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Mapping the world’s largest hidden resource

By Mohammad Shamsudduha, on 15 February 2024

photograph of a water pump in wet agricultural land
Groundwater-fed irrigation in southwest Bangladesh (credit: Ahmed Rahman, UCL IRDR)

Water sustains life and livelihoods. It is intrinsically linked to all aspects of life from maintaining a healthy life, growing food, and economic development to supporting ecosystems services and biodiversity. Groundwater—water that is found underneath the earth’s surface in cracks and pores of sediments and rocks—stores almost 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth. Globally, it is a vital resource that provides drinking water to billions of individuals and supplies nearly half of all freshwaters used for irrigation to produce crops. But are we using it sustainably?

Abstraction


Groundwater is dug out of subsurface aquifers by wells and boreholes, or it comes out naturally through cracks of rocks via springs. Today, about 2.5 billion people depend on groundwater to satisfy their drinking water needs, and a third of the world’s irrigation water supply comes from groundwater. It plays a crucial role in supplying drinking water during disasters such as floods and droughts when surface water is too polluted or absent. Despite its important role in our society, the hidden nature of groundwater often means it is underappreciated and underrepresented in our global and national policies as well as public awareness. Consequently, A hidden natural resource that is out of sight is also out of mind.

Some countries (e.g., Bangladesh) are primarily dependent on groundwater for everything they do from crop production to the generation of energy. Other countries like the UK use surface water alongside groundwater to meet their daily water needs; some countries (e.g., Qatar, Malta) in the world are almost entirely dependent on groundwater resources. Because of its general purity, groundwater is also heavily used in the industrial sector.

photograph of man taking measurements at a borehole
Measuring groundwater levels in a borehole in Bangladesh by IRDR PhD student Md Izazul Haq

Monitoring


Despite our heavy reliance on it, there is a lack of groundwater monitoring across the world. Monitoring of groundwater resources, both quality and quantity, is patchy and uneven. Developed countries like Australia, France and USA have very good infrastructure for monitoring groundwater. Monitoring is little or absent in many low- and medium-income countries around the world. There are some exceptions as some countries in the global south such as Bangladesh, India and Iran do have good monitoring networks of groundwater levels.

Groundwater storage changes are normally measured at an observation borehole or well manually with a whistle attached to a measuring tape, so when it comes into contact with water, it makes a sound. It can be also monitored by sophisticated automated data loggers. Groundwater can be monitored indirectly using computer models and, remotely at large spatial scales, by earth observation satellites such as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) twin satellite mission. Models and satellite data have shown that groundwater levels are falling in many aquifers around the world because of over-abstraction and changes in land-use and climate change. However, due to lack of global-scale monitoring of groundwater levels, mapping of world’s aquifers has not been done at the scale of its use and management.

Current research


New research published in Nature (Rapid groundwater decline and some cases of recovery in aquifers globally) led by researchers from UCL, University of California at Santa Barbara and ETH Zürich has analysed groundwater-level measurements taken over the last two decades from 170,000 wells in about 1,700 aquifer systems. This is the first study that has mapped trends in groundwater levels using ground-based data at the global scale in such an unprecedented detail that no computer models or satellite missions have achieved this so far. The mapping of aquifers in more than 40 countries has revealed great details of the spatiotemporal dynamics in groundwater storage change.

The study has found that groundwater levels are declining by more than 10 cm per year in 36% of the monitored aquifer systems. It has also reported rapid declines of more than 50 cm per year in 12% of the aquifer systems with the most severe declines observed in cultivated lands in dry climates. Many aquifers in Iran, Chile, Mexico, and the USA are declining rapidly in the 21st century. Sustained groundwater depletion can cause seawater intrusion in coastal areas, land subsidence, streamflow depletion and wells running dry when pumping of groundwater is high and the natural rates of aquifer’s replenishment are smaller than the withdrawals rates of water. Depletion of aquifers can seriously affect water and food security, and natural functioning of wetlands and rivers, and more critically, access to clean and convenient freshwater for all.

The study has also shown that groundwater levels have recovered or been recovering in some previously depleted aquifers around the world. For example, aquifers in Spain, Thailand as well as in some parts of the USA have recovered from being depleted over a period of time. These finding are new and can shed light on the scale of groundwater depletion problem that was not possible to visualise from global-scale computer models or satellites. This research highlights some cases of recovery where groundwater-level declines were reversed by interventions such as policy changes, inter-basin water transfers or nature-based but technologically-aided solutions such as managed aquifer recharge. For example, Bangkok in Thailand saw a reversal of groundwater-level decline from the 1980s and 1990s following the implementation of regulations designed to reduce groundwater pumping in the recent decades.

Groundwater is considered to be more resilient to climate change compared to surface water. Experts say climate adaptation means better water management. Globally, the awareness of groundwater is growing very fast. It has been especially highlighted in the latest IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, the UN World Water Development Report 2022 (Groundwater: Making the invisible visible), the UN Water Conference 2023, and more recently in COP28 (Drive Water Up the Agenda). Groundwater should be prioritised in climate and natural hazard and disaster risk reduction strategies, short-term humanitarian crisis response and long-term sustainable development action.

