Roadmap for Cop27 action to prevent climate change catastrophes

UN scientist offers ways to combat natural disasters linked to environmental breakdown

A wildfire in Greece. Experts are urging authorities in the Mediterranean to use fire intelligently, to fight fires. Photo: United Nations University
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That deforestation leads to soil erosion where a lack of trees means that there is no protection from wind and rain ensuring the soil is easily washed or blown away is an observable fact.

The dynamic is one of a host of underlying causes creating ideal conditions for natural disasters, such as the formation of deadly sandstorms in southern Madagascar and the sedimentation of water reservoirs contributing to the Taiwan drought.

These events and dozens more in the last year led to the loss of lives, destruction of people’s homes and eradication of income opportunities. In an effort to draw a line under the cycle, top UN scientists have offered a framework for November's Cop27 Climate conference in Egypt to address the shared root causes behind recent catastrophes.

Lead author of the report, Dr Jack O’Connor of the United Nations University — Institute for Environment and Human Security, told The National how these solutions could have been applied to six headline-grabbing natural disasters.

UN solutions for six climate catastrophes

1. Mediterranean wildfires

Fire management policies in the Mediterranean are based on a model of suppressing fires before they become dangerous. But fire management strategies can exacerbate the intensity of extreme wildfire events.

This happens because when a small or medium-sized fire is put out in an area, the unburnt vegetation only keeps accumulating — until there is so much material that the fire burns intensely and quickly, overwhelming the capacity to control it and becoming a “mega-fire”.

One of the solutions proposed in the report gives a literal meaning to the adage "fight fire with fire".

"Use fire intelligently in recognition of how it is actually supposed to work in any ecosystem," said Dr O'Connor.

"So if you use prescribed burning in some areas, what you're doing is reducing the amount of fuel that can build up there. If you don't do that, then when fires do start, they just convert so much faster."

The process sounds somewhat haphazard but Dr O'Connor said it was essential to manage the "wildlife urban interface" where humans and forests exist cheek by jowl.

The current approach to tackling wildfires is far too reactive, according to the UN report. AFP

Another method of managing this environment naturally is by moving in goat or sheep platoons to graze on the underbrush.

The latter method would be best practised separately to the former. But both are examples of harnessing nature to combat natural disasters — one of the report's eight key solutions.

2. British Columbia Heatwave

In summer 2021, air temperatures in Canada broke records multiple days in a row as a powerful heatwave spread over the Pacific Northwest.

The town of Lytton, for example, set an all-time high-temperature record for Canada at 49.6°C. The heatwave’s effects were estimated to be 150 times more likely and about 2°C hotter due to human-induced climate change. The British Columbia Coroners Service registered over 500 heat-related deaths from June 25 to July 1. Even after the hot spell ended, there was no immediate decrease in mortality, pointing towards the long-term health effects of heat stress.

As with many disasters, the heatwaves disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, such as children, people with disabilities or chronic health conditions and those who were socially isolated or experiencing homelessness.

The report identified two main root causes: greenhouse emissions and British Columbia's lack of preparedness.

Elderly people are among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Bloomberg

"Their plans, their governance, they just weren't really ready for this," said Dr O'Connor.

"They didn't have communication between different authorities to react when the heatwave happened."

Of the menu of solutions the report identified, better innovation and stronger governance and working together could have dramatically improved the situation.

In the short term, regional authorities should have had plans in place to help the elderly and other vulnerable people benefit from some of the amenities that were put in place, such as cooling centres.

"It's important for communities to be a little more mobilised and basically take care of neighbours ― have what they call a neighbourhood safety net," said Dr O'Connor,

He also advocated increasing green infrastructure in heavily urbanised areas can to reduce the "heat island effect,"

This phenomenon causes temperatures in urban areas to reach far higher levels than those in abutting rural areas.

3. Lagos Floods

The residents of Lagos, one of Africa’s largest cities, are experiencing increasingly severe annual flooding of their city, which is threatened by sea level rise and sinking at a rate of up to 87mm per year.

The ability of this sinking city to cope with flooding is significantly hampered by poorly maintained waterways and drainage systems.

