A town almost fully submerged under brown flooding water. The roofs and tree tops just peer out of the water and people are standing on top of the rooftops for refuge.

People take refuge on the roofs of buildings following flooding caused by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. The flooding displaced over 600,000 people across Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. (Photo credit: DFID, World Vision, 2019).

Changing nature of crises and response

Our study shows that the climate emergency is part of the new reality of humanitarian operations.

The characteristics, onset, and duration of seasons are changing, with devastating consequences for subsistence farmers and people earning a livelihood from animal husbandry.

Sudden-onset disasters like tropical cyclones, flash floods and wildfires are becoming more frequent, intense and unpredictable.

Slow-onset disasters like drought, salinisation and sea-level rise occur in conjunction with these rapid-onset events.

The locations of disasters are changing, with natural hazards occurring in new areas. This is particularly clear with cyclone paths which are changing as water and air temperatures increase.

Disasters are more likely to overlap, so there is no longer a clear distinction between the ‘classic’ disaster cycle of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Countries in the Global North are increasingly in need of humanitarian support for disasters.

Many aid workers gave noticeable examples of how the frequency, severity, location and impact of disasters were changing in the places that they had worked, with dramatic impacts on the well-being of communities. For aid workers, the climate emergency is increasingly part of the day-to-day work. They are witnessing an overall change in the patterns of natural hazard occurrence leading to disaster, and identified the following trends:

This sentiment of a changing hazard landscape was the most pronounced in humanitarian professionals with 15 to 20 years work experience. They spoke about various disasters as ‘wake up calls’ on the effect of the climate emergency. Cyclone Idai was given as a clear example by striking a region unused to preparing for tropical cyclones.

Respondents specialising in providing protection and assistance to victims of conflict spoke about shifts in the nature of conflicts. In the past 30 years, conflicts have changed, characterised by an increase in intra-state violence, a multiplicity of actors, new types of warfare, and in some cases, an erosion of respect for international norms and International Humanitarian Law. Fast and slow onset disasters exacerbate ongoing community and regional tensions, heightening existing and introducing new conflicts.

The climate emergency is a ‘threat multiplier’, exacerbating existing societal inequalities, harming economies and traditional livelihoods and eroding living conditions and coping capacities in particularly vulnerable contexts. Many people are living in ‘multi-hazard environments,’ experiencing continual peaks of crises including conflict, disasters and pandemics.

Buses, cars and bicycles attempt to travel on a heavily flooded road, which reaches people's waists.
Dhaka, Bangladesh - Vehicles try driving through the flooded Dhaka streets after heavy monsoon downpours cause extreme flooding. Monsoon season now floods one third of the country, with millions isolated or displaced, and livelihoods and crops lost every year: exacerbating existing socio-economic issues communities already face there (Mamunur Rashid / Shutterstock, September 2017).

Changing needs

This shifting context influences humanitarian needs and operations including:

  • Increased rates of malnutrition in places which previously did not experience food insecurity, and in age groups that are usually considered at less risk, such as young adults.

  • New health conditions related to harsh climate conditions – such as dehydration in children. These conditions may be unfamiliar to parents, guardians and health workers.

  • Change in the incidence of diseases, particularly vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria.

  • Rise in migration and displacement of populations, ranging from forced to voluntary displacement, and internal to cross-border displacement. There is also an increase in the severity of displacement – more repeated (secondary) displacement and harsh living conditions in places of displacement.

  • Emergency shelters are often not built to withstand changing weather patterns, with hazards such as floods, sandstorms and winter storms putting the security of displaced people at risk.

  • Displacement sites and refugee camps in drought-prone areas are experiencing water shortages, particularly in places where sites are unplanned, but where populations have increased over time.