Read the full nature article.


Dr Mohammad Shamsudduha “Shams” is an Associate Professor in IRDR with a research focus on water risks to public health, sustainable development, and climate resilience.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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Hurricane Otis must not be forgotten

By Monica Ledezma, on 1 February 2024

photo of debris and damage to cars and buildings in Acapulco.
The aftermath of Hurricane Otis. Photo by Monica Ledezma.

The weekend started as any other in Acapulco, the sun shining was over the bay. I was with my family staying at a well-known hotel on the coast. A diving session was booked for the coming Wednesday. There was no hint or warning of any worrying weather.

The Disaster


The spots of rain during the day didn’t worry us, but that soon changed when a news broadcast alerted us to an approaching tropical storm. We did not receive any specific preparation instructions during the day.

The hurricane was expected to reach the shore by 5-6 am the next day. Airplanes continued to land in Acapulco throughout the day. Acapulco was crowding with more than 50% of the city occupied: it was hosting the 35th International Mining Convention that week with the opening ceremony scheduled at 6pm on that day, with no restrictions.

When my family and I came back from dinner, we noticed that the room windows were covered with packaging tape and our personal belongings kept near the balcony were safely stored inside the room. We received a letter from the hotel saying that we should stay in the room announcing that the next day the hotel services would remain open. We started preparing for the hurricane by going to the convenience store and buying water and food.

At 11pm we heard the heavy rains and ferocious winds at 270 km/hr ravaging everything on its way. Furniture was flying through the air and falling into swimming pools and the sea. We could hear the winds peeling off the glass of almost every hotel.

The building moved as if it was an earthquake, the ceiling and walls which were not made of concrete fell to the floor. We had been told to stay in the room, but it was falling apart around us, so we moved to the corridor instead. Suddenly we heard some voices of a couple of men directing us to the basement where the rest of the hotel guests were heading.

We went down 12 floors to the basement and stayed there for more than 7 hours with the rest of the guests under emergency lighting with no water or electricity. It was warm and all guests and hotel staff were focused on helping and surviving.

photo of destroyed hotel room. Debris and furniture spread across the floor.
Hurricane Otis destroyed hotel rooms. Photo by Monica Ledezma.

The Aftermath


The worst of it had passed by 6 am, but the picture outside was exactly like what I had seen in the movies. There was destruction everywhere. Luckily for us, our cars were safely parked far away from the shore, but the roads were blocked by all the debris. Through shattered glass, fallen palm trees, and even bits of steel structures, it took us 6 hours to find a way to go out from Acapulco and back to Mexico City. There was no sign of any authorities, nor any support from the army or navy, nobody to help in the streets. No power supply, no gas. We were making decisions ourselves to the best of our capacity. Stores soon started to be vandalized.

For the next 6 hours, we were stuck on the highway which was partially damaged. Only then we saw the Army trucks on their way to Acapulco—now sharing the only available highway with civilians trying to get out—15 hours after the disaster happened.  

A sequence of neglected communication


At 16:18 on Sunday, October 22nd, official information by Proteccion Civil warned that a “tropical storm” was located in the southeast of Acapulco, far away from our wildest imagination. Early on Tuesday, the state governor stated that the tropical storm had turned into hurricane category 1. She insisted that adequate attention was taking place to safeguard the population’s well-being for its arrival early on Wednesday. 631 refugee centers were habilitated to support 137,000 people.

At least 10 hours before the hurricane, the National Center for Hurricanes in the US warned about the risk and potential catastrophic events. Only at 8 pm, the president finally acknowledged what US authorities have been repeatedly highlighting as a Category 4 hurricane, but it was too late now to take any protective measures.

Otis is, to date, the highest category hurricane recorded at any station of the National Tidal Service. The possibility that climate change encouraged Otis to transform from a tropical storm into a hurricane highlights the importance of adapting our infrastructure to this change.

The disaster happened in hours, the wind and rain swept everything away, and we suddenly felt the vulnerability and lack of support and guidance. We were fortunate enough to get to the shelter but we will always remember the images of the windows shattering, the ceiling crumbling, and how close we were to falling from the 10th floor balcony. We were just not prepared for it. The government authorities decided to neglect the fact that it was happening, underestimating its strength.

I still have these questions in my mind: what would it take if the authorities had told us what to do, where to go, and warned us how strong this would be? What would have happened if the Army and Navy forces had been there since the first alert came in? Why did the government ignore and underestimate the warnings? I hope to get an answer someday.


Monica Ledezma completed the MSc in Global Health and Development at UCL in 2020/21. Monica has worked at Roche since 2016  in the Diabetes Care Division.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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COP28 agreement on adapting to climate change kicks the real challenge down the road

By Susannah Fisher, on 15 December 2023

Jointly posted with the Conversation

photograph of a group of flag poles of multiple nationalities
Do the Cop28 targets go far enough to adapt to climate risks? Susannah Fisher.