The city is rapidly expanding as the population grows and people flock from rural areas towards urban centres in hopes of better economic opportunities.

"If we take better care of people outside of cities and the places that they live, and make those places more liveable, then that could help to reduce the consistent movement into cities," said Dr O'Connor.

Another problem faced by Lagos comes in the shape of sand mining.

"The sinking city is digging away at what coastline it has left to get sand to keep building the cities up."

"So building sustainably is one of the main solutions for Lagos … looking at ways to use either less material or substitute materials so that we don't have such a demand for things like sand which are causing environmental degradation."

4. Hurricane Ida

On September 1, 2021, remnants of Hurricane Ida, having travelled more than 2,000km across the US after making landfall in Louisiana, brought historic rainfall to New York City, causing the city’s first-ever flash flood alerts as water filled streets, subway stations and apartments.

Of the 95 people who died as a result, 13 were in New York City alone, and the overall damage caused to infrastructure and housing was estimated to be up to $9 billion. The total cost of Hurricane Ida in the US was estimated at about $75bn, making it the costliest disaster of 2021.

Dr O'Connor is calling for "stretches of park and forest land through the city", as well the "unearthing and reviving of streams that have been built over in all major cities".

Reducing urban inequality is also vital.

"Almost all the people that died in New York died in basement apartments that are usually rented out in lower socioeconomic areas, usually by people who are undocumented," said Dr O'Connor.

"So secure livelihoods is another one of our main solutions. In this case, it's about trying to engage and protect people that are living in these apartments, either by schemes to upgrade the apartments or schemes to help them be a little more economically resilient to these kinds of events."

A downed tree blocks pedestrians and traffic in Manhattan following a night of heavy wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on September 2, 2021 in New York City. AFP

5. Taiwan drought

Taiwan is one of the wettest places in the world with an annual rainfall of 2,600mm often brought to the island by seasonal typhoons.

However, for the first time in 56 years, no typhoon made landfall, marking the first half of 2021 as one of the worst drought periods in the island's history. With water reservoirs below 5 per cent of their capacity, water rationing was ordered for more than one million households and businesses.

"The shortcomings of the water infrastructure were laid bare," said Dr O'Connor.

"Taiwan is one of the major producers of semiconductors in the world … and the process of making these chips is heavily water-reliant, so all of a sudden the world cared because these chips go into everybody's phones, cars, etc and this was now being put at risk."

Given the industry's economic importance, its water needs were given precedence over residential and agricultural needs.

"[Water] is now going to become a much more valuable resource," said Dr O'Connor.

"The solutions we applied here centred around innovation ― climate smart agriculture.

"We need to start thinking about what are the kinds of crops we're planting? How much water are these crops going to use or need?

"Perhaps that will change our systems about agriculture and the things that were growing in order to account for the risk that the water may not be always there."

6. Southern Madagascar food insecurity

By December 2021, more than 1.6 million people in southern Madagascar were estimated to have been suffering high levels of food insecurity, with hundreds pushed to leave their homes and migrate in search of more secure livelihoods.

"Madagascar was a confluence of all sorts of different causes," said Dr O'Connor.

"There were just too many different things going on, but the environmental pressures that happened there and the worst drought that they've had in 40 years definitely played a role.

For several decades the south-east of Madagascar has been hit by the 'Kere' phenomenon, as the local population calls it — a food crisis due to a period of intense drought that causes a sudden stop of the cultivation of crops by the farmers for several months each year. AFP

"We also had insect outbreaks around this time, and sandstorms, all of which were just decimating the food resources of a population that's already been living on the edge in terms of food security."

As in Taiwan, finding crops that work better in adverse conditions is a crucial component of the response.

Shoring up infrastructure to make it less vulnerable to sandstorms was another report recommendation.

Perhaps most intractable of all, though is tackling the entrenched gender-based inequalities.

"Integrating gender issues, such as gender-based violence, into more inclusive development and adaptation approaches facilitates the empowerment of women and girls, who are more vulnerable to food insecurity impacts, to better manage food use in times of hardship and increase the quality of life for their families," said Dr O'Connor.

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Updated: September 07, 2022, 7:27 AM