Inaction is not an option

ICRC’s Clare Dalton on the need for collective action to tackle the impacts of climate change in conflict-affected countries


Clare Dalton is the Head of Delegation in the United Arab Emirates for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an international, neutral organisation ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. 

According to a report by the World Resources Institute, a quarter of the world's population is facing extreme high-water stress. This is a startling statistic. It means that countries are using up almost all the water they have, and by 2050, one billion people are expected to be affected.

Here in the Middle East, we could see an overall warming of five degrees Celsius before the end of the century. These higher temperatures can have real life immediate consequences that we witnessed this summer, such as forest fires in Syria and unprecedented temperatures in Aden, Yemen, and in Basra in Iraq, causing rolling blackouts and shutdowns.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works in places affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, so we're particularly concerned with what happens when these issues overlap with armed conflict and how that further exacerbates humanitarian needs.

Across our Middle East operations, we are witnessing this convergence of climate risk, environmental degradation, and armed conflict. We see how it threatens people's lives and livelihoods, how it impacts health and worsens water insecurity, how it degrades soil to hamper agricultural productivity and food security.

In Yemen, for example, the increasing scarcity of fresh water is creating a major public health challenge. When combined with wastewater pollution challenges caused by damaged infrastructure and collapsed public services, this has caused a surge in waterborne diseases, like cholera.

In Syria, the conflict has had extensive impacts on agriculture throughout the country, affecting livelihoods and food security. Wheat is the main cereal crop in Syria – climatic changes are expected to increase the spread of crop diseases, which have a severe effect on cereal production.

To address this, the ICRC works with the General Organization for Seed Multiplication in Syria to build its laboratory capacities, so it can resume work on varieties that are better suited to the changing climatic conditions.

In many countries where we work, water is not just used for consumption but also powers hydroelectric plants and irrigates fields. Shortages therefore consequently disrupt electricity and food production.

Everything is interlinked and these impacts are felt in the most extreme ways by people affected by armed conflict, who already grapple with vulnerabilities and have limited resources to address new challenges. When you put climate change on top of conflict, it only compounds the vulnerabilities.

It is essential that vulnerable, conflict-affected communities are prioritised for climate action. There has been some progress towards recognising this, but much more needs to be done.

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In southern Iraq, drought is putting pressures on traditional livelihoods. Photo: Shutterstock

Strong climate action and climate finance are critical if we are going to reduce humanitarian needs, preserve development gains, and avoid the systemic breakdown of essential service, such as water, energy, or agriculture.

Addressing these challenges is not something that humanitarians or humanitarian action can do alone. Humanitarians, development actors, philanthropists, climate scientists, policy makers, people in government, and those with influence, must all work together to share our expertise.

We can all learn from each other as well as mobilise and convince others to come on board. COP28, which was held in the UAE in 2023, was a real opportunity to bring fragility and conflict into the climate discussion.

At the ICRC, there are three things that we want the international community to do:

  • Re-commit to urgent and ambitious political action to reduce emissions and keep warming within a habitable range to avoid the worst consequences of climate change on people.
  • Acknowledge the high vulnerability of countries who are enduring climate risk due to their limited adaptive capacity.
  • Live up to commitments to bolster climate action in countries vulnerable to climate change and ensure that climate action is strengthened and supported by fit for purpose accessible finance in countries ensuring conflict and violence.

“Behind every climate statistic and data, there’s a human narrative of struggle and hope."


Solutions are easy to propose but much harder to achieve - and that's why collective action is so necessary.

There is a role here for philanthropy too. Tackling climate change demands more resources – we need philanthropists to innovate, take calculated risks, develop new paradigms, and collaborate with governmental bodies.

They are uniquely positioned to propel meaningful chance, beyond the constraints that sometimes bind other donors and institutions. By investing in innovative solutions, funding ground-breaking research, and supporting organisations, philanthropists have the potential to fast-track sustainable initiatives.

Their capacity to provide flexible and rapid funding can bridge funding gaps that often hamper climate action. Philanthropists can be pivotal allies – they are not to be seen as just benefactors but active stakeholders in this global challenge. Moreover, philanthropists often possess expertise in their respective fields, bringing a wealth of knowledge to make tools, finances, or outcomes more concrete and impactful.

We all know this is difficult work, but it's also essential, if not existential, because the cost of inaction will only increase the pressure on the vulnerable communities across the Middle East.

If we do nothing, crises will persist and worsen, and the humanitarian impact will only rise. This comes with a price tag for affected people, organisations, governments, and global development.

Behind every climate statistic and data, there’s a human narrative of struggle and hope. Our decisions, or lack thereof, on climate action have real-world consequences for countless lives. We collectively bear the responsibility to act, not just for affected countries, but for the people who call it home.

This article is an edited version of an address shared at a webinar hosted by the Middle East Institute and the ICRC in August 2023. You can watch the full recording here.