue in both Singapore and Malaysia, water consumption in the area must decrease accordingly.

Resultantly, the Singaporean government has started a public campaign urging water conservation. It has encouraged citizens to cut down on washing cars, irrigating plants and to be more conscious about switching off water faucets and fountains in between use.

Through increasing the water consciousness of its citizenry, Singapore hopes to effectively combat its water shortage.

As of yet, the drought in Singapore has not had a profound effect on the lives of Singaporeans. However, it has reaffirmed Singapore’s vulnerability to water shortages and droughts and demonstrated the need for water conservation initiatives within the city-state. If Singapore will achieve water-self sufficiency it must prepare itself to withstand episodes such as the current drought.

Martin Levy

Sources: Today Online, BBC News, NEA, Singapore Infopedia
Photo: Brohenson Files

January’s “Polar Vortex” broke records for the lowest temperatures in many cities that had lasted for 50 years to 100 years. Millions of people across the East coast and Midwest endured temperatures much below normal and all 50 states experienced freezing temperatures. Southern states, not used to freezing weather, were ill-prepared to handle it. Fox News reported that there were 21 deaths related to the cold. The homeless population was particularly vulnerable. America’s poor suffered the worst effects of the extreme cold weather; not only the homeless, but also families on social assistance and the working poor.

Cuts to Energy Assistance

Many low-income families across the country were not able to heat their homes this winter due to last year’s budget cuts. In 2013, Congress cut funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program by $155 million. Since 2010 funding for this program has dropped from $5.1 billion to $3.32. While many families cannot sufficiently heat their homes, approximately 300,000 families cannot afford to heat their homes at all.

Both the number of households receiving aid and the amount of aid households receive has been cut. Since 2010, the percentage of heat covered by the Low Home Income Energy Assistance Program has dropped from 52.5 percent to 41.5 percent. As this funding has been cut, the cost of fuel has gone up; the cost of electricity has risen by 7 percent since last year and the cost of natural gas has risen by 14 percent.

Low-Income Families Struggle to Heat Their Homes

Three children died in Hammond, Indiana in January 2013 in a house fire when their parents used propane space heaters to heat their home. Andre Young was renting a house for himself, his wife and their five children but had been unable to pay their utility bills. Their water, gas and electricity had been cut off for several months.  When a spark from the propane heater engulfed the house in flames, Andre ran inside to try and save his children, all under 7 years old. He was able to save two children before he collapsed in the snow outside of the house. A 4-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a seven month old baby died. Andre was sent to hospital in critical condition.

The average family in Indiana spends $530 on heat between November and March, but that cost would have been much higher this winter. The combination of the cuts to energy assistance and the abnormally cold winter has left many families unable to cover the cost of heating their homes.

Choosing Between Health and Food

In 2013, Congress cut spending on food stamps and 47 million Americans lost food stamp benefits. The high cost of heating during this year’s polar vortex has left many poor families having to choose between heating their homes and feeding their kids. There has been an increase in the use of food banks and soup kitchens this year. Feeding America recently reported that 46 percent of its clients have to choose between paying for food and paying heating and other utility bills.

– Elizabeth Brown

Sources: Huffington Post, Huffington Post, Think Progress, Salon
Photo: Midtown Blogger