Torrential floods in Kenya have killed nearly 200 people and displaced hundreds of thousands
more since March. The deluge comes on the tail of a years-long drought that left millions hungry.

This extreme weather whiplash is just one example of the grim toll climate change is taking in some countries. Around the world, more than 3 billion people have been affected by it over the past 20 years — but those impacts are very unevenly distributed,
according to a new Conservation International study.

The global study analyzed the number and location of people injured, made homeless or killed after a hurricane, typhoon or other climate disaster. It found that although some developed and developing countries faced a similar number of events, there were
significant disparities in the impacts of those events.

“People living in developing countries are suffering far more from the effects of climate change,” said Camila Donatti, the study’s lead author and a Conservation International expert on climate change adaptation. “It’s not
because they face a greater number of extreme events — it’s because they have fewer resources to prevent or recover from them.”

Countries in Central America, the Caribbean, eastern Africa, and southern and eastern Asia experienced the highest levels of human impact from climate-related disasters, according to the study.

Notably, over the 20-year period covered by Donatti’s research, the percentage of Europeans affected by climate disasters decreased, whereas the percentage of Africans impacted by disaster increased — despite both continents experiencing an
overall decrease in the number of climate-related disasters. On average, about 45 percent of Africans were affected by climate disasters each year, compared to just 3 percent of Europeans.

“Disasters like floods and wildfires can come almost out of nowhere if you don’t have warning systems in place,” Donatti said. “That’s what’s happening in many developing countries. They don’t know what’s
coming, which can make it difficult — if not impossible — to evacuate.”

To make matters worse, many of the people affected are dealing with repeat disasters, Donatti said. In 19 of the 172 countries surveyed, many people were impacted year after year within that 20 year period. That was especially true of developing countries,
such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and the Philippines.

“The same people are being impacted over and over again, in large part because they don’t have the capacity to move to less vulnerable locations and they don’t have the resources to recover between events,” Donatti said. “It’s
like adding fuel to a fire.”

Developing countries also have significantly less support in the direct aftermath of a disaster — including medical care, food, water and lodging. Long term-recovery efforts, like rebuilding homes, hospitals and other infrastructure, also lag.

“Put together, the lack of resources has a massive impact on death tolls — both during and after a climate disaster,” Donatti said.

This is unequivocally a climate justice issue, she continued.

“The people most impacted by climate change are the least responsible for it,” she said. “Yet
there continues to be a huge gap in the resources they are able to access to implement climate adaptation measures.”

While there is an urgent need for global action to address this resource gap, nature is a proven ally in helping to reduce the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

In Nepal, for example, protecting rainforests has helped prevent mudslides. In Kenya, implementing sustainable livestock grazing practices has reduced soil erosion from droughts. And in the Philippines protecting mangroves and marshes has decreased flooding from storms and sea-level rise.

“We like to call nature-based solutions ‘no regret options,’” Donatti said. “They’re often cheaper, effective and already available.”

Nature-based solutions not only help communities become more resilient to climate disasters, they also improve food security, support economic development and help protect wildlife. This is critical as more than two-thirds of people who live in the tropics directly depend on nature for basic needs.

For example, in Madagascar devastating droughts, punctuated by intense cyclones, have exacerbated poverty and malnutrition. For years, Conservation International has worked with farmers to adopt sustainable agriculture practices that are more drought and cyclone tolerant.

And it’s working. A recent report found that farmers who adopted sustainable
agriculture practices, like drought-resistant crops and mulching to prevent soil erosion during heavy rains, were not only less likely to deforest surrounding land to supplement income, they also had greater food security — an important indicator
in a country where about a third of the population does not have enough food.

“We have limited time and resources to act,” Donatti said. “We know where people are struggling the most — and what actions can help — it is imperative that we focus our efforts where we can have the greatest impact.”

Further reading:

Mary Kate McCoy is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.

Cover photo: Drought and over grazing of the land from cattle show the degradation of the landscape. © Charlie Shoemaker.

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