COP28 concluded late on Wednesday morning to a mixed reaction. The Dubai agreement extracted a promise from nearly 200 countries to transition away from fossil fuels, but it leaves many questions unanswered when it comes to keeping global average temperatures from warming by more than 1.5°C. The world is rapidly running out of time to limit temperatures to this level – a crucial threshold for many communities living in low-lying islands and delicate ecosystems such as coral reefs.

The last year was the hottest on record, with catastrophic floods in Libya, extreme heat in south Asia, Europe, China and the US, and droughts across east Africa which were all made more likely as a result of climate change.

Even if the world keeps to 1.5°C, countries will still need to adapt to the effects of a harsher climate. If temperatures exceed 1.5°C, this will be even harder. At COP28, countries agreed the first targets to guide the global effort to adapt.

So, do they go far enough to address the growing scale of climate impacts?

Adaptation is essential

I am a researcher writing a book about the hard choices the world must make to adapt to climate change. For 12 years I have been working on adaptation planning and finance, attending the UN negotiations and researching how to make adaptation more ambitious and inclusive.

Every fraction of a degree of warming avoided by cutting emissions will give communities more breathing space to adapt. Adaptation involves making changes to accommodate the hotter climate and lessen its effects.

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa struggling to grow food due to changes in rainfall can adapt with improved forms of irrigation and new crop varieties to maintain a similar level of productivity. Coastal communities can build seawalls to protect them from storm surges or plant mangrove forests to prevent the land eroding as fast. Bangladesh has developed early warning systems and invested in cyclone shelters.

The global framework for adaptation’s targets set out what countries must do and where the most progress needs to be made for goals like reducing climate-induced water scarcity. Even to get this agreement was a success given the technical and political challenges in measuring something like adaptation, which covers so many different things, from giving farmers in Asia better information on rainfall to increasing shade and cool spaces in cities.

We have limited ways to understand if the world is on track for many of these areas and the agreement contains a two-year work programme to develop indicators. We have more information on the systems and plans needed. For example, 101 countries have multi-hazard early warning systems in place – the goal aims for this to be all countries by 2027.

The framework will guide investment and shape the implementation of adaptation measures for the next decade. It will allow the global community to check if this process is on track, and to change course if it is not.

Will the goal meet the scale of the challenge?

A key sticking point for developing countries across the negotiations in Dubai was securing enough money from developed countries (the largest historical emitters and so the biggest culprits of climate chaos) to actually implement these necessary actions.

Developed countries have failed to deliver the US$40 billion (£31 billion) to US$50 billion a year promised as part of a doubling of money for adaptation agreed in 2021. This is part of the overall finance target of US$100 billion a year – agreed for both mitigation (cutting emissions) and adaptation back in 2009.

The latest UN report on adaptation showed that only US$21 billion was delivered in 2021, while financial needs for adaptation are 10-18 times higher than the amount of public finance available.

The agreement on adaptation in Dubai talks generally of the need for more finance, but makes few commitments. This is not enough, but detailed work on the next financial deal is scheduled at COP29. The agreement next year will aim to set a new target for mobilising money to reduce emissions and adapt – the target will replace the US$100 billion a year that runs until 2025.

Research shows that progress on adaptation has been slow, fragmented and uneven across the world. Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people live in places that are expected to be highly vulnerable to climate change. In Africa, tens of thousands of people will die from extreme heat unless radical measures are taken to adapt. Between 800 million and 3 billion people will not have enough water at 2°C global warming – and up to 4 billion at 4°C. We also have very little evidence that funded adaptation measures are working.

The agreement in Dubai signals that the adaptation effort is off track and highlights areas for action such as water, food, healthcare and infrastructure. Critically, it offers little detail yet to check on global progress – we will need to wait one year for a new financial target and another two years for indicators that can assess progress in adapting lives and livelihoods.

Frameworks can create incentives for action, and it is vital the new global framework creates pressure for ambition and finance. But countries will need to wait to agree the detail on the money and the targets that will give it the teeth it needs.

While COP28 yielded incremental progress, the world waits for a leap forward in the pace and scale of climate adaptation.


Dr Susannah Fisher is UKRI Future Leaders Principal Research Fellow. She works across research, policy and practice on adapting to climate change with an interest in ensuring climate finance supports effective and equitable adaptation, and that adaptation is at the scale and ambition we need for the escalating impacts of climate change.


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Human trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation: the ‘loss and damage’ from climate change a fund will not compensate

By Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, on 13 December 2023

Jointly posted with the Conversation

photograph: a child's doll lies on the floor amongst brick and pebbles.
A child’s doll discarded during a storm. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson

Violence against women and children, including sexual abuse and exploitation, remains a taboo subject in the policy debates attended by international delegates at COP28, the latest round of the UN climate negotiations in Dubai. However, the connections between climate change and gender-based violence, including human trafficking, are real and already blight lives worldwide.

