Under pressure: Reducing disaster risk and enhancing US emergency response capacity in an era of climate change

With disasters—and particularly climate-related disasters—on the rise, the global humanitarian response system is under increased pressure to assist growing numbers of people.

The US government is the leading global player in this system. The US approach seeks to encompass a broad range of activities and allow humanitarian agencies flexibility in their missions and response. However, as a result, the myriad interconnected US agencies involved—civilian and sometimes military—are without clear leadership and mission, beholden to various legislative constraints, and focused more on disaster response than on proactive disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Climate change poses a considerable challenge to US and international capacity to meet future humanitarian needs. This challenge presents itself in a context in which the international humanitarian response system is failing to meet existing needs. To meet the increased humanitarian need resulting from climate change, the international humanitarian aid system will need to increase its response capacity.

Given the likely effects of climate change, it behooves the US government to consider (1) how humanitarian emergencies might be prevented and (2) how its emergency response capacity might be enhanced. DRR offers a promising way forward. According to the United Nations, DRR is “the concept and practice of reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyze and manage the causal factors of disasters, including through reduced exposure to hazards, lessening vulnerability of people and property, wise management of land and the environment, and improved preparedness for adverse events.” It is intricately linked with climate change adaptation. The return on DRR investment is quite high. Beyond mainstreaming DRR in its assistance programs, the US government needs to address budgetary, organizational, and legislative issues that currently impede the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance. In addition, the US government needs to sort out how best to draw on the unique capabilities and appropriate role of the US military in humanitarian emergencies while avoiding excessive and unnecessary use of military forces. Finally, the US can play a leadership role in furthering reform of the global humanitarian system, given its pivotal role within that system."



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