The International Disaster Response Expo ('Prepare, Respond, Protect, Recover', Olympia, UK 3 – 4th December 2019) should not have been the surprise it was for me when I attended earlier this week.
Co-located with the International Security Expo (Employing Security through Innovation) and free to attend, I should, had I thought carefully, have realised it was to be funded through the subs of private sector companies paying to advertise their wares. Nor am I against the involvement of the Private Sector in humanitarian and disaster relief. As the numbers of disasters escalate, climate related or conflict associated, all sectors are desperately needed for any sort of adequate response. The investment of ethical responders, their support to governments and to NGOs are a vital source of funds and of creative intelligence much needed in crises that are now beginning to affect us all.
Signing up to a workshop on ‘Eco Supply Chains’ again felt like a useful opportunity to network with those organisations involved in first response work and who were as concerned as we are to recognise the impact of disasters on people and planet.
The workshop was organised by the Humanitarian Logistics Association – an independent group advising on and coordinating the interventions of different donors – public, private sector, NGOs, UN and Red Cross. All vital work in ensuring efforts are not duplicated or resources wasted. The
workshop facilitator opened with some important remarks: global emissions from transport, if they continue to increase at their current rate, are likely to double by 2050, we need to prioritise local
sourcing and local expertise in order to find ‘new ways of delivering assistance in difficult to reach places’. His images of airships (while reminiscent of His Dark Materials) showed that helium assisted vehicles, invented after the second world war, could even now carry with them 20 tons of food, water or equipment, plus 20 passengers using a fraction of the fuel of traditional air freight.
Yet, as the workshop and the event progressed I had a rapidly growing awareness of the deep systemic change needed in the whole Humanitarian relief industry. A second speaker involved in moving and supplying equipment to rescue missions told how his company are aiming for a 50% reduction in emissions from air freight by 2050. But this means if transport emissions as a whole are set to double, then in real terms the most we can expect is that they only rise to 1.5% of today’s totals. And this at the end of a week when scientist tell us emissions are currently peaking at seriously dangerous levels. Nor was his aspiration of eventually owning aircraft that run on biofuels any more reassuring. Land is already scarce in much of the world and areas for food growing diminishing. In areas where people are marginalised due to land grabbing for profitable cash crops (and those carbon offsetting projects), they are pushed to eking out a living in ever-more marginal landscapes that are, themselves, exposed to natural disasters. With extensive cultivation of crops for biofuel, the loss of vegetation cover further destabilises soils and landscapes, adding to further displacement as it keeps the aid industry alive. Yet the workshop informed us that there are already far more climate refugees than those displaced by conflict across the world. Could we call this greenwashing while adding to the crisis?
The calculations of the emissions needed to transport huge heavy machinery across the globe was
sobering but the many, many stands advertising Toyota Landrovers, hippo trucks and lifeboats,
ready to be jetted off across the world, even more shocking. The dozen or so people who had signed up to attend ‘Eco-Supply chains’ from the 100 humanitarian exhibitors present showed it was still a minority interest. There were 375 security stands, nearly four times as many as humanitarian. An indication of the importance we give to fighting terrorism and keeping ourselves safe, compared to saving other people’s lives, or the fact that is it a more profitable business at the end of the day???
None the less there were some reputable speakers on leadership, crises and turbulent times and here audiences were much larger. The messages were similar - we are living with uncertainty and we had better get used to how to manage it. The climate is becoming more unpredictable, there will be more climate related disasters, and these will come closer to home for those living in the global north. We need to know how to ‘transform risk into resilience’ and to ‘lead in turbulent times’. These speakers, from Harvard, from Insurance and from Investment, all referred to the need to be ‘environmentally friendly’ in our responses and to find ways to mitigate risk. But I still left feeling almost as if the industry, if not the planet, was almost beyond hope, certainly beyond any offer of ‘friendliness’ and in need of a complete and drastic system overhaul.
There was almost no talk of long-term development, of the links between humanitarian response and future planning, of supporting local economies to respond, of providing funds and finance to assist in locally organised responses and solutions. There was a focus on the human cost and the centrality of a human response, but little of the environmental cost or the potential long-term
damage of some of the solutions. And there was nothing at all on nature-based solutions, part of this summer’s UN global compact signed at the UN Climate Action Summit.
Just one day after Guterras opened Cop 25 in Madrid and said ‘the planet is close to the point of no return’, that this is a ‘critical time’, that ‘We need a rapid and profound change in the way Humanity does business, generates energy, builds cities, moves and feeds itself, eliminating our addiction to carbon’, it was business as usual at the IDR. Build, sell, ship around the world, develop your business, make a profit - and do your damndest to keep it safe. Ultimately the event felt far too transactional, showcasing the widgets we can buy to protect rather than thinking about why we are unsafe in the first place or how we might use people’s own capabilities to support them in reducing the risks that are developing to themselves and to the places in which they live.
Juliet Millican is coordinator of Re-Alliance, a coalition of practitioners, policy makers, academics,
and donors working to support regenerative solutions to disaster, displacement and development.