Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 9:41 EDT

UN Official Warns Of Mega-Disasters

June 7, 2010

The top UN humanitarian official said on Sunday that the possibilities of “mega-disasters” brought about by climate change are increasing.

The UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, told the AFP news agency that one of the biggest challenges facing the aid community was the problems that come from changing weather patterns.

“When it comes meteorological disasters, weather-related disasters, then there is a trend upwards connected with climate change,” Holmes, who is in Australia for high-level talks on humanitarian aid, told AFP.

“The trend is there in terms of floods, and cyclones, and droughts.”

Holmes said it had been a rough year because of January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, which killed over 250,000 people.

He said that although earthquakes such as the one in Haiti were random, weather-related natural disasters were increasing in number and scale.

“It’s partly the very obvious things like the number of cyclones and the intensity of the cyclones, and the amount of flooding,” he said.

“But is also in slightly more invisible ways — in Africa with drought spreading, desertification spreading.”

Holmes said officials were particularly concerned about places where a combination of factors made them more vulnerable.  These factors include large population, or likelihood of earthquake, or susceptibility to rising sea levels.

“One of things we worry about is mega cities could produce, at some point, a mega disaster,” he said.

“Cities like Kathmandu for example, which sits on two earthquake faults, where a large earthquake will come along… and the results could be catastrophic.”

Holmes said that while some countries like Chile were prepared for a disaster, others such as Haiti were less able to manage.

“That’s one of the reasons we want to focus on not just how we respond to disaster, we need to do that, but how you reduce the impact of those disasters before they happen.”

He said the situation remained serious in Haiti, with about 1.5 million people living in makeshift shelters and little prospect of this changing soon.

“There are real concerns about how vulnerable people still are, despite all the efforts that have been made,” he said.

Holmes believes the need for humanitarian aid is rising faster than resources can become available.

Climate change would likely set in chain migration because of drought or rising sea levels or conflicts due to a water shortage or arable land in coming years, and these would place more pressure on funds.

“So all these things are going to create more problems for us, and we’re really just coming to grips with what the consequences might be,” Holmes said.

“And you can construct some extremely scary scenarios for yourself without too much trouble. For example, about what the effect might be of glaciers melting in the Himalayas. Now we don’t quite know whether that’s happening, or will happen, or not. But if it did, what would the effect be on the major river systems of southern Asia?”

“Climate change for us is not some future indeterminate threat, it’s happening in front of our eyes,” he said. “We can see it.”

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