Countries at COP28 have agreed to set up a loss and damage fund which would pay poor nations for the irreparable harm caused by the deteriorating climate. How can we compensate non-economic loss and damage – the impacts of climate change that cannot be easily measured in monetary terms?

To answer this question, we must understand how these impacts already affect people in the world’s most vulnerable regions. By interviewing people in Bangladesh, Fiji and Vanuatu, we found that climate change is a trigger that can worsen, intensify or prolong the perpetration of violence and coercive control.

Entrapment in Bangladesh

Aerial photograph of the Bhola slum in Dhaka. Buildings with corrugated metal roofs in the foreground, surrounded by highrise flats in background.
Bhola slum in Dhaka. Most residents migrated from Bangladesh’s disaster-prone southern coast. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson

Among the girls and young women I spoke to in Bangladesh, child marriage was a common coping mechanism for the lost income and insecure food supplies associated with unpredictable weather.

Storms, punishing heat and unreliable rain made migration from the countryside to cities inevitable. Many migrant women and girls turned to work in the garment industry. In the factories and nearby dwellings, violence and poor mental health are especially common for female migrant workers.

Hunger has pushed numerous households to marry off their daughters and sisters. Belkis, a woman I interviewed, described how her family struggled with poverty and health issues during her childhood after they migrated from the southern coast of Bangladesh to the capital Dhaka, escaping cyclones and land erosion:

I got married when I was 12 years old. A few years later I gave birth to my first son. I faced a lot of problems giving birth to him … A woman from work was a doctor so she took me to Dhaka Medical Hospital. There they did some tests and noticed that my kidneys were failing.

Her sons may also need to leave school and start working. If she has a daughter, she may be forced to marry as a child. Harsh living and working conditions scar the health and wellbeing of entire families – but hit women and children hardest.

Child sexual exploitation and trafficking in Fiji

young boy pouring water over himself with a bucket.
Informal sanitation can be a safety risk. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson

Unrest swept Fiji in 2021 after a ten-year-old girl on Vanua Levu, one of the islands in the north east, was raped by her uncle in a cyclone shelter. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.

The incident was not an isolated event. Women we spoke to in Nadi, a city on Fiji’s main island, describe rapes in shelters and report children being trafficked for sexual purposes after the floods.

Overcrowded shelters create unsafe conditions. Many of the toilets have windows but no doors, let alone locks. Disaster evaluation reports also indicate that many emergency responders in Fiji lack necessary training to identify signs of abuse (sexual or otherwise) and so are unable to prevent further violence.

Lusi*, a Red Cross health coordinator, said:

Women are more vulnerable to violence in the wake of cyclones. In tents and makeshift shelters, there’s a lack of privacy and proper lighting, which makes it harder to stay safe.

Nasele*, a 22-year old woman that we interviewed in Nadi, explained:

In the dark [women] have to go out and this places [them] in unsafe conditions. In evacuation centres, women and children get exposed to sexual dangers – children’s rights are ignored. In this country, disaster management [offers no] quick recovery for women and children.

Nacanieli*, a Save the Children officer working in Nadi observed trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence:

The woman moved her family to Nadi to live with her new [Australian] husband. One year later, she returned to our office and told the SCF staff [that]…her new husband had moved the family to Australia and upon their arrival they were held captive in his house. She told me about the sexual exploitation of her oldest daughter (she was 14 years old at the time). …The woman was too scared to go to the police and lived in fear while in Australia. She and her children eventually fled the country with the help of a neighbour. The oldest daughter is now involved in prostitution in Nadi … We saw the scars of what looked like needle marks and cigarette burns on the woman and all four of her children.

In recent years, tourist hotspots such as Nadi in Fiji have seen a peak in child sexual abuse, trafficking and exploitation, primarily by perpetrators from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Europe.

Loss and healing in Vanuatu

photo of woman painting designs and letters and numbers onto another's arms with a tube of red paint.
Vanuatu’s woman-led recovery networks are a model for post-disaster mutual aid. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson.

Women in Vanuatu found recovery and healing in their social networks, which stuck together and aided their recovery from cyclones and drought. The women ensured there was support for the most in need, such as widows and people living with disabilities.

Women and children may be more vulnerable, but they should not be seen as passive victims. In Vanuatu, ideals that are typically considered to be feminine traits – such as inclusiveness and caring for the weak – were strengths that supported the entire population’s recovery from natural hazards.

Research such as ours gathers local experiences of non-economic loss and damage. Despite this, few climate change studies apply similar people-centred approaches.

This is a problem because loss and damage is never entirely environmental. As well as the destruction of land, crops or livestock, loss and damage must come to include child marriage, sexual violence, coercive and controlling behaviour, human trafficking and exploitation.

By widening our understanding of what loss and damage means, we can support more people more thoroughly. We must all learn from the women in Vanuatu by caring for those in need and healing collectively from the trauma of climate-related violence.

