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The Unfair Toll of Extreme Weather

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The Unfair Toll of Extreme Weather

In Guatemala, Libya, Tanzania—and even the U.S.—extreme weather impacts the poor and vulnerable the most.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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A few tortillas and a half bowl of reheated beans were all Maria Concepcion Rodriguez had to feed her six children in the isolated village of El Aguacate, one day in August.

Only her three-month-old breastfed baby had normal height for her age. The others were stunted by undernourishment. They looked too young for their years.

Juan Carlos is the fourth oldest. At 5 years old, he stands at only about 3 feet.

He is too short for his age, or stunted, according to the World Health Organization standards.

In 2022, 44 percent of children in Guatemala fell outside of the normal height-for-age range, according to UNICEF.

When food runs out, Ms. Rodriguez, 30, asks neighbors for what they can spare. “If they don’t have it, then we don’t eat,” she said, speaking the Mayan language Achi. Like hers, scores of families in El Aguacate do not have enough on their plates.

Guatemala’s rate of stunting is the highest in Latin America, UNICEF data shows.

The rate is more than double that of the region’s second highest, Ecuador. Globally, only seven countries have higher levels than Guatemala, which is considered an upper-middle income country.

As much as a quarter of Guatemala’s population—up to 4.6 million people—suffered food shortages over the past year, the highest rate since a system called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification that generates data for the UN began projections for the whole of Guatemala in 2018.

The crisis has coincided with worsening extremes of rainfall and temperature, the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a period of political instability marked by the fight against corruption.

Over the past decade, countries in the region have been hit by longer and deeper droughts as well as a series of hurricanes, causing widespread crop damage.

The hunger crisis in Guatemala highlights a global trend: Extreme weather hits the poor and most vulnerable hardest and more often. They are the ones who most often take the brunt of the impact of storms, floods, fires and other weather upsets.

Such stories from across the globe reveal the ineffectiveness of man’s governments—and should motivate everyone to pray “Your Kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10) for that time when everyone will rest peacefully “under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” (Mic. 4:4).

Victims Many Times Over

Abdel-Hamid al-Hassadi survived the devastating flooding in eastern Libya but he lost some 90 people from his extended family.

The 23-year-old law graduate rushed upstairs along with his mother and his elder brother, as heavy rains lashed the city of Derna on the evening of September 10. Soon, torrents of water were washing away buildings next to them.

“We witnessed the magnitude of the catastrophe, Mr.­ al-­Has­­sadi said in a phone interview from Derna, referring to the massive flooding that engulfed his city. “We have seen our neighbors’ dead bodies washing away in the floods.”

Heavy rains from Mediterranean storm Daniel caused the collapse of the two dams that spanned the narrow valley that divides the city. That sent a wall of water several meters high through its heart.

The floods inundated as much as a quarter of the city, officials say. Thousands of people were killed, with many dead bodies still under the rubble or at sea, according to search teams. Officials place the death toll at about 11,300.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly that Derna’s residents were “victims many times over” of war and “leaders—near and far—who failed to find a way to peace.”

Extreme weather events exacerbate these problems.

Mr. Guterres continued: “The people of Derna lived and died in the epicenter of that indifference—as the skies unleashed 100 times the monthly rainfall in 24 hours…as dams broke after years of war and neglect…as everything they knew was wiped off the map.”

“Even now, as we speak, bodies are washing ashore from the same Mediterranean Sea where billionaires sunbathe on their superyachts.”

Soon after the flooding, demonstrators crowded into the square in front of Derna’s landmark gold-domed Sahaba mosque chanting slogans. Some waved flags from atop the mosque’s roof. Later in the evening, they torched the house of Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, his office manager told Reuters.

Angry residents said the disaster could have been prevented. Officials acknowledge that a contract to repair the dams after 2007 was never completed, blaming insecurity in the area.

Libya has been a failed state for more than a decade, with no government exercising nationwide authority since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. Derna has been controlled since 2019 by the Libyan National Army which holds sway in the east. For several years before that it was in the hands of militant groups, including local branches of Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Wealthier Nations Too

While impoverished nations have the most obvious long-term problems from extreme weather, wealthier nations are not immune. And the negative effects in those countries often get overlooked.

