'We can’t just hand out food parcels': Call for crisis response to consider climate issues

Red Cross official says humanitarian organisations need to think long term about climate change even in times of immediate crisis

Clare Dalton, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the UAE, speaks during the Middle East and North Africa Climate Week in Riyadh on Wednesday. Photo: International Committee of the Red Cross
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Humanitarian assistance delivered to war-torn countries must help people adapt to climate change as well as provide for immediate basic needs, a Red Cross official has said.

Clare Dalton, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross mission in the UAE, said humanitarian organisations cannot simply hand out food parcels and think the job is done.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Middle East and North Africa Climate Week on Wednesday, Ms Dalton said methods that worked 25 years ago were no longer fit for purpose, and humanitarian organisations had to think long term about climate change, even in times of urgent and immediate crisis.

“We just can’t hand out food parcels,” Ms Dalton told The National.

“Long-term planning needs to be part of the initial response.”

She added: “And we can't just provide diesel generators or do any other practices that over time might cause more damage to the environment or not necessarily help people adapt to the situation they face,” pointing to how solar power was now used where possible.

The issue came into sharp focus on Wednesday during Mena Climate Week, where a high-level panel discussed ways to deal with climate change in conflict-hit areas in the Middle East.

The ICRC has highlighted how a lack of governance and poor access to finance means tackling climate change is often far down the list of priorities in these areas.

An ICRC and Norwegian Red Cross report in May, for example, warned the combined effects of climate change and armed conflict were creating an alarming mix of humanitarian crises in the Middle East.

The report focused on Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it called for climate finance for vulnerable communities to be increased.

The impact of conflict

According to the ICRC, 60 per cent of the 25 countries most vulnerable to climate change were also affected by conflict.

Even under normal circumstances, tackling climate issues is hard enough, never mind in a situation such as Gaza.

Ms Dalton urged parties there to follow international humanitarian law to protect civilians and critical civilian infrastructure, which can lead to better outcomes in terms of adapting to climate change.

“If you destroy essential infrastructure during a conflict – whether energy or water – the cost of putting that back together is enormous,” she said.

“If water infrastructure is damaged, for example, then it can have a knock-on impact on agriculture production. It is not just a financial cost but it is a cost on people's livelihoods.

“[But] if international humanitarian law is respected … the damage will be less.”

Cop28, the crucial climate talks that start in Dubai next month, will have a day dedicated to health, relief, recovery and peace, and Ms Dalton said this is an important move as humanitarian assistance, conflict and climate are all linked.

“People in the region live with this day-to-day reality,” she said.

“However, does that mean that people are all agreed on solutions? Not necessarily. Bringing fragility and conflict-affected countries on to the agenda is really important.”

Call for 'meaningful action'

As to what would be considered a good outcome for the ICRC at the climate summit, Ms Dalton said it would be beneficial to see some kind of “meaningful action” to support people in conflict-affected countries, from scaling up climate finance to ramping up adaptation, including encouraging the use of heat-tolerant crops or boosting water efficiency.

The ICRC, for example, has worked previously in Gaza in wastewater reuse and groundwater recharging to help stop the intrusion of salinity as well as programmes to support irrigation systems.

“We have to try … to help people in places affected by armed conflict mitigate or adapt to the impact of climate change,” she said.

“It is not easy. It is an existential crisis. However, the cost of inaction is higher.”

Middle East and North Africa Climate Week runs until Thursday in Riyadh.

Updated: October 11, 2023, 2:54 PM