Losses and damages to wellbeing and dignity can never be wholly measured and compensated within a market.

*Aliases were used to protect people’s identity.


Dr Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson is Associate Professor at IRDR. Her research is broad and interdisciplinary with a particular focus on policy, intersectionality, and violence, as well as their overlaps with migration, refugees and trapped populations, trafficking or health and mental wellbeing.


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Disaster risk reduction must include people with disabilities

By Abigail Ewan, on 11 December 2023

photograph of two people sitting on the porch of a damaged house. Pieces of rubble and materials in the garden in the foreground.
Persons with sight impairment sits outside his house with his family member in Sindhupalchok. Their house was damaged by the 2015 Ghorka earthquake in Nepal in 2015.

The 3rd of December 2023 was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and this year the theme was to “Unite in action to rescue and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for, with and by persons with disabilities”. Twenty- five of these targets relate to disaster risk reduction and people with disabilities are estimated to make up 16% of the global population with 80% of these people living in low- and middle-income countries. This places the inclusion and reduction of risk for people with disabilities as a critically important component to achieving the SDGs. People with disabilities are amongst the most at risk from the impacts of extreme events, including those associated with climate change and may face additional challenges in being recognised and included in community responses, by emergency organisations and gaining access to available aid. Extreme events can also increase and exacerbate existing disabilities which can result from physical impairment, the psychological impacts of disaster exposure and the inability to access services. Responses that fail to consider and include people with disabilities therefore fail to meet the global mandates to ‘leave no one behind’.

Extreme events can expose the pre-existing inequalities, disagreements and tensions in the way societies, communities, and individuals manage their lives, cope with and respond to adversity. This reveals the coping strategies and behaviours of vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities. This can reveal the gaps in policy and response and highlight the dominance of certain knowledge regimes that shape responses and promote either inclusion or exclusion. The responses for people with disabilities during the context of crisis tend to be fragmented and largely approached by specialised disability organisations. The reality is most disaster practitioners are unlikely to have engaged with disability while specialists in disability are unlikely to have engaged with response and recovery.  This can leave social biases and false assumptions of disability unchallenged and in some cases reproduced through intervention which can result in unintentional exclusion or marginalisation, while the voices and knowledge of people with disabilities remains largely in the shadows.

The vulnerabilities and challenges of people with disabilities in the context of extreme events have been discussed for the preceding two decades but a more recent shift in thinking advocates for the role that people with disabilities can play as active contributors and leaders in risk and resilience work.  Despite this, people with disabilities are still highly underrepresented and are little engaged in the planning and design of resilience and policy work. The 2023 UNDRR report on disability inclusion in disasters found that there has been limited progress in disability inclusion in the last ten years, with no significant differences across all the 132 countries included in the report. It is not uncommon to hear anecdotal observations and statements such as ‘this population doesn’t know what it needs’ or ‘it costs too much to include them’. This has left both research and initiatives for people with disabilities tending to be approached as a specialised field, with disability organisations often left filling in the gaps in support left by mainstream disaster organisations and response. The consideration and engagement of people with disabilities and their local advocacy organisations in preparedness activities remains even more limited.

Though generally considered as separate specialist fields the historical roots and objectives of ‘disaster studies’ and ‘disability studies’ are perhaps more cohesive than one might initially imagine. Disaster risk reduction lenses explicitly identify social understandings, behaviours, constraining social conditions and capacities as determinants of exposure, risk and loss. This is comparable to that of critical disability studies which aims to improve the theory and actualisation of inclusion and equality for people with disabilities. These approaches seek to recognise inequality, constraining social conditions and capacities and they both reflect a wider political turn in exposing oppression and discrimination. Fundamentally, they are sociological problems which can be understood by their socially produced nature and require interdisciplinary solutions. There is a pressing need for new methods and approaches that provide locally led solutions as increasing the policy provisions and guidelines that advocate for inclusion seem to have done little to swing the status quo. As Priestly and Hemmingway professed almost two decades ago ‘Just as disability is not the inevitable consequence of physical or cognitive impairment, disaster is not the inevitable consequence of natural hazard’.


Abigail Ewen is a PhD Candidate from the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction exploring identity and disability in times of crisis in Nepal. 


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Cop28: we need more accountability in adaptation

By Susannah Fisher, on 8 December 2023

photo of cop28 conference panel from audience perspective
Dr Susannah Fisher is in Dubai following the COP28 adaptation negotiations and sends us her account.

After early progress on the loss and damage fund and announcements on energy and health from COP 28 in Dubai, attention in the corridors in week 2 is turning to adapting to the impacts of climate change. One of the major topics of negotiation is the global goal on adaptation. Members of the Accountable Adaptation team at IRDR are following these discussions to understand the politics behind measuring adaptation.

What is the global goal on adaptation?

