Conflict, Climate Crisis & COVID-19
Honoring humanitarians who deliver aid despite increasing needs and threats
As natural disasters increase in intensity, wars continue to ravage, and COVID-19 spreads, it has never been more dangerous to be a front-line humanitarian. It has also never been more important. This Thursday, on World Humanitarian Day, we honor the aid workers who, despite these risks, continue to serve others and save lives around the world.
For many humanitarians, the work they do is more than a job. It’s a calling, and increasingly, a dangerous one. Since 2000, more than 6,000 aid workers have been killed, injured, or kidnapped, a figure that is likely an underestimate as many assaults are never reported.
Every World Humanitarian Day, we pay tribute to these selfless individuals. But such heroism now comes at an even greater price for too many aid workers living and working in areas impacted by the climate crisis, conflict, and COVID-19. Not only are aid workers striving to respond to a barrage of humanitarian needs, they are also more susceptible to the same devastating forces impacting the communities in which they serve.
The climate crisis has been one of the main drivers of increasing humanitarian needs over the last decade, and this trend is expected to continue. In the past 20 years, the warming climate has nearly doubled natural disasters, claiming 1.23 million lives and disproportionately impacting low-income communities. More climate extremes and weather-related hazards are placing vulnerable people and the aid workers that help them at risk.
Residents of Vanuatu, a mostly agricultural country made up of around 80 small islands stretching across 800 miles in the South Pacific Ocean, feel the effects of a changing climate every day.
“Due to extreme weather events, our country is getting much hotter and we have big heat waves,” said CARE Vanuatu Resilience Manager, Julia Marango. “This has a great impact on people’s lives because it means they have less food and income, and their access to healthcare can also be limited if their income has been affected.”
Extreme weather events can also create unsafe and risky environments for humanitarians to work in.
“Even though people need our help, our safety is important too, and it’s often risky for staff to travel in rough seas or by air when there are such frequent storms,” she explained.
On St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island nation in the Caribbean, communities are also experiencing more frequent natural disasters. USAID partner Caritas Antilles is currently responding to the recent eruption of La Soufrière volcano. “Small island states are usually the ones most adversely affected by the effects of climate change,” said Community Engagement Officer Angelique Fitz Patrick. “With so little capacity and resources, it places a greater strain on poor or low-income families and makes my job more challenging.”
In Guatemala, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Livelihoods Coordinator William Sosa lives in the mountainous region of Zacapa within the “dry corridor” of the country, a stretch of arid land characterized by inconsistent rainfall and prolonged droughts. He sees firsthand the impacts of extreme weather events on his community.
“The sum of all these extreme climate conditions — droughts, heavy rains, plagues — affects us all,” he said.
In many parts of the world, insecurity and conflict over scarce resources are on the rise as climate-related disasters like flooding and drought rapidly deplete supplies of food and water, driving surging levels of need. Growing violence poses a grave threat to both civilians and the humanitarians working tirelessly to provide relief to an unprecedented 235 million people across the globe who require aid. Over the past year, continued conflict has resulted in hundreds of aid worker deaths and injuries and disrupted humanitarian operations.
In southern Madagascar, for example, a spike in insecurity has accompanied a devastating multi-year drought that has left more than 1 million people needing emergency food aid. Fenoarisoa Ralaiharinony, a monitoring assistant at the UN World Food Program (WFP), spoke to how the worsening drought has contributed to an uptick in violent cattle raids by vigilante groups called Dahalo.
“Prolonged drought has caused a decrease in productivity and, in turn, an increase in poverty leading to crime,” she explained.
These raids deepen hunger. She has seen families selling their last remaining possessions and eating cactus leaves and wild plants to survive. While Fenoarisoa continues to engage with communities to find ways to fight hunger with locally available resources, growing Dahalo attacks have forced WFP to restrict travel and implement curfews to protect staff and aid recipients as roads are increasingly unsafe after dark.
Meanwhile, in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, aid workers continue to face great danger responding to a conflict that has displaced nearly 2 million people and claimed the lives of at least 14 aid workers since it began in late 2020. Among the fallen are courageous men like Aman Desta, a USAID staff partner killed by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops while delivering emergency food to people facing famine in Tigray.
Aman, a husband and a father to two children, will always be remembered for his heroic efforts to serve those whose survival depended on it.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused an international health and economic crisis. Globally, 4.1 million people have died. While across the globe, people were told to quarantine and socially distance, humanitarian staff and volunteers saw their workload grow in parallel with their increased risk of contracting the disease. Yet they continued to work. This spring the World Health Organization estimated 115,000 health and care workers have died in service during the pandemic, including aid workers on the frontlines. That number has likely increased in the past months as more contagious variants spread.
“As healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, we strive to keep our patients and ourselves safe by adhering to practices that prevent spreading infections. The challenge is when you have many patients and are trying to provide care for them all. Knowing one mistake could put our patient, ourselves, and our families at extreme risk is humbling, and knowing that you are helping others and working with such dedicated people keeps you going.”
- Sonia Walia, USAID Health Advisor
The impact of a pandemic stretches beyond just health. Economic losses and movement restrictions contribute to an increasingly unstable environment for humanitarians. For millions of already vulnerable people, COVID-19 made an already difficult situation even worse. The virus became an additional threat joining a host of others, including conflict, food insecurity, and other potentially deadly diseases like malaria and HIV.
USAID is honored to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners around the world to address these growing risks. In the last year alone, USAID, through its Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, provided more than $7 billion in humanitarian aid to help humanitarians continue to step up to meet the unprecedented needs caused by climate change, conflict, COVID-19, and other crises.
And we honor fallen aid workers who have paid the ultimate price for their dedication. These are people who were mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers to family members who will have to live with the devastation of losing their loved ones for years to come. Attacks, intimidation, or threats against humanitarian workers, regardless of nationality, are unacceptable. Maintaining aid worker safety and unhindered access to vulnerable communities is critical to keeping people alive.
The dedication and selflessness of those who continue to serve each day, represent the best of humanity. On World Humanitarian Day, we honor them.