Rights in Crisis

  • We believe that the women, men and children who are affected by conflicts and disasters have a right to live in safety and dignity. Those most at risk – whether because of an earthquake, a drought or civil war – have a right to a life free from violence, and to have clean water, shelter and food. They also have the right to be heard and to take control of their own lives.

Climate change, food insecurity and hunger: Three crises, inextricably linked

Sarah has been a subsistence farming taking care of her family for 25 years in Nyanyadzi, Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. Sarah accesses the Nyanyadzi Irrigation scheme to water her crops. Cynthia Matonhodze/Oxfam

By Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland and IHREC Commission Member

Two important events took place last week – events that concern some of the most urgent crises facing humanity.   

On Tuesday, hundreds of organisations across the world marked one year since the UN warned of a “famine of biblical proportions” due to deepening crises because of more frequent natural disasters, changing weather patterns, and conflict. Crises only made worse by the global pandemic.

Responding to this grim milestone, they published an open letter calling on world leaders – particularly those from wealthy nations – to urgently increase aid and prevent 34 million people from being pushed to the brink of starvation this year. As despite advances made in recent years, the pandemic, coupled with conflict and climate change, could push millions more into extreme hunger, setting back the fight against poverty by a decade.

On Thursday and Friday, US President Joe Biden hosted 40 world leaders, including Ireland at his virtual Earth Day Summit in an effort to increase global climate ambition, lower emissions, and build resilience. Given the significance of these events, there has never been a more fitting time to talk about climate change, food insecurity and hunger. 

In August 2019, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, published its Special Report on Climate Change and Land. The document looked at the impacts of a changing climate on the land and its ecosystems, focusing on topics like soil degradation and shrinking water supplies, as well as solutions for sustainable land management and food security. The report laid bare the critical issues we are facing as a global community and the life-or-death challenges being faced by the communities with which Oxfam works. 

In fact, more than half of the IPCC document’s authors were from developing countries, reflecting the vital role these nations play in both climate change decision-making and research, particularly when it comes to land and food security. After all, it is the developing world’s communities that are most affected by hunger and food insecurity, both of which are now a greater threat because of climate change. 

Today, our global food system feeds the majority of the world’s population and supports the livelihoods of more than one billion people. Yet tragically, according to the latest Global Hunger Index, some 690 million people remain undernourished while 144 million children under the age of five suffer from stunting – a sign of chronic malnutrition. A further 47 million children are suffering from wasting, severe weight loss that, without the proper treatment, can be fatal. The food system is already feeling the stress of non-climate influences such as conflict, which is the biggest driver of global hunger. The decade-long war in Syria, for example, has led to 12.4 million people – or almost 60 percent of the population – going to bed hungry, while after six years of conflict, 16.2 million Yemenis rely on food aid to survive.

Add temperature increases, unpredictable rainfall patterns and extreme weather events to these non-climate-related pressures and the food system will continue to buckle. Climate change alone will lead to lower crop yields and higher food prices affecting the world’s most vulnerable communities including the 3.1 billion people, or the poorest half of the world’s population, who were responsible for just seven percent of emissions between 1990 and 2015.  

The IPCC report highlights that higher temperatures and more extreme weather events are having a severe impact on food security, particularly in Africa’s drylands, parts of the Mediterranean and mountainous areas of Asia and South America.   

The communities we work with around the world can attest to these changes. In Burkina Faso, for instance, mothers like Ouedraogo Aguiratou have witnessed climate change wreak havoc on the land they rely on for their very survival. The 39-year-old farmer says her land has been getting poorer, and harder to cultivate. When the rains come, they wash away the soil she needs to grow her crops. Widow Aminiata Diallo, also from Burkina Faso, is suffering too as a result of climate change. In her community, water is so scarce that they can only cultivate a third of their land.   

According to the IPCC, adaptation strategies are key to reducing, even avoiding, the negative impacts of climate change on food security. Work is being done by communities with support from organisations like Oxfam to build boreholes and install water pumps in communities struggling with drought as a result of climate change. Farmers are learning adaptation techniques, such as how to fertilise the soil with compost and prevent soil being washed during the rainy season. 

However, the IPCC also warn that there are limits to adaptation if climate change continues unabated. Wealthier countries must play their part in taking action against this deadly threat by urgently cutting their emissions and supporting vulnerable nations with climate finance for new, robust, life-saving adaptation strategies. After all, during a 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth, it was the richest one percent who were responsible for twice as much pollution as the poorest half of humanity.  

In addition to tackling the climate crisis head-on, as was done for the pandemic, global leaders must fund the UN food security appeal to help those most at risk now, and work to end conflict and achieve a global ceasefire. 

Without these interventions, millions more will be pushed to the brink of starvation. 

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More talk, still not enough real action on climate change

By Joanne O’Connor, Content Executive with Oxfam Ireland and MSc in Climate Change student 

22 April 2021

For anyone with even a passing interest in the biggest threat facing our planet, this week is big.

Today, US President Joe Biden will host world leaders for the first of a two-day virtual Earth Day Summit, during which countries will be expected to make new commitments on emissions reductions. Ireland, which was not on the original guest list, has since made the cut because of its scaled-up climate targets and support of developing countries with their resilience efforts.

The optimist in me hopes we’re at a turning point. The cynic in me has seen all this before. After all, it seems like only a couple of glaciers ago that we witnessed the fanfare the 2015 Paris Agreement and the countries of the world uniting to address one common problem.

What’s happened since? Well, recent news from the UN makes for depressing reading. It reported that new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs (countries’ efforts to reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change) for 75 of the Agreement’s signatories found that the changes in their actual emissions would be small, despite their pledges.

