Tag Archives: humanitarian relief

Weathervane: The UN Forecasts the next Phase of El Niño Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jan

weather (2)

Like many people in the US (and certainly in other parts of the world) I am beginning this morning by switching on the weather forecast.  In so doing, I discover that it is going to be a warm, wet and windy January day in New York, but also learn about the deep freeze in the center of the US and Canada, ongoing drought in southern Africa and Central America, un-seasonal tropical depressions in the Pacific, and much more weather-related information that is of interest to some and a warning to others.

The fascination that many of us have with weather goes beyond strategic matters such as how many layers of clothing to put on or whether or not to pack an umbrella.   As farmers know better than most of the rest of us, weather represents one of the major variables of our daily lives, a variable to which we must adjust but over which we have virtually no control.  As my weather-attentive grandmother used to share with me (ad nauseam), “whether it’s cold, or whether it’s hot, there’s going to be weather, whether or not.”

In the temperate zones, our weather adjustments are largely confined to manageable temperature and precipitation variations, though there are also increasingly dangerous weather configurations that command our interest and even our awe – hurricanes/cyclones along the coasts of states large and small; tornados, lightning storms and other violent and erratic weather systems; major shifts in surface temperatures, sometimes during the course of a single day;  patterns of drought punctuated by torrential rains creating flooding in areas where parched soil is simply incapable of absorbing so much water; rising tides caused in part by melting ice caps.

Weather can be a significant social leveler within states though not necessarily between them.  Funnel clouds don’t know to avoid wealthy neighborhoods and massive ocean weather systems do considerable damage to the largest (and smallest) shoreline homes. Our growing collective fascination with challenging weather patterns also transcends social class limitations, though we cannot emphasize enough that levels of resilience regarding weather’s effects vary dramatically, sometimes to life threatening degrees.

This past Thursday, the UN convened an event to help assess and address some of the effects of the El Niño system and its warming ocean waters that has scrambled any and all of our comfortable assumptions regarding weather patterns and their seasonal variations.  Chaired by USG and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, and involving representatives from the World Meteorological Association (WMO) and administrators of UN country teams in Guatemala, Lesotho, Ethiopia and other affected regions, the meeting was designed to bring more international attention to, as the representative of Fiji put it, “the slow onset disaster,” set in motion by this particularly robust iteration of El Niño.

The UN discussion hit many important notes.   O’Brien himself noted that this version of El Niño is not a product of the climate distress that recently resulted in the Paris agreement, but that the consequences from this weather phenomenon, as the WMO also noted, are being felt “at a higher level” because of climate change.  O’Brien stressed the growing threats of food insecurity from severe drought, from flooding, and from cyclones in and around small island states, and he called for closer partnerships between development and humanitarian officials to mitigate weather-related distress and help “under-funded” states prepare “for what we know is coming.”

For their part, the UN country team representatives focused less on what is coming and more on the damage that has already taken place, from looming malnutrition in Ethiopia and disease outbreaks in Fiji to fresh water scarcity in Lesotho that is having profoundly negative implications for health care in that country.   At the same time, Guatemala’s UN field representative cited factors such as inequality, corruption and “institutional discrimination” that continue to impede otherwise critical efforts to respond to the country’s current, weather-related vulnerabilities.

As the representative of WMO demonstrated, this El Niño event will not last forever.  Apparently, there will likely be some return to “neutral conditions” mid-year, after which we are likely to have to cope with La Niña impacts.  But it was also made clear that El Niño impacts, perhaps even the most severe of them, have not run their course, and thus significant, sustained attentiveness at UN level to emergency response preparedness is more than warranted.

As is so often the case in this world, it is the poor and marginalized who generally suffer most from chaotic, dangerous weather systems.  The UN, specifically USG O’Brien, is to be commended for holding this briefing and for fully integrating perspectives from both weather scientists and officials from already affected regions. However, given that so many states are, indeed, “already affected” by current weather emergencies, we urge UN colleagues to find ways to get further ahead of the weather curve; helping to ensure that all of us – especially the vulnerable, the disabled and the politically marginal — are sufficiently prepared to cope with a range of potentially deadly (albeit at times fascinating) weather threats.

Fire and Rain:  The Council Divides its Urgent Attentions

31 Aug

The world is, to reference the Washington Post and virutally every other media outlet, beset with crises.   From Mali to Ukraine, hardly a day goes by without at least one new eruption of hostility, one new warning that the armed violence we struggle to manage may well be entering a new and more potent phase.

