Climate change a 'ticking time bomb' for people in conflict zones: ICRC director

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Climate change is devastating vulnerable populations across the globe with those living in conflict situations across the Middle East and wider world facing a “ticking time bomb” if international action is not taken, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Al Arabiya English on the sidelines of COP 27.

Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s director-general, said on Wednesday the organization is seeing the severe compounding effects of growing climate risks and armed conflict from Afghanistan to Somalia, Mali to Yemen, and Palestine to Israel.

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He said when climate change and conflict combine, the consequences are disastrous and worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.

“The clock is ticking, time is of the essence,” said Mardini. “Without action, there will be more devastation, more human suffering, more acute food shortages. Our work in these places helps people cope with the climate crisis.

“But humanitarian actors cannot respond alone to the multitude of challenges. Without decisive financial and political support to the most fragile countries, the suffering will only worsen.”

COP27 - being staged in Egypt - aims to tackle the global burden of climate change. However, Mardini said too little is being done to protect the countries that need the help the most.

“If you look at what is happening up close at places already affected by conflict - this is where the most pressing of priorities should be. These are the places that need more climate action and more climate financing.”

Of the 25 countries most vulnerable to climate change and least ready to adapt and “absorb the shock” of global warming, the majority are also experiencing armed conflict, said Mardini.

In many of these locations, people lack access to basic healthcare.

When climate shocks occur in countries with limited food, water and economic resources, people’s lives, health, and livelihoods are threatened.

Somalia has suffered through an erratic cycle of droughts and floods in recent years, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation further complicated by three decades of armed conflict. People have limited time to adapt because the shocks are so frequent and severe.

Humanitarian organizations have also been responding to flooding in South Sudan and across the Sahel; devastating cyclones in Madagascar and Mozambique; and severe drought in the Horn of Africa. The climate crisis worsens health and humanitarian crises.

Helping communities in conflict-hit sreas such as Somalia (pictured) to adapt to the risks posed by climate change is essential. (Supplied: ICRC)
Helping communities in conflict-hit sreas such as Somalia (pictured) to adapt to the risks posed by climate change is essential. (Supplied: ICRC)

“Africa, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Israel, Palestine...the list, unfortunately, goes on and the intersection between conflict and climate is going deeper and deeper,” said Mardini.

“If I take Mali, for example, this is a place which is torn by many years of violent conflict. Yet at the same time, herders, for example, are also fighting over shrinking water resources and you have this very vicious circle between conflict and the consequence of climate change.

“ICRC aims to support... for example we are supplying water irrigation systems to release these tensions. We are supporting feed in order to build resilience so they can be in a better position to cope with the repeated shocks of climate change.”

Mardini said one of the main blockages to climate financing in conflict zones is an aversion to risk by policymakers.

“Decision-makers - those who decide the allocation of climate finance – consider it too risky to invest in those places. We invite them to reconsider the risks of not investing. The human cost of this will be disastrous if we do not act.”

Mardini said the ICRC is alarmed by the current reality and projections for the future. Its teams, he said, have seen droughts, floods, insect plagues and changing rainfall patterns which can all jeopardize food production and people’s means of survival.

More extreme and powerful weather events such as cyclones are destroying essential health infrastructure. Changing patterns of deadly diseases such as malaria, dengue and cholera are challenging humanitarian responses. Conflict and violence increase the need for emergency health assistance while also limiting the capacity of health facilities.

“We need immediate action - action that is supported by proper financing,” said Mardini. “Today, only a ridiculous amount of (climate financing) goes to fragile countries. This needs to change.”

“We are calling on world leaders to live up to their commitments under the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 and ensure that vulnerable and conflict-affected people are adequately supported to adapt to a changing climate. We must collectively find solutions and ensure access to adequate climate finance in challenging environments. Leaving people behind is not an option.

“The humanitarian community cannot be the only responder to this catastrophe.”

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