A mother holding a small boy in her arm as they both look toward the camera, holding white sachets and a book. In the far background are other families sitting and playing in the sand.
Turkana County, Kenya - 18-month-old James and his mother Margaret, pictured with a supply of sachets of a therapeutic food used to treat acute malnutrition. Repeated failed rains have left Kenya facing the worst drought crisis in over 30 years; affecting over 2.7 million people, with over 100,000 children under 5-years-old in need of treatment for severe malnutrition. (Photo credit: Russell Watkins / DFID, March 2017).
A group of women and children gather on a muddy refugee camp to collect water.
Gambela, Ethiopia - In 2014, refugees from South Sudan fled conflict to neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, including the Kule refugee camp. The influx of refugees has unfortunately put a strain on local resources, including water, food and access to educational and health facilities. (Photo credit: Richard Juilliart / Shutterstock, 2014).

Seven critical actions

Chapter title that reads ‘Recommendation: Closing the information gap’.
“The humanitarian sector needs to work on climate change from the perspective of understanding, not from the perspective of ticking a box.”

Humanitarian country director, 20 years of experience

1. Closing the information gap

Aid workers at all levels and across all roles are strongly aware of the climate emergency. They see the impacts of it daily. Having received some training and research on the topic, they want to know more about how to adapt. Although a lot of general information on the climate emergency exists, aid workers are unsure about how to use general information, for example on regional climate risk factors, to guide operations and responses across health, water and sanitation, shelter, food or security.

The use of technical experts in the aid sector could help “translate” technical information, such as climatic forecasts to guide operational responses. Technical experts could also help the sector understand how risk is assessed.

There are good examples of improving knowledge for the climate emergency including the International Organization for Migration’s online course Sustainability in Humanitarian Action, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s work on Shelter, and cross UN collaboration (such as regional OCHA with the World Meteorological Organization, and UNEP and OCHA on environmental emergencies).

It is also important to identify and address specific knowledge gaps, which could include investigating early action programmes for forgotten hazards or places that are usually not covered.

What is needed?

Data confidence

A one-stop-shop for credible and reliable information is required. In an era of uncertainty and incomplete information, those planning and developing humanitarian strategy need to rely on analysis of trends and projected impacts.

Data translation

Information on climate change needs to be centralised and presented in a usable format for aid workers at local and international levels. Quality research and data analysis will help identify likely humanitarian needs and resource gaps.

Data literacy

Aid workers need training and support interpreting and using risk information and maps for more complex situations (such as early warning systems) and in less familiar geographies.

Chapter title that reads ‘Recommendation: Planning for scale’.
“It is hard to predict exactly how needs will increase over a long period of time - as things are so interconnected. But we should be more flexible in understanding crises and move towards more adaptive, agile, reactive programming.”

Adaptation specialist, 15 years of experience

2. Planning for scale

Many aid organisations work reactively rather than planning and preparing for long-term humanitarian crises. Our study showed that the aid system was structured for short-term action. Funding uncertainty for the next financial year prevented long-term planning.

Organisations have not calculated how budgets for different response areas would need to be increased; how recruitment strategies should be tailored for changes in staff profiles in terms of language skills or field expertise; where to locate new regional offices; or how procurement chains, stockpiles of goods for humanitarian relief, or logistical assets would need to be scaled-up to meet increased demand.

There is also a lack of data that can easily be translated to policy and action that supports long-term planning, and few studies on the future number of people who will need additional humanitarian support due to crises associated with the climate emergency.

There are some good examples of planning considerations taking place. Save the Children, WFP (United Nations World Food Programme), IOM (International Organisation for Migration), UNHCR (UN Refugee Action) and Plan International have annual preparedness plans in their country offices that stipulate how to respond to various seasonal hazards.

Although most organisations still operate on a one-year planning cycle for humanitarian activities, the WFP has moved to a four-year planning cycle, allowing for more long-term projects to come to fruition. Other organisations, like Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and IOM have integrated climate change in their strategic planning cycle, by proposing more research and adaptation activities to build long-term knowledge.

What is needed?

Planning over longer timescales

Because aid is funded within yearly cycles, planning is restricted to this period. If donors shift funding to four and ten-year windows, better planning can be implemented.

Planning for multiplier effects of the climate emergency

Aid organisations must plan for exacerbated and accelerated need and vulnerability.

Planning for extremes not yet experienced

All areas of aid organisations must plan for a steep trajectory of need, the likes of which are unprecedented.