The global goal on adaptation was established in the Paris Agreement in 2015 and seeks to create a global political commitment to action on adaptation on par with mitigation. The goal seeks to “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change in the context of the temperature goal of the Agreement”. Progress has been slow since 2015, but work started in earnest after the Glasgow COP in 2021.

Since Glasgow negotiators and observers have been meeting every few months in a series of workshops to push the idea forward and consider what it means to create a global goal for adaptation. These workshops have covered issues such as transformational adaptation, indigenous knowledge and links with other global frameworks but only in recent months have steps forward been made on a concrete framework for the goal.

Why do we need a goal?

Progress on adaptation action has been very slow and largely incremental. This means governments, communities and the private sector have been making small changes and tweaks to existing activities, policies and programmes to adapt. For example growing a new crop, building an irrigation system or putting sandbags around a house close to water. As the impacts of climate change are becoming clearer, in many cases we know this will not be enough. We will need to make more systemic, more transformative choices to adapt and live well with the scale of the climate impacts anticipated.

Adaptation has not received the same political attention as mitigation, and if we are to make progress on these challenges, this needs to change. There also hasn’t been enough money invested in adaptation and the international community has not fulfilled its promise to deliver $40-50 billion a year for adaptation. The latest UNEP Adaptation Gap report shows that only $21 billion was delivered in 2021, and the needs for adaptation are 10-18 times higher than the amount of public finance available.

Why is it so hard?

There are many challenges to measuring adaptation – outcomes and priorities depend on local contexts and it touches all sectors. Data is limited. In many cases we don’t really know what effective adaptation looks like. This could be different in a 1.5 degree world, 2 or the 3 we are heading for without more ambitious action. To design a global framework has therefore been full of political and technical challenges.

What has happened in the negotiations in Dubai?

Negotiations have been going on all week on the global goal on adaptation but little progress has been made. According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin one observer called them “dire: and negotiators fear what will happen if the goal “crashes and burns”.

In the negotiating room, governments have been debating what role finance should play in the text on the global goal, what thematic areas should be included, what indicators are relevant, and if work should continue beyond this COP. There has been no agreement so far.

Does any of this really matter?

The global goal matters as it will set the level of ambition and the framing for what adaptation success looks like. It is a key tool for accountability allowing the COP to check if the international community is on track with planning, implementation, and finance to address the impacts of climate change, and to change course if it is not.

As part of our research at IRDR, we are analysing how governments and others understand the role of measurement and how adaptation measurement shapes action. These conversations on the global goal can often get lost in finding the best way to measure this complexity, but metrics embody a set of values and an understanding of success. Measurement can be used to raise ambition, build inclusion, and frame what solutions look like. It is inherently a social and political process.

As the doors to Expo City open today, we wait to see how the goal will move forward.


Dr Susannah Fisher is UKRI Future Leaders Principal Research Fellow. She works across research, policy and practice on adapting to climate change with an interest in ensuring climate finance supports effective and equitable adaptation, and that adaptation is at the scale and ambition we need for the escalating impacts of climate change.

Why the Gender and Climate Day at COP 28 is Important

By Peter Sammonds, on 7 December 2023

The first ever Gender and Climate Day was held at COP28 on Monday 4/12/23 and joined by a UCL IRDR GRRIPP team. But why is this important?


Photo of four members of the GRRIPP team stood in an auditorium
GRRIPP team at COP28: Dr Zahra Khan (GRRIPP Research and Outreach), Ella Bedford (BSc Theoretical Physics), Miriam Zallocco (BSc Global Humanitarian Studies), Peter Sammonds. We were part of the WOMENVAI delegation as Observers to COP28.

Women and men experience disasters differently. Women will disproportionately be impacted by climate change for instance from extreme heat. That is women working in the fields, factories and the informal economy. Pregnant women will be particularly affected. These were points made by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton who was moderating an event on “Women Building a Climate-Resilient World”. This was a centre-piece panel discussion covering the transition to the blue/green economy, climate finance, women in STEM and gender-based violence (GBV). As she commented, it was remarkable to have an audience of hundreds discussing gender—and not just women!

In the transition to a green economy 50% of the population are being left behind and so it is essential to keep a gender lens. Food production and preparation is disproportionately done by women but they have little impact on food decisions and only own 15% of the land. 70% of jobs in the emerging green energy sectors are taken by men. Only 10% of women the skills for the future green economy. There is a massive digital skills gap and unequal access to technology. Only 0.01% of climate finance funding goes to women, but investing in women is investing in our common future. The starting point for action has to be understanding where we are and what are the issues. As the Head of UN Women argued: as a start that means sex and gender responsive data needs to be collected, but this needs to influence gender finance policies—that is not happening. Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft argued for removing barriers in STEM, and building enterprise incubators and accelerators for women who are more likely to innovate climate solutions.

Financing

The Gender and Climate Day started with a “Technical Dialogue on Financing for gender-responsive just transitions and climate action”. A key point of discussion was that women (and some men) in the Care Economy will be left out as industrial sectors transition because only the Production Economy is considered. This was a line of argument which was new to me and I found revealing. We can see this for ourselves in the UK with oil workers in Aberdeen being offered investment and training – but the Care Economy is excluded. And without gender justice there will be no social justice or climate justice.

