Sounding the Siren

“In the last 20 years, disasters are more intense and more widespread in areas where they didn’t happen before.”

Tangerang, Indonesia – Heavy rainfalls have led to worsening flooding over the years, with the Tangerang administration planning to relocate residents in the area. The area is not fit to withstand the heavy rainfall and hundreds of families were left without clean water in the 2020 floods. (Video credit: Tom Fisk, 2020).

Every year, the lives and livelihoods of millions of people are destroyed by disasters – both caused and made worse by the climate emergency. That number is growing.

Both rich and poor countries are hit by extreme weather events, but the world’s most vulnerable bear the brunt. As the COVID-19 pandemic highlights, emergencies deepen poverty, widen inequality, and threaten global security.

The world is unprepared for the escalating crisis, warn aid workers across the globe. The effects of climate change are already being felt at 1.1C of global heating. Even if emissions can be reduced and warming is limited to 1.5C, extreme weather events will continue to hit harder, more frequently, and for longer. Increasing numbers of people will be left without healthcare, shelter and food. The result will be suffering on a scale beyond our experience.

Aid workers adapted quickly to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can we use this learning, innovation and pace-change to address an even larger threat?

How can the aid system improve and what are the barriers to change?

This new study brings together the experiences of aid workers to present findings and recommendations for governments, aid and development organisations and concerned citizens. The 2021 international climate negotiation, known as COP26, could be a watershed moment to act together to protect peace, prosperity and wellbeing now and in future. But global challenges require global solutions: the global community must act now to face this existential threat.

All humanity depends on it.

About this study

Sounding the Siren is a collaboration between UK-Med, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (University of Manchester), Save the Children UK, with funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee and dedicated work by Research Associates Raphaella Montadon and Maheshika Sakalasuriya.

Study approach

The study included:

A review of existing published information written by academics, NGOs and UN agencies on the various impacts of climate change on the sector;

interviews with key people;

and a survey for humanitarian practitioners based in the field.

The research team interviewed more than 30 aid workers remotely by Zoom. This included people on the strategy, planning and operations of emergencies, based both at headquarters and in the field where emergencies have taken place. The interviewees worked in organisation including UN-based or UN-affiliated organisations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and humanitarian organisations working across different sectors of health, water and sanitation, food security, conflict and migration, shelter and education and protection. Those who responded represented different genders and nationalities.

The study was conducted under The University of Manchester’s research ethics guidelines. Read more about these guidelines here. All contributors have been anonymised within the report.

UK-Med’s team (as part of the UK Emergency Medical Team) assess the damage caused by the Beirut port explosion. The team stayed in Lebanon for the subsequent eight months supporting the country’s COVID-19 response as cases increased by 180% in the aftermath of the explosion. (Photo credit: Daniella Ritzau-Reid, August 2020).

What is a humanitarian aid organisation?

Humanitarian aid organisations deliver life-saving support to people in need across the world, particularly victims of disasters, conflict and violence. Humanitarian aid organisations intervene when governments request more help. Humanitarian organisations are governed by principles that ensure aid is delivered based on needs alone.

The values of humanitarian aid organisations include:




and independence.

“In the last 20 years, disasters are more intense and more widespread in areas where they didn’t happen before. Mozambique cyclones being one such example of extreme and unpredicted events... Although we still have a cyclone and hurricane season, these events happened out of season. We see an intensification of the number and severity of cyclones, also occurring in areas that they didn’t happen before, making them more difficult to predict.”

Humanitarian environmental specialist, 20 years of experience

Seven critical actions

Close the information Gap

It is challenging for aid workers to find and use relevant information and data on the climate emergency. Aid organisations need support to ‘translate’ climate information into usable formats.

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Plan for scale

Aid organisation and systems commonly respond to finite problems taking place over time. But the climate emergency is resulting in continual, overlapping, and compounded emergencies which grow over time. Operational planning for the aid system needs to be revised to cope with more frequent, deadlier and overlapping crises.

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Act early

Pre-emptive action saves lives, time and money but the aid system is set up to respond when emergencies become acute. Policy-makers, local partners and aid organisations must commit to upfront investment to support early interventions.

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Resource fit for purpose

Increased need means increased demand for funding, supplies and people. Emergency appeals consistently fall short of targets. Aid organisations, particularly those operating at local levels, urgently need greater access to predictable, sufficient and sustained resourcing so they can fully prepare, respond and recover from crises exacerbated by the climate emergency.

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Collaborate across sectors

The climate emergency is complex and many organisations work, often separately, to address interrelated issues. Funding tends to address symptoms and causes as separate issues. Governments, humanitarian and development organisations, local NGOs, civil society, philanthropists and businesses must act together.

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Get the humanitarian house in order

Aid organisations have a part to play in reducing climate impact while delivering aid. The sector should embed policies that support the delivery of best practice.

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Speak up

Aid workers see the impact of the climate emergency on vulnerable communities. But some policy-makers, and even some aid organisations, don’t view the climate emergency as a humanitarian crisis. Advocacy is seen by many organisations as too political, but speaking up is essential to the humanitarian mandate to save lives.

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