For example, hurricanes in the last few decades have killed thousands more people than meteorologists traditionally calculate, a recent epidemiological study found. A disproportionate number of those victims are poor, vulnerable and minorities.

A team of public health and storm experts calculated that from 1988 to 2019 more than 18,000 people likely died, mostly indirectly, because of hurricanes and lesser tropical cyclones in the continental United States. That is 13 times more than the 1,385 people directly killed by storms that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures, but the study authors said those numbers are not directly comparable.

Instead of just looking at people who drowned, were hit by debris or killed directly by the storm, the study published in the journal Science Advances examined changes in a storm-hit county’s overall number of deaths just before, during and after a hurricane and compared those to normal years. Researchers attributed the excess deaths to the storm, using a standard public health technique.

“It’s the difference between how many people died and how many people would have died on a normal day” with no hurricane, said study lead author Robbie Parks, an environmental epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

After a storm, deaths spike because of heart and lung problems, infections, injury and mental health issues, Dr. Parks said. It is a stressful time with clean-up and rebuilding.

Dr. Parks said meteorologists do an admirable job counting people killed during the height of the storm, but so many people die indirectly and especially after the storm, he said “it does seem to be an undercount” that misses the poorest and most vulnerable Americans.

“People who have the least means suffer the most,” Dr. Parks said. “It’s a good opportunity to put a number on that.”

Using the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, Dr. Parks divided American counties into the least vulnerable third, the most vulnerable third and the middle, categories that often correlate with the richest, poorest and middle income people. In the case of the heaviest hurricane winds, the most vulnerable third had 57 percent of the excess deaths and least vulnerable had 6 percent.

“It does not surprise me, but deeply saddens me that excess mortality is largest among the most vulnerable segments of our population,” said MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel, who was not part of the study. “It is the poorer people with fewer places to evacuate to and fewer means to get out who take the brunt of the suffering.”

Displaced Youth

Storms, floods, fires and other extreme weather events cause an estimated 20 million people to be displaced from their homes each year, Oxfam reported. The trend often involves the youngest in society. More than 43 million displacements involved children between 2016 and 2021, according to a UNICEF report.

More than 113 million displacements of children will occur in the next three decades, estimated the 2023 report, which took into account risks from flooding rivers, cyclonic winds and floods that follow a storm.

Some children, like 10-year-old Shukri Mohamed Ibrahim, are already on the move. Her family left their home in Somalia after dawn prayers on a Saturday morning five months ago.

The worst drought in more than 50 years scorched the once-fertile pastures the family relied on, leaving them barren. So, bundling only a few clothes and some utensils into sacks, they moved to a camp in the capital Mogadishu, where Shukri, who dreams of being a doctor, is now going to school for the first time. That is a plus, but the camp lacks proper shelter and sanitation, and food is scarce.

“We need something that can protect us from the heat during the day and the cold at night,” Shukri said.

The miseries of long, drawn-out disasters like droughts are often underreported. Children had to leave their homes at least 1.3 million times because of drought in the years covered by the report—more than half of them in Somalia—but this is likely an undercount, the report said. Unlike during floods or storms, there are no pre-emptive evacuations during a drought.

Nearly a third, or 43 million of the 134 million times that people were uprooted from their homes due to extreme weather from 2016-21 included children. Nearly half were forced from their homes by storms. Of those, nearly 4 of the 10 displacements were in the Philippines.

Floods displaced children more than 19 million times in places like India and China. Wildfires impacted children 810,000 times in the U.S. and Canada.

Data tracking migrations because of weather extremes typically do not differentiate between children and adults. UNICEF worked with a Geneva-based nonprofit, the International Displacement Monitoring Center, to map where kids were most impacted.

The Philippines, India and China had the most child displacement by climate hazards, accounting for nearly half. Those countries also have vast populations and strong systems to evacuate people, which makes it easier for them to record data.

But, on average, children living in the Horn of Africa or on a small island in the Caribbean are more vulnerable. Many are enduring “overlapping crises”—where risks from climate extremes are compounded by conflict, fragile institutions and poverty, one of the report’s authors stated.