The intersections with Indigenous women, women of African descent and women with disabilities were discussed. There needs to be a framework to support integration of gender and poverty issues in climate finance. There needs to be capacity building and integrated investment plans. Colombia argued for generating baseline data and prioritisation for women impacted in the transition to the green economy (e.g., re-qualification) and backed by specific actions of government, including changing the law, action on participation in management and action on GBV in employment. Zimbabwe argued that for a gender-responsive just transition it is necessary to look beyond just mitigation and the COP negotiations had to move on to become broader. There needs to be funding for implementation of the UNFCCC Gender Action Plan (GAP) initiated at the Lima COP. Some countries are not even able to develop their own national GAPs because of lack of financing. But as Colombia pointed out legal frameworks can be changed if there is a will so I agree that action cannot hold back just because of a lack of resources.

The UK Approach

The Gender and Climate Day concluded with a ministerial panel discussion session on “High Level Dialogue on Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership”. This was attended by Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, International Development Minister in the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He committed to investment to advance gender equality as we are at a critical juncture and that no one should be left behind. He said that the UK is endorsing a gender-responsive just transition and there will be £40 million to support a just transition. The new UK government white paper sets out its approach to tackling world hunger, making the international system fairer and progress towards the UN sustainable global goals. The UK has also announced £1.5 billion for climate finance. There will be focussed efforts on women and girls and there will be direct support to women’s rights organisations. There were similar supportive comments from the Rwandan Environment Minister and Dutch Finance Minster for instance, with all ministers agreeing with the Partnership. But all agreed that implementation is the big issue with climate finance just not getting to women. Actually, I was surprised there was such an explicit commitment to gender equality from the UK government. So COP is more than just a talking shop.

Finally, the COP Parties are negotiating an updated Gender and Climate Change decision requiring a strengthening of national commitments. The UNFCCC Gender Action Plan is under review with final agreement due in July 2024. So there is still an opportunity to make inputs. And yes, in my mind there can be no climate justice without gender justice so it is not an issue that can be separated out. Having a Gender and Climate Change Day at COP is a recognition of this.

Members of the UCL GRRIPP team presented at the Cop 28 event: Opportunity over urgency.

Peter Sammonds is Professor of Geophysics, UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, and GRRIP Gender and Intersectionality Ambassador.

The UKRI Collective Fund award ‘Gender Responsive Resilience and Intersectionality in Policy and Practice (GRRIPP) – Networking Plus Partnering for Resilience’ is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. It is a 4-year global collaboration and knowledge-exchange project, implemented by a collective of universities. It aims to bring together theory, policy and practice to promote a gender-responsive approach to disaster management and development.

4 Ways to Improve Early Warning Systems

By Pauliina Vesaluoma, on 28 September 2023

This month, the UCL Warning Research Centre held its first-ever 3-day conference ‘Creating Effective Warnings for All’. In the face of extreme geophysical and meteorological hazards, and the complex interactions of multiple forms of risk, early warning systems (EWS) are crucial for boosting preparedness and emergency response to mitigate disasters rooted in everyday social conditions. Here are four key takeaways from the conference.

Panel discussion at the WRC conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Integration

EWS extend beyond the technical mechanisms for alerting people about emergencies, such as sirens and instant notifications. Early warnings need to form part of an integrated process that strengthens multi-hazard education, risk perception, risk communication, and preparedness measures. This can help shift disaster management from being reactive to increasingly proactive.

Inclusivity

For EWS to be effective, they must be inclusive, incorporating local stakeholder knowledge. This type of approach recognises specific vulnerabilities and capacities for disaster risk reduction among communities. Solutions must be context-sensitive, resources need to align with needs, and projects need to be structured around participatory processes to determine what works, where, and for whom.

Timing

Timeframes are key, whether we are in a moment of disaster or in ‘peace time’. Norms can become entrenched in times of intensified uncertainty; however, disasters can also provide a transformative moment to reassess existing structures and emergency protocols. Equally, we should harness the time in between crises to strengthen preparedness frameworks and collaborative networks for future resilience.

Creativity

Creativity is a powerful tool for rethinking existing solutions or imagining new ones. Cartoons, graphic recording, cardboard theatre, acrobatics, and interactive workshops were among the creative approaches used in the conference sessions, encouraging exploration of interconnected themes, such as climate change and mental health.


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Pauliina Vesaluoma recently completed the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR (2022/23). Natural hazard preparedness, volcanic risk reduction, and future resilience are among some of her main interests. Pauliina is currently undertaking a Business Resilience internship at Holcim.

Connect with her on Linkedin.


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Is the Humanitarian Sector Outdated?