A girl walks behind a group of children and humanitarian workers through her home village, which has been decimated by the typhoon. Coconut trees and other foliage has been pulled up and much of the land flattened.
Tacloban, Philippines - The devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 damaged 1.1 million houses and killed thousands. Because the Philippines is at high risk for natural disasters and climate-sensitive diseases, OCHA has begun setting up an anticipatory action pilot that should help direct support even before disaster strikes. (Photo credit: Amy Hughes, 2013).
Chapter title that reads ‘Recommendation: Acting early’.
“The humanitarian sector is more about response and less about anticipation. However, disaster preparedness should always be a part of action. There will be a lot of damage due to climate change. But there will be less damage if we can prepare.”

Humanitarian policy specialist, 15 years of experience

3. Acting early

Early action saves lives, is cost-effective and reduces suffering. Intervening earlier will also increase people’s resilience and mitigate participation in risky coping strategies.

Anticipatory action is an approach which links early warnings to actions designed to protect communities and their assets ahead of a hazard.This approach is now encouraged in the aid sector and should be supported by donors particularly because there is still an element of disasters which are cyclical or at least somewhat predictable. Our study also revealed that early action appears to work best in countries that have experienced a prior disaster.

Good examples of early intervention include: early action by the World Food Programme in the Republic of Congo in 2020 which provided residents with cash assistance before the riverine floods were widespread. In drought-struck regions of Somalia and Ethiopia, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund earmarked US$40 million in April 2021 to ensure people get help before the situation turned into a devastating food security crisis.

Acting in anticipation comes with its own unique challenges. It requires significant upfront investment to set up monitoring systems and to work with government, donors and other local and established NGOs, to plan activities and build relationships over time.

A change in mindset is also needed: donors need to be comfortable with funding preventative interventions and measure progress and success differently. Governments must also be willing to receive help before a disaster has reached crisis levels.

What is needed?

Clear thresholds for action

Decision-making between relevant government agencies, UN agencies and NGOs globally should be guided by data. Monitoring systems will track agreed-upon triggers to prioritise action that averts deepening crises.

Planning before action

Planning and costing requirements need to be determined ahead of time, with expertise and funds pre-allocated and stock put in place in advance.

A price on inaction

Inaction is costly and catastrophic. Donors and policy-makers must support early interventions.

Three women and a man rest under the shadow of a thin tree across a desert landscape

Baidoa, Somalia – People rest under a tree while walking out to find water. During the deadly drought in 2017, half a million people had to leave their homes, and over 1.75 million people received international food assistance. UN CERF’s anticipatory action is expected to provide help before the food security crisis accelerates again, as the country prepares for more serious droughts. (Photo credit: Amors photos / Shutterstock, March 2017).

“The future lies in predictive and analytical methods of financing.”

Humanitarian coordinator, 30 years of experience

Around twenty men are standing during a training session in a hospital room, which is lined with beds and oxygen concentrators.
Aden, Yemen - Following years of conflict, there has been a significant ‘brain drain’ and lack of access to information or training for healthcare staff in Yemen. UK-Med has been training healthcare staff to respond to outbreaks like COVID-19 which will help build local capacity and strengthen the local healthcare system. (Photo credit: UK-Med, 2020).

4. Resourcing that’s fit for purpose

Resourcing is one of the main challenges to adequate preparation and flexibility in responding to the climate emergency. Funding from governments is often slow to arrive. It’s difficult for organisations to recruit specialist staff at short notice, and there are rarely adequate stockpiles of goods already in the country for humanitarian relief – meaning that organisations have to rely on international procurement processes that are often slow, bureaucratic and carbon/pollution intensive.

These issues are magnified for local NGOs who have crucial contextual knowledge, proximity to victims and the ability to support long term programmes in their countries, but rarely have access to the funds accessible to larger international NGOs and UN organisations. This means that these critical local organisations can’t respond quickly, scale up operations for growing needs and plan long term – even though they are best placed to respond. Local NGOs typically do not have access to the stockpiles of goods for humanitarian relief, such as medicines, shelter kits, food and non-food Items that international NGOs can access.