At such times, eyes are cast towards the UN Security Council hoping that its ‘maintenance of peace and security’ mandate will translate into policies and actions that can put out some of the fires ranging across half the world, or at the very least lower their searing heat.

The Council is trying hard to do just that, but there are simply too many fires raging, too many escalating conflict zones, any one of which could take up Council members’ full attention.  We find the Council careening from one issue to another, focusing on Syria one week but not the next; obsessing on the ISIS threat while diverting attention from Gaza; assuming that a soon-to-be-deployed peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic will stop that bleeding while Libya disintegrates before our eyes.   Only Ukraine, and that in large measure because of the involvement of permanent Council members and their large militaries, tends to keep its Council focus.

Under the presidency of the United Kingdom, the Council had a busy and varied August, which including a ‘field trip’ to the Hague, Somalia and other locations; some forceful efforts to limit the length of statements, even by governments that have limited access to the Council and are party to grave conflict; and at least two important discussions – one on protection of humanitarian workers and the other on UN capacities for preventive response to violence prior to its full eruption.

Both of these discussions brought out a range of deep UN member state anxieties.   The loss of life from the community of humanitarian workers is shocking and worthy of both great honor and urgent response.  Most of us can barely imagine the challenges of bringing relief to people isolated by violence and abandoned by governments and insurgencies alike.  In the case of the prevention discussion, it is somehow reassuring to those who carefully follow Council deliberations that there be an acknowledgement of how untenable the current situation is, a situation that lends itself to short-term crisis management rather than the longer term crisis prevention which  is closer to our common hope.

In life as in policy, it is often the things left unsaid that are of more significance than those which are named.  This also pertains to webcast Council meetings where statements too often traverse well-worn paths that seem to be designed to ‘inform’ constituents more than sharing thoughtful policy assessment.  In these discussions, there is much text devoted to what Council members care about and occasionally even what they are prepared to do about it.   But much of that is in the form of general recommendations that offer neither kernels of lessons learned nor honest assessments of the failures of past policy.   When the Council speaks of the disintegration of Libya, for instance, while defending (or ignoring altogether) the Council’s resolution authorizing ‘all necessary means’ to stop Gaddafi and the ethnic chaos and the grotesque and highly fluid arms market that were left in its aftermath, it is natural to wonder if Council members are paying enough attention to the longer-term implications of their own decisions.   The rest of us, after all, can ignore the potential consequences of our life choices only at our peril.

So what about those unmentioned items with significant policy reference?   Briefly, two stood out.   In the case of humanitarian workers, we were hoping that someone on the Council would raise clearly the uncomfortable relationship for these workers being protected by peacekeepers who are increasingly seen as partisan, in part because of the expansion of peacekeeping mandates, especially regarding use of coercive force beyond the mantra of “self-defense and the defense of the mandate. “  Such forward projection of force, which in the DRC seem to have won the confidence of diverse UN officials, need to be more carefully vetted from the standpoint of their implication for the safety of already beleaguered humanitarian operations.  As we have seen in South Sudan and just this weekend with capture of Fiji and Filipino peacekeepers, there are legitimate concerns about playing with peacekeeper neutrality in a manner that can jeopardize the safety of more than peacekeepers.  The more that others – states as well as ‘spoilers’ — see PKOs as partisan forces, the more likely that affiliated UN humanitarian workers and other ‘country team’ members could be dragged into threatening situations caused by such ‘partisan’ conflict.

On prevention, the ‘debate’ style format elicited many comments from non-Council members, most of which were laced with anxiety about the state of the world and the Council’s often tepid responses.  From our standpoint, there needed to be more commentary from Council members about the dangers of continually ignoring the smoke that signifies potential danger.   We would also have liked to see more representation in the debate from the people who manage the understaffed and too often ignored preventive architecture of the UN system.

We are extremely grateful to outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and felt that her presence at the debate added considerable value.   But there are others who also should have been in that chamber, including the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The Council is unlikely to successfully shift its distracted gaze towards prevention responsibilities without routinely acknowledging and consulting with those already tasked with preventive functions.

As our understanding of conflict-related threats continues to grow, opportunities for Council over-stretch will grow likewise.   The discussions this month pointed again to the grave need for Council members to engage the full measure of the UN’s preventive capacity as well as to demonstrate to an anxious global public why they believe that the  current crop of Council resolutions and related responses to the many violent outbreaks now on its agenda are both sufficiently mindful of the needs of humanitarian workers and also more likely to suppress violence in the end than to inflame it further.

Dr. Robert Zuber