Not small – tiny. The changes made by these countries would result in less than a one percent emissions reduction in 2030 compared to 2010. To meet the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Agreement, they should be around 45 percent lower in 2030. Just a 44 percent shortfall, then. (To clarify, the NDCs in this report account for 30 percent of emissions worldwide. So, not all emissions but the findings are still significant.)

Photo: Marcin Jozwiak/Unsplash

Forgive the cliché but we really are at a crossroads now.

Take it from someone who remembers all the panic about the hole in the ozone layer back in the 1980s. The damage to the layer, which protects us from harmful UV radiation, was caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – chemicals used in aerosol cans and fridges. As a result, the threat of skin cancer was never far away, albeit never quite close enough to make us wear sunscreen.

In 1987, world leaders did something quite shocking – they acted. They signed the Montreal Protocol, uniting to reduce the use of CFCs. Just three years later, they agreed that CFCs would be phased out completely by 2000.

And the commitments made in 1987 and 1990 weren’t meaningless – they actually worked. In 2019, NASA reported that the “ozone hole” had shrunk to a record low.

I was naïve enough to think that world leaders would do something similar about global warming. Act, not just talk. Because there’s been a lot of talk – at hearings, conferences and summits. Now, more than 30 years since climate scientist James Hansen told a US congressional hearing that he could say “with 99% confidence” that global temperature rise was due to human activity, politicians are still talking.

Even as President Biden meets with other world leaders over the next two days, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, contributing to the rise in the average global temperature. If they don’t take radical, drastic action now, the consequences will be dire.

Coincidentally, it was British scientist James Lovelock who first noticed high levels of CFCs in the atmosphere in the 1960s. The father of the Gaia Theory, the concept that life on Earth is a self-regulating community of organisms interacting with each other and their surroundings, has a worrying take on where we’re all headed.

In his 2009 book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock writes that ‘global heating’, as he calls it, doesn’t mean linear changes in temperature, but sudden abrupt shifts. These abrupt changes alongside an increasing global population, Lovelock says, will do irreversible damage to large swathes of the planet. Only a few ‘lifeboats for humanity’ would survive, including countries like Ireland, the UK, Japan, Tasmania and New Zealand. Scandinavia will also be spared. Lovelock believes that while we should do what we can to cut emissions, it’s time to think about adaptation.

Others, however, argue that it’s not too late to turn this ship around. One of those people is climate scientist Michael E. Mann, the co-author of the “hockey-stick graph” in 1999, which showed the sharp rise in global temperatures since the industrial age – and the clearest evidence of the link between human emissions and global warming. Mann insists that doom-mongering, which has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic, poses a major threat to climate action.

Fatalism, therefore, is not the answer. We just have to take urgent action to protect our planet – and ourselves.

Now, could somebody please talk to the politicians?

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‘They left us in tents in the cold and rain and fear’ – the refugees abandoned on the Greek Islands

When war broke out in Syria in 2015, millions fled. Many risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe – and safety.

They were not alone. Refugees from other countries, driven from their homes due to conflict or persecution, also risked everything for a better life.

Greece, a country quickly overwhelmed as the number of people seeking asylum in Europe increased due to the outbreak of war in Syria in 2015, has since has harshened its stance on asylum as solidarity from member states in responding and sharing the responsibility waned. As a result, thousands of people have found themselves trapped in dangerously overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands of Lesvos, Kos, Samos and Chios.

They went through hell to get to safety. Now they find themselves in a new hell.

Vulnerable people including children, survivors of sexual violence and the elderly are detained without reason.

A child looks around the site of Moria camp, Lesvos, which was destroyed by fire in September 2020. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili / Oxfam

"We don’t even have our basic rights as refugees. We are not free and we don’t know for how long [we will remain detained]. They are replacing our names with numbers, treating us as if were in prison, calling us by our numbers.”

-M. Elderly Syrian refugee under prolonged detention on Kos

Women don’t feel safe in the camps, especially at night.

Women and girls are scared to leave their tents at night, even to go use the toilets. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

"Particularly us single women, [we feel] fear. At night it is dark and we cannot go to the toilet. We feel abandoned. [I would ask Europe] to close down the camp; to transfer people under a safe roof. To stop pushing people back to Turkey."

-R. Single woman asylum seeker on Lesvos

One in five people has attempted suicide.

A woman takes part in a protest. She wants to be transferred to mainland Greece or another European country. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili/Oxfam

“Life here makes us feel despair. We don’t feel safe and feel mentally burdened by the conditions in which we live. We are waiting for Europe to display more responsibility; to honour human rights and the rights of refugees. We want a life in dignity and safety; for our families and our children.”

-M. Elderly Syrian father of two in Kos

In Samos, adults and children have been bitten by rats, scorpions and snakes.

Refugees in the camps are living in extremely poor and unsafe conditions. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

“We were expecting… the EU to treat us humanly and show more interest because we come from Syria, where there is war. Here everything is different, they are not interested – they left us in tents in the cold and rain and fear.”

-D. Father on Chios

Children are missing out on an education and the opportunity for a better future.

A girl sits in a tent in the site of the former Moria camp. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

“We have lived for too long in this camp. Unsanitary conditions are not suitable for my family and myself. We are very tired (mentally). We have health issues. My children cannot have a suitable life in this camp. We want a better life. I hope they [Europe] will not forget us Syrians that come from a war-torn country; that we will be granted asylum."

-H. Syrian family in Kos

Oxfam is calling on EU member states to act in solidarity and uphold and protect a person’s right to seek asylum and to have their application assessed in a fair and timely manner. In addition, it is urging member states to engage in genuine and fair responsibility sharing in relation to refugee relocation and resettlement commitments.

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