In our study, resourcing was consistently seen as one of the main barriers to adaptation to climate change in the aid system. New ways of working, new early action funding streams, investments in disaster preparedness and multi-year funding opportunities are limited, different eligibility requirements between donors made them difficult to access and they are rarely afforded to local NGOs.

Grants available for development and climate adaptation are difficult for humanitarian agencies to access without setting up new partnerships. For example, it took four years for Save the Children to be accredited with the Green Climate Fund, a fund established within the framework of the UNFCCC to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change.

The unprecedented challenge posed by COVID-19 put these issues in the spotlight. UN OCHA’s consolidated appeals in 2020 only received approximately 50% of total funding requirements. Other organisations outside the UN also struggled to obtain enough funding. Donor country aid budgets are at further risk as governments focus on domestic recovery.

What is needed?


Ready-to-go stocks of life-saving materials like medicines, shelter kits, food and non-food items must be scaled up and made accessible to local and international organisations. Organisations need to work together to take inventory of current materials, quantify future needs and fill gaps. Procurement processes must be accelerated and harmonised, using local markets and avoiding international transport where possible.


Aid organisations often struggle to find human resources during a crisis, especially for specialist roles. The aid system needs a long-term vision for bringing new people into the sector and training staff. Swift deployment of international staff will always be needed for large crises, but national responders will continue to save the most lives. Training and preparation efforts at a national level should be prioritised.


Donors and policy makers are encouraged to fund flexibly. Funds that can arrive to act early for predictable events and adapt to unpredictable events, will save the most lives. This will require faster decision making and commitments to longer responses. More funding must reach local organisations.

Chapter title that reads ‘Recommendation: Collaborating beyond sectors and borders’.

5. Collaborating beyond sectors and borders

Evaluating and improving partnerships is vital if humanitarian organisations are to cope with increased demand and pressures. Partnership working has a great impact on how and when aid is delivered, co-ordinated and funded, as well as impacting post-crisis recovery, reconstruction and addressing root causes.

Many different collaboration and reform initiatives have been developed over the years to improve the overall functioning of the system, but these cases are limited and not part of a common approach.

Respondents to our study called for governments to have a greater role in preparedness activities, which requires significant upfront investment and resourcing to collect risk-monitoring data. It also requires governments to take greater ownership, including identifying possible gaps in response capacity so that humanitarian actors can be engaged early. This can be politically sensitive, so a collaborative approach between humanitarian partners and their governmental counterparts is needed.

There was also a sense that development organisations could play a greater role in reducing vulnerabilities and inequalities that make communities less resilient to the climate emergency.

The private sector’s role in adapting to and mitigating the effects of the climate crisis is critical. The sector has a crucial role to play in supporting the co-creation of solutions to some of the challenges we face, and in funding the gap between required and received funds. This could also change the flow of funds from a typical ‘North-South’ direction to locally funded projects, which would have greater local ownership and result in more long-term gains.

Examples of private sector collaboration include:

The OCHA and UNDP Connecting Business Initiative which engages the private sector in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, including during COVID-19.

The Vanuatu Business Resilience Council responded to Cyclone Harold in April 2020 – supplying over 1,000 remote coastal households with 35 tonnes of food and non-food items over an eight-week period.

In Haiti, the ‘Alliance pour la Gestion des Risques et la Continuité des Activités’ network carried out information sharing campaigns and sent more than two million text messages and provided phone credit to the National Emergency Center to facilitate communications when Tropical Storm Laura passed through the Caribbean in August 2020.

“You have the humanitarians, the climate people, the development people - and this needs to come together in a much smarter way as they can't be separated out.”

Country Director, 30 years of experience

What is needed?

Local as possible, international as necessary

The scale of the climate emergency transcends the capacity of any one nation or region. Local national responders will always be first on scene and save the most lives.

No competition

Tensions between aid and development organisations for influence and funding compromise efficacy. The climate emergency will need the skills and experiences of all organisations.

Encouraging new responders

Prevention and response should include governments, local NGOs, and the private sector for a range of solutions and innovation.