Leaving home subjects children to extra risks.

During unprecedented flooding of the Yamuna River in July in the Indian capital New Delhi, churning waters washed away the hut that was home to 10-year-old Garima Kumar’s family.

The waters also took her school uniform and her schoolbooks. Garima lived with her family on sidewalks of the megacity and missed a month of school.

“Other students in the school teased me because my house had been flooded. Because we do not have a permanent home,” Garima said.

After the floodwaters receded, the family began repairing their home last month—a process Garima’s mother Meera Devi said they are having to do over and over again as floods are becoming more common. Her father, Shiv Kumar, has not had any work for over a month. The family’s only income is the mother’s $2 daily earnings as a domestic helper.

Children are more vulnerable because they are dependent on adults. This puts them at the risk of being exploited and not having protections, said Mimi Vu, a Vietnam-based expert on human trafficking and migration issues who was not involved with the report.

“When you’re desperate, you do things that you normally wouldn’t do. And unfortunately, children often bear the brunt of that because they are the most vulnerable and they don’t have the ability to stand up for themselves,” she said.

In estimating future risks, the report did not include wildfires and drought, or potential mitigation measures. It said vital services like education and health care need to become “shock-responsive, portable and inclusive,” to help children and their families better cope with disasters. This would mean considering children’s needs at different stages, from ensuring they have opportunities to study, that they can stay with their families and that eventually they can find work.

“We have the tools. We have the knowledge. But we’re just not working fast enough,” one of the report’s authors said.

Continuing Trend

Experts see the trend of extreme weather disproportionately impacting Earth’s most vulnerable as here to stay. Why? Because many of them are forced to move into harm’s way.

Since 1985, the number of the world’s settlements in the riskiest flood zones has increased 122 percent, compared to 80 percent for the safest areas, according to a study published in the journal Nature by researchers at the World Bank. The authors looked at settlement extent and expansion using satellites instead of population, with the world’s built-up regions growing 85 percent overall from 1985 to 2015.

“People are on a search for better lives and better jobs and then sort of get stuck in bad lands because that’s what they can afford,” said study co-author Stephane Hallegatte, a World Bank senior climate adviser and expert on disaster economics. He said they know it is dangerous when they arrive.

The problem is driven by middle- and low-income countries, the study found. Richer countries like the United States and parts of Europe are seeing more growth in safer areas than flood-prone ones and the poorest nations have not quite developed as heavily in flood-prone areas, it said.

China and Vietnam both saw their settlement extent more than tripling in the past 30 years, increasing far more than their dry land areas. Most countries, especially in East Asia, saw more settlements in regular flood zones and ultra high flood zones than in dry areas. Libya, which suffered from devastating flooding last month, had an 83 percent increase in settlement extent in the worst flood zones. Pakistan, also the victim of catastrophic flooding both last year and this year, had an 89 percent increase.

What is happening is that as a nation grows a bit wealthier, there is a change from rural to urban and people leave the country to go to cities, which are often near waterways that flood in places, said study lead author Jun Rentschler, a World Bank economist.

“What we’re trying to do with the study is to track the process of urban development over time,” Mr. Rentschler said. “What you would expect is that initially you settle in a safe space, but as the city expands, it’s more likely to grow into areas that it previously avoided, flood zones for instance.”

Then comes the issue of whether it is cheaper to fortify these dangerous areas or better to move people out, the study authors said.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is a poster city for this problem, they said. It boomed from a fishing village of about 83,000 people in 1950 to more than 7 million people now, according to World Population Review.

This city has an estimated 70 percent of the population living in unplanned settlements. Each individual there is just one of the millions across the globe for whom extreme weather is a part of their everyday lives.

Back in drought-stricken Guatemala, Maria Concepcion Rodriguez and her husband are too poor to even consider migration. She starts a fire, the only way to cook in her home, where she has no running water or electricity.

Smoke fills her dirt-floor adobe house, where the family shares a few hammocks for sleeping. She warms the leftover beans and prepares the tortillas.

This article contains information from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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