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The world’s biggest humanitarian disasters go virtually uncovered

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Foreign Policy


Between the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and the smartphone the world has never been so saturated with information. Yet a new report by CARE International finds that humanitarian crises affecting millions of people around the world snagged relatively few headlines last year.

The report, “Suffering in Silence,” also found that climate change played a direct role in at least five of the 10 most underreported humanitarian crises of 2018, from chronic droughts in Ethiopia to Typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines. The tally underscores how the developing world, which has less historical responsibility for the emissions that cause climate change, is feeling its effects earliest and hardest.

In Madagascar, which the report describes as being at the front line of climate change, drought and unfavorable weather conditions have withered crops, while food prices hover close to record highs. Malnutrition is already rampant in Madagascar, which will likely be compounded by crop failure. Almost half of Madagascar’s children are stunted, which can hurt their cognitive and mental growth for the rest of their lives. Madagascar was ranked as the third most underreported crisis on the list.

The report looked at man-made or natural disasters affecting more than 1 million people, then analyzed online media reports to weigh the coverage they received. While the earthquake in Haiti made international headlines in 2010, the country’s chronic food shortages were the most underreported crisis of last year, the study found. Haiti was ranked fourth on the 2018 Long-Term Climate Risk Index, and the country is still struggling to recover from droughts in northern areas at the beginning of last year. Frequent natural disasters and extreme poverty have left half of the country facing the continued threat of extreme hunger, with almost a quarter of children in Haiti chronically malnourished.

Wars and revolutions galvanize global attention. Long-term droughts don’t. A lack of news coverage has real-world consequences, said Sven Harmeling, CARE International’s global policy Lead on climate change and resilience.

“If there is not enough media attention, it often means that there is a lack of political attention in terms of confronting the causes of the problem, but also in delivering the support and help that the people affected need,” he said. Cutbacks in news organizations’ foreign bureaus, he noted, have affected the ability of newsrooms to maintain their coverage of these crises.

While refugee and migrant flows to Europe and the United States have dominated headlines in the West in recent years, the report notes that over 80 percent of the world’s refugees currently live in developing countries. Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, currently hosts over 170,000 refugees from neighboring Nigeria and Mali. In Niger, which CARE International ranks eighth on the list of underreported crises, this has further strained a country already battling chronic food insecurity.

The report, which makes clear how climate change can reshape the security environment, comes at a time with the United States has stepped back from global efforts to combat climate change. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change, undone a number of Obama-era climate change policies, and appointed a former coal industry lobbyist to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Most recently, he appointed a climate change skeptic to lead a White House initiative to denigrate the security threat from climate change that his own Pentagon is busy preparing for.

In January, Trump posted a tweet mocking global warming as large parts of the United States braced for winter storms.

“The evidence and scientific facts are so clear that not acting is coming close to a crime against humankind,” said Harmeling of CARE International.

One big problem: The places most likely to suffer as climate change intensifies are the ones with the least ability to gather the kind of detailed data that could help build predictive models.

“In the places where we see the biggest vulnerability, the highest human suffering, we are least able to provide precise numbers,” said Maarten van Aalst, the director of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

Van Aalst, along with the U.S. military and intelligence community, stresses that many global disasters are caused by a confluence of factors, of which climate change is just one ingredient. “Climate change is acting as a risk magnifier for many of these disasters, but we shouldn’t blame climate change on its own,” he said.

Still, it’s a devastating magnifier, especially where infrastructure is weak and resilience is weaker.

“The first climate shock erodes vulnerability further, so the second shock hits people even harder and erodes vulnerability even further, so that the third shock is an even bigger killer,” van Aalst said.

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