Academic and practitioner partnerships

Linking knowledge producers, innovators, public and private sectors to test new solutions and technical know-how will improve climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“In my home village in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the agricultural seasons have been disrupted since 2009. Since then, it has been difficult for my parents to count on the bean or maize harvest to finance the schooling of my little brothers.”

Aid worker, Democratic Republic of Congo

Chapter title that reads ‘Recommendation: Getting the humanitarian house in order’.
“Climate change mitigation is just as important - we are already headed towards 1.2C of warming (from the agreement of 1.5C). Two degrees would cause irreversible damage.”

Climate change specialist, five years of experience

The front of a small veterinary hospital made of wood with green windows and metal mailboxes at the front. The roof is lined entirely with a layer of thin solar panels.
Pennsylavania, United States - The Littlestown Veterinary Hospital received a grant from the US Department of Agriculture to install solar panels, generating clean, electric power for the hospital. Initiatives like this are being tried by MSF in hospitals in DRC. (Photo credit: Lance Cheung / USDA, 2011).

6. Getting the humanitarian house in order

Although the humanitarian sector’s primary priority is to save lives, reducing negative environmental impacts is an important part of good practice. Like all other industries, humanitarian organisations have a role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation. We work in vulnerable contexts, where environmental protections and regulations are often lacking and the environment may have been severely damaged by conflict or instability.

Respondents to our study demonstrated high motivation to see more positive and preventative actions implemented in their organisations, and wanted adequate time and resourcing allowed to form partnerships with local agencies to put plans for reducing impact into place.

The Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organisations is an important initiative, where signatories must translate the commitments of the charter into time-bound targets and action plans within a year. This additionally creates means by which mitigation and adaptation activities can be assessed and funded.

Good examples of work in this area include climate change mitigation and environmental protection strategies and plans from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Other organisations without formalised plans incorporated mitigation and protection activities in their operations for example: conducting environmental assessments and monitoring environmental impacts in field offices; the use of solar-powered water pumps in schools, hospitals and displacement camps, and biogas systems in prisons; partnerships with academia and the private sector to investigate the impact of products distributed in logistics chains; and finding new ways to manage hazardous waste from vehicles.

The UN Environment Programme and OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs) jointly designed a Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool, to allow humanitarian actors to quickly identify issues of environmental concern before designing longer-term emergency interventions.

What is needed?

Climate and environment programming

All elements of programming and responses need to consider both people and the planet, aiming to be fit-for-purpose and preventing further environmental and health degradation.

Embedding policy

Organisations must integrate existing standards and policies into operations and responses. This includes the Sphere Humanitarian Charter, Core Humanitarian Competency Framework and UN environmental guidelines.

Clear targets for action

Aid organisations need to establish a baseline of current environmental impacts and set improvement targets in areas such as energy, waste and supply chains.

“As a sector, we haven't come together with a common set of messages and recommendations--- climate change sits in different areas in different organisations. We need to change our mindset around what we're comfortable ringing the bell about.”

Humanitarian management, 20 years of experience

7. Speaking up

Preparing the aid system for the climate emergency is an advocacy and communications challenge.

Many participants who informed our research felt that the urgency of the situation was not being communicated effectively enough. To safeguard human survival, aid organisations need to have a more active participation in political processes that influence the climate emergency.

What is needed?

Joining the dots

Aid organisations can better advocate for those most impacted by the climate emergency by communicating it as an overarching issue, not as standalone disasters or crises.

Aid workers as climate advocates

Action on the climate emergency must be part of the central ethos of humanitarian organisations, championed by staff and leaders across the aid system.

Collective voice

Humanitarian organisations in both the Global North and South need to elevate the voices of people living in crises and influence global policy making.

A group of women participating in a planning session, with one lent over and writing down notes on paper while the others overlook.
Yogyakarta, Indonesia - Local women and community members were actively involved in community meetings to discuss reconstruction of their village, following the 2010 eruptions of Mount Merapi. (Photo credit: Nugroho Nurdikiawan Sunjoyo / World Bank, 2011).