By Evie Lunn, on 31 August 2023

Amidst historical levels of displacement and urgent need, the humanitarian sector is struggling to remain afloat. Despite reaching an increasing number of people, the fragmented global aid architecture cannot keep pace with the growing frequency and intensity of suffering globally. Attempts to reform the system have only addressed surface-level issues while leaving fundamental problems unaddressed. Power imbalances, rivalries between organisations, and distorted institutional incentives have remained largely untouched. Is the sector outdated?

In order to survive, humanitarians must find a way to get ahead of the crisis curve and break the cycle. The sector’s challenges and its shortcomings were at the heart of a recent panel discussion at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) Humanitarian Summit. There is an urgent need for innovative approaches to realign the humanitarian sector with the requirements of the twenty-first century.

Photo image of three people sat behind a table with the UCL banner on. Behind them is a video screen showing an image of themselves next to a livestream image of a fourth person.

In conversation with Professor David Alexander (left), Dr Maria Kett, (middle), Dr James Smith (right), and Stuart Kefford (joining online). Photo by Ilan Kelman

 

Funding and Power

This is a well-recognised issue, with themes of funding and power dynamics underlying much of the discourse. For example, the panellists raised concerns about donor practices, such as hiring supposed ‘third-party’ consultants that lack the impartiality needed to evaluate programs. It is a failure in accountability with no unified system for tracking and evaluating outcomes, with a significant portion of funding absorbed by administrative costs and bureaucracy.

There is a clear discrepancy between investment and impact. One of the reasons for this is that organisations have been known to inflate funding needs to secure resources, aware that they will receive only a fraction of their requests. A vicious cycle is created, where funding needs skyrocket and cash does not flow where it is needed, leading to donor fatigue and a lack of inclination to provide further support. At least 20% of funding for education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is believed to have been lost due to donors’ preference for funding UN agencies and INGOs over giving directly to local NGOs. Calls have been made for the sector to “let go”: of power and control, of perverse incentives; to let go of divisions and embrace differences.

A Forced Hand

Could modern challenges fast-track the much-needed change? The New Humanitarian recently identified seven policy issues that could help the sector evolve. “The Ukraine Effect” has exposed deep inequalities in the system. A huge amount of money has been injected into the Ukraine response in a very short period of time, overwhelming international agencies. In comparison, other equally pressing remain woefully underfunded. This imbalance is a symptom of a sector that does not know how to communicate or manage its resources effectively. In response to the climate-crisis, eco-friendly shelter materials are now being implemented in refugee camps, climate data is being used to predict humanitarian crises, and drought-resistant seeds are being introduced to help combat famine. Humanitarians are certainly moving in the right direction, but not quite fast enough.

Beyond Funding

Are there other ways to address the issues that do not always come back to finances? An interesting proposal at the Humanitarian Summit advocated for integrating youthful voices into leadership, fostering flexibility and creativity in thinking, and dismantling hierarchical structures that hinder progress. A lack of fresh perspectives and innovative ideas from younger individuals is perpetuating outdated approaches in the humanitarian world. It seems obvious that a new, creative way of thinking is needed to overcome challenges, but the sector remains bent on trying to solve new problems with old solutions. Addressing ingrained thinking patterns within the system is essential for an innovative way forward.

Failure is an essential component of learning. But many decision-makers are understandably reluctant to commit to doing anything differently because of the high-stakes associated with failure in the humanitarian sector. Failure doesn’t just mean pay-cuts and a publicity disaster, but increased death and suffering. Any humanitarian who introduces a novel or untested idea runs the risk of living with real blood on their hands.

The Upshot

Change is possible in the humanitarian sector, but it requires an honest and comprehensive evaluation of the system. In our current climate, the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources demands collective action and commitment. Outdated approaches no longer suffice; innovative and collaborative solutions, combined with long-term planning and community empowerment, are what we need to prioritise if the humanitarian sector is to redeem itself. Aid dependency cycles need to be broken, and the spotlight needs to rest on the root causes perpetuating suffering. This shift will usher in a new era of agile, creative, and unyielding humanitarian action, dedicated to meaningful change in practice, rather than just unfulfilled promises.

It is imperative that we tackle the core issues of power imbalances, institutional incentives, and structural dynamics. The consequence of the humanitarian sector’s outdated infrastructure is a fundamental crisis of legitimacy. Only by addressing these challenges can the sector hope to achieve real change and meet the ever-evolving demands of the modern world.


Watch the full Humanitarian Summit.


Evie Lunn is an Undergraduate student on the Global Humanitarian Studies program at IRDR.

Contact Evie by email here.


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How not to prepare for earthquakes: lessons from history

By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023

Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?

The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.


Map of the Bihar and Quetta earthquakes, indicating approximate locations of most intense damage in British India. Reproduced under a CC-BY license from Haines, D. (2023), Recovering the status quo: tipping points and earthquake aftermaths in colonial India. Disasters. 

The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.

South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.

Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.

After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.

Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.

Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.

Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.

The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.

Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.

The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.

The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.

So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.

A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.

Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.

My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.

Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!


Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.


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