Opinion: In our multi-hazard warming world, how do we ‘build back better’ after COVID?

Opinion: In our multi-hazard warming world, how do we ‘build back better’ after COVID?
19 May 2020

On the Thursday before last, at pretty much the exact moment I was sitting down in the locked-down safety of my house in the Dutch city of Utrecht to join a webinar, muddy seasonal floodwater smashed through a small district hospital in Uganda (photo), writing it off as a medical facility for the foreseeable future, possibly for good.

Thankfully, staff and patients at the Kilembe Mines Hospital in western Kasese town saw the River Nyamwamba rising fast overnight and had time to evacuate. By all accounts the river didn’t so much break its banks as jump onto a completely new course, such was the apparent energy behind it.

But could anything better emblematize the world of multiple risks we all now live in than the sight of a hospital ward in a country in COVID lockdown devastated by a climate-related flash flood?

This incident generated some very scary video and some shocking pictures provided by our first-responder colleagues in the Ugandan Red Cross, serving to remind us that nature is absolutely no respecter of vulnerability.

It was in fact one small part of a cluster of risks now affecting East Africa that’s been concerning us at the international Red Cross Red Crescent for some weeks.

We are looking at closely overlapping maps of two quite different hazards: one of them, floods, fairly predictable; the other, vast locust swarms, less so perhaps; and overlapping, that is, in terms of the countries affected.

And this in places already struggling with poverty, and in some cases decades-old conflicts, acutely exacerbating the vulnerability of the affected communities.

All of this now is overlaid by COVID, yet to affect sub-Saharan Africa on anything like the same scale as Europe, but the associated lockdowns have massively complicated humanitarian response in (alphabetically) Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, and still other nations.


The latest UN humanitarian outlook says the locust danger may surge again, with heavy rains conducive to the further breeding and “new hopper bands and swarms expected to form in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia during May and June”.

Any one of these observed impacts could be highly unusual (extreme floods, locusts) or even completely novel (the COVID virus); to be facing all three at once is something that no preparedness plan, however diligent, can have come anywhere near encompassing.

Where does this leave us in the humanitarian community?

In the short to medium term, as I argued on the webinar, it’s critical that we do the immediate response work on COVID, including social distancing, and tackling the question of how we prepare for and respond to the natural hazards.

This precise dilemma has already been faced in places as far apart as the US with tornadoes, the South Pacific with Cyclone Harold and in the Philippines with Typhoon Ambo; and right now as I write we are preparing for Amphan, the first typhoon to come ashore from the Bay of Bengal this year.

Each of these contexts will necessitate a new protocol that can only be arrived at locally; there’s never going to be a global manual on how to do it.

Not only that but we are going to have to consider new models for preparedness and response that are highly specific to context; with travel restrictions likely to be retained for some time, we will rely more than ever on doing what we can locally.

This dilemma has already been faced
in the US with tornadoes, in the South Pacific
and the Philippines with storms, and now with the
first typhoon this year in the Bay of Bengal

For the moment, the days of big teams of humanitarian first-responders boarding long-haul flights to disaster zones look numbered. Like the breakthrough for home-working triggered by COVID, this may institutionalize new channels for what we might call – reversing our usual phrase – global-to-local empowerment.

But while humanitarians are busy adjusting their way of working to the current pandemic, there are even bigger changes underway.

Firstly, of course, there are those associated with the massive economic impacts of the pandemic, but perhaps even more importantly the global response: how will the trillions of dollars in COVID recovery investment – primarily from governments, development banks and the IMF – reshape our economies?

As with any reordering of priorities – and the pandemic has surely necessitated that faster than the climate crisis was ever going to – new gaps are arising.

We need to identify them in time to ensure that the money earmarked for recovery from lockdown is spent in a better way, a climate-smart way, and certainly not – as has been mooted by some – consciously without regard to emissions and rising climate risks.

Proclaim it from the rooftops: green and resilient recovery is possible.


Cities like Milan are turning roads that used to be full of cars into cycle lanes and pedestrian zones. So can we rebuild our economies and retain investments in basic healthcare, in social protection and, yes, in local action in response to early warnings for disasters in times of COVID?

I was glad to see climate specialists at the World Bank have developed a checklist on making post-COVID investment sustainable, and while I don’t normally go for war analogies one may be apt here: the Marshall Plan.

Nothing will ever be the same again; we are in a new world; we must look forward, not back; above all, we must not reconstruct old problems. When did we hear that last? One answer would surely be: 1945. This is a time for our political leaders to really think about what is needed to rebuild the economies and the world we all want to live in.

The actual Marshall Plan for economic recovery in Europe was not enacted until 1948, of course, but in this case we do not have three full years to frame a green and resilient equivalent. And we don’t need them – we know what is needed.

The pandemic is providing the equivalent of an X-ray of the vulnerabilities of our global economy, and especially the risks facing the most vulnerable, often from many threats at once. The people facing the floods and storms already forecast are only too aware that the time for smarter action is now.

Maarten van Aalst is director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and professor of climate and disaster resilience at the University of Twente; in the picture a ward at Uganda’s Kilembe Mines Hospital is all-but submerged in mud after floods earlier this month triggered by heavy seasonal rain. (Denis Onyodi/Uganda Red Cross-IFRC)