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Humanitarian Emergencies

The World had an ‘Unprecedented’ Number of People in Humanitarian Need this Year

Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall on Mar. 14 and 15, destroying some 90 percent of Beria, the capital of Sofala province, Mozambique, according to reports. A majority of those affected are living in makeshift camps as they try to rebuild. A Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) 2020 report claimed climate change, “unexpected spread of infectious disease” and regional conflicts were the main reasons pushing millions of people into spaces for humanitarian needs, and why the numbers of those in need was “unprecedented”.  Credit: Andre Catuera/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 10 2019 (IPS) - The world had an unexpected number of people in crisis this year, which exceeded projected numbers the United Nations had expected, with climate change being one of the key crises that led to “needs to unprecedented levels” according to a new report. 

The observations were made in Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) 2020, which was released last week by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). According to the report, at the time of the GHO 2019 launch, 93.6 million people were targeted for assistance, despite 131.7 million being in need. By November 2019, the 117.4 million were targeted as opposed to the 166.5 million in need.   

The report claimed climate change, “unexpected spread of infectious disease” and regional conflicts were the main reasons pushing millions of people into spaces for humanitarian needs, and why the numbers of those in need was “unprecedented”.  

“Climatic shocks, the unexpected spread of infectious disease, and the impact of protracted and often intensifying conflicts have combined to drive needs to unprecedented levels this year,” Zoe Paxton, with the Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told IPS. 

“The current state of geopolitics means conflicts are becoming more protracted and intense. Combatants display growing disregard for international humanitarian law,” said Paxton, adding that a combination of issues affecting those caught in conflict situations: displacement, hunger, psychosocial trauma, and loss of their livelihoods, education facilities and health services. 

“That’s in addition to the direct impact of fighting, bombing and other violence affecting their physical safety and security,” she said. 

Perhaps one of the crucial ones remains the issue of climate change, with more frequent drought, floods, and tropical cyclones. Paxton says these concerns disproportionately affect already poor and vulnerable populations.

“Eleven of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change have appealed for humanitarian aid in each of the past seven years,” she told IPS. “We need to do better in prioritising climate change adaptation as part of humanitarian response.”

Paxton added that other factors that contribute to climate concerns are slow economic growth and debts of countries.  In 2019, she said, almost 60 million people in need of humanitarian assistance were from 12 of the 33 countries “in, or at risk of, debt distress,” she said. 

Mental health concerns 

One of the other pressing issues that appeared in the report is the mental health concern of those in need. The report says one in five people in conflict areas have some kind of a mental health condition. 

An increase in “highly violent conflicts” — from 36 last year to 41 this year — is leading to humanitarian concerns such as loss of livelihoods, sexual violence, hunger, while exacerbating mental health concerns.  According to a World Health Organisation report from June, of people who have lived in conflict for the past 10 years, about 11% are expected to have moderate or severe mental conditions. 

While mental health is mentioned in the report, it remains underreported or under-documented in some regions. For example, in Afghanistan, the report noted that “at least 11 percent of the population is estimated to have a physical disability, while an unknown number of people are suffering from mental health issues as a result of their constant exposure to conflict”.

Meanwhile, children are likely to bear the brunt of it the most. The report estimates that 24 million children currently living in some kind of conflict will experience some variation of a mental health condition which would require support. However, challenges remain in addressing this need. 

“Though there is increasing focus on mental health, the vast majority of survivors do not have access to care,” Dr. Mark van Ommeren, who authored an analysis of mental disorders in conflict settings, told IPS. “Whether or not support is made available is often dependent on the interest of individuals within donor agencies or individuals within agencies on the ground.”

In his foreword, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock acknowledged the importance of addressing mental trauma as an issue. “We increasingly understand the need to deal with mental trauma as well as people’s physical health,” he wrote. “We are getting ahead of more crises by taking anticipatory action.”

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