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The forecast is not good
François Grünewald

Key word: Environment / Point of view /

With the extremely disappointing outcome of the Rome Summit on Food Security and the dreadfully insufficient commitments made at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, there is only one conclusion possible: things are going get worse before they get better.

In the last few years, the number, magnitude and devastating effects of so-called natural disasters have been enormous. 2003 ended with the dramatic Bam earthquake in Iran, while the following year, the South-East Asian Tsunami struck just after Christmas, with terrifying effects. In 2005 the number of hurricanes was so high that specialists had to turn to the Greek alphabet having used up all the letters in the Latin alphabet. In the same year, the Pakistani earthquake and Hurricane Katrina showed the terrible power of natural forces. Between the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, a devastating drought brought suffering to the Horn of Africa. 2007 and 2008 too, had their share of suffering, with new peaks being reached in 2009, with a combination of devastating climatic and tectonic disasters. People’s resilience has been significantly undermined by the combined effects of the food price crisis and the global economic crisis. In certain parts of the world, tension over water and pastureland is being exacerbated, bringing conflict between communities which is increasingly lethal due to the proliferation of arms. In others, islanders watch in desperation as their islands begin to disappear below the water. And elsewhere, landslides threaten shanty towns on the outskirts of major cities.

Will this trend continue? Is the world ready to confront its own vulnerability? With a growing number of threats to our increasingly fragile planet, are nations (from state institutions to civil society), ready to rise to the challenges ahead? What are they prepared to do? While we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot in summits like Rome and Copenhagen, these are the questions that we should be trying to answer.

Though in the past, natural disasters were overshadowed by wars and other forms of human madness, they still caused enormous destruction. Cyclones in Madagascar, earthquakes in Turkey or Central America, droughts in Africa, floods in Asia, and very recently in Europe on an unprecedented scale, have taken place and taken their share of human lives regardless of the political regime in place. Disasters of this kind are increasingly becoming a major global problem. But are they really natural? In reality, more and more people are living in the most precarious areas, desperately looking for land close to rivers, coasts or cities.

Global warming has raised another set of critical issues and particularly the possibility of runaway climate change which could be have devastating effects in the future: the possibility of further warming of the atmosphere and oceans (what will happen if the trajectory of the Gulf stream is modified?), the melting of polar ice caps and permafrost (what will happen if millions of tonnes of methane are released into the atmosphere), etc. The possibility of an exponential increase in the number of refugees and IDPs due to climate change is now being discussed in international forums. While there seemed to be mounting support for the Kyoto Protocol, the lack of consensus at the Copenhagen Conference is extremely worrying.

What has emerged is the image of a small planet increasingly shaken by multi-dimensional crises involving a broad range of human and natural factors. Wars, bad governance and, most recently, economic crises have made people more vulnerable to natural disasters. Access to and control of natural resources (land, water, etc) is increasingly acquired through violence, extortion or corruption. The poor are increasingly pushed out to the margins of society where they are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, economic crises and social conflict…

As people’s situation deteriorates their only concern becomes day to day survival. Survival mechanisms, such as reducing food intake, relying on wild food (leaves, forest fruits and tubers, etc.) are the last line of defence before complete destitution. Extreme scarcity forces people to adopt environmentally unsustainable practices: production of charcoal, deforestation, depletion of wild food reserves, gradual selling off of livestock (first the lactating female camels, then sheep and goats) and equipment, etc. De-capitalisation leads to destitution, which, in turn, leads to shanty towns, IDP camps and the peripheral areas around cities, where risks are the greatest…

World leaders failed in both the Rome and Copenhagen conferences to reach the kind of compromise that is needed in view of the seriousness of the situation and the urgent need to take action. Civil society was unable to make its mark sufficiently strongly in the arenas where decisions were made. We will all have to pay the price for these failures.


François Grunewald is the executive director of Groupe URD