• Evidence that humanitarian threats are ‘spilling over’ crossing continents in unprecedented ways.
  • The need for decision-makers and policy planners to interact consistently with the scientific community.
  • The need for communities to play active roles in identifying potential threats and actions necessary to mitigate them.

November’s torrential rains that pounded the coastlines of Bangladesh and India, the intensifying floods and droughts affecting East Africa, the wildfires that are wreaking havoc along the east coast of Australia and down the west coast of the United States, and the more recent floods in the north of England and in Italy’s historic Venice, are all unprecedented in various ways, reflecting three increasingly evident facts when it comes to future humanitarian action.

The first is that there are major shifts afoot that are changing the dynamics and consequences of key crisis drivers such as the Indian Ocean dipole. Twenty years ago a new weather pattern was emerging called the Indian Ocean dipole, or the Indian El Niño. It was an irregular oscillation in which the surface temperature of the sea was and is alternatively greater in the ocean’s west and east. The positive phase, when it is warmer in the west, sees more rain in the west and greater chance of drought in the east.

Now, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (ABM), the current positive dipole — the strongest since measurements began in 2001 — may have seen a new dimension of the dipole which contributed not only to record-breaking monsoon rainfall in India, but unprecedented torrential rain in East Africa. Flooding has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia and submerged towns in South Sudan, while flash floods have caused landslides in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. This latest dipole, according to the ABM,  is also suspected of having produced hot weather and drought in south-eastern Australia, which has contributed to those wildfires, deemed by officials as potentially catastrophic.

These events in no small part reflect the consequences of climate change. Yet, at the same time, they also reflect other factors, one being that more and more, humanitarian crisis drivers will move well beyond conventional geographical confines and will in different ways spill over into regions not normally affected by such crisis drivers. They increasingly will trigger systems failures, as noted in the Geneva Global Initiative white paper Beyond Resilience: Global Systemic Risk, Systemic Failure, & Societal Responsiveness

our vulnerability to large-scale systemic failure is increasing, in particular modern societies – including Western Europe, Japan and the United States – could rapidly transition from the familiar functioning to crises undermining food security, access to water, sanitation, public order and governance.

This November’s events also underpin another disturbing factor. Despite the potential capacities of governments, particularly those in wealthier countries, to prepare and respond to meet the sorts of crisis threats that we have seen during this month, ‘short-terminism’, varying degrees of disbelief and disinterest and contending political pressures have resulted in inadequate crisis prevention, preparedness and response.

It was interesting that a leading British diplomat interviewed earlier in the year for the 21st Century Statesmanship Global Leaders Programme (Nik Gowing &  Chris Langdon, Thinking the Unthinkable: A new imperative for leadership in the digital age) noted that

we find it more difficult today than was the case in the recent past to understand what is going to be challenging us in coming weeks, months, or years. We lack the instruments for predicting developments that we should have seen coming….There is clearly growing a sense of growing uncertainty, a sense of growing inability, a sense of lack of governance, a sense of lack of capability to grapple with these issues which show up without warning, all of a sudden.

To some extent, these failures reflect decision-makers’ and policy planners’ failures to relate potential threats to the warnings and advice emerging from science and technology experts. And, here, one can only hope that those same planners and decision-makers will take to heart the recent recommendations by the United Nations in its 2019 The Future is Now Report: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development

the critical contribution of this first quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report, which is designed to be an evidence-based instrument (is) that it provides guidance on the state of global sustainable development from a scientific perspective. …(Government) decision makers need to act based on current knowledge and understanding of the linked human- social-environmental systems at all levels. That knowledge also needs to be more widely available to all countries and actors, motivating innovative coalitions and partnerships for success. But implementation requires States and all other relevant stakeholders from businesses and labor unions to civil society and academia to understand and engage with the scientific realities that underpin the relations between human activity and the natural world.

That said, much of the criticism for failing to adequately address threats that are so evident today and will have to be anticipated far more effectively in the future lands at the feet of decision-makers and policy planners — principally in government. The reasons for this are understandable, and have been extensively explored in analyses and academic studies on organizational behavior,  decision-making and more generally, political science. However, what too often has not received adequate attention has been the responsibilities of the potentially vulnerable, themselves, to plausible crises.
This has to change, according to the World Bosai Forum, which took place at Japan’s Sendai International Centre between 9-12 November. Bringing together a wide range of research institutions and representatives of affected communities – mainly those who had suffered from disasters in Japan — as well as those who had more formal humanitarian roles and responsibilities, the forum threw down a vital challenge — communities themselves had to be more proactive in identifying potential threats and solutions.

there are many unaware of measures they can take to reduce disaster risks such as piling up sandbags to guard against floods, or securing cabinets to the walls to prevent them from falling when an earthquake hits. “It’s important to keep questioning people what would they do if a natural disaster happens to them one day. Such questioning could led them to think about disaster-preparedness. ‘It would be great,’ stressed one of the organizers,’ if this forum results in participants to use the knowledge they’ve learned to make disaster prevention efforts in their daily lives or give them a new business idea.

Before closing, the HF Team would like to underscore those three points once more.

  • The first is that the events of this November are further evidence that the dynamics and dimensions of humanitarian threats are increasingly expanding, ‘spilling over’ in ways and into areas hitherto unprecedented.
  • This rapidly emerging reality is but one more reason that decision-makers and policy planners need to move well beyond their comfort zones and interact more consistently and in more integrated ways with the scientific community. Both need to be sitting together at the crisis prevention, preparedness and response table.
  • And, then perhaps an issue too long under emphasised is that communities – rural, peri-urban, urban – need to play far more active roles in identifying potential threats and actions they need to undertake to mitigate them. This call from the World Bosai Forum goes well beyond the ‘localisation’ concept that emerged three years before at the World Humanitarian Summit.

The HF Team hopes that these lessons will begin to be recognised and acted upon rapidly. If you see any positive signs of action resulting from this sort of understanding, do let us know.