Voltaire, in his poem about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, lamented the unpredictability of nature at the time. Yet even today, we witness nature's apparent fury worldwide. News headlines regularly feature wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and droughts that affect humanity. It's clear that extreme weather events are on the rise, worsened by human activity. However, we must guard against growing numb to these frequent disasters.
Complacency is a luxury no country or community can afford. In just the first 11 days of September, eight devastating floods hit four continents. Mediterranean countries were hit hard by storm Daniel, with perhaps 10,000 lives lost in Libya within minutes. At the same time, Morocco, not known for frequent earthquakes, suffered over 2,400 victims.
This new reality is alarming. According to the United Nations, over the past 50 years, more than 11,000 reported natural disasters have occurred globally, resulting in two million deaths. It's often overlooked that 91 percent of these happened in developing countries with limited resources to manage disasters or aid victims. Such events force displaced people to seek safety and opportunities elsewhere, thereby straining resources.
The impact on human lives is staggering. In the past two decades, we've seen devastating disasters with high death tolls, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, the 2008 Myanmar cyclone, the 554 disasters in China during this period, and the 2005 Pakistan floods. While certain parts of the world used to be more prone to specific disasters, like floods in Bangladesh, typhoons in the Far East, earthquakes in the Pacific Rim, and droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, these events are no longer confined to those regions. Over the last two decades, natural disasters have surged worldwide.
In recent months, 150,000 people were displaced in Pakistan's Punjab Province due to flooding, while Hurricane Idalia wreaked havoc in Florida. Recent fires on the idyllic island of Maui, scorching heat in the U.S. Southwest, and wildfires in Canada and Portugal exemplify the changing climate. Even in Europe, an extreme heatwave last year claimed 61,000 lives.
Initiatives and guidance
Mawlana Hazar Imam established the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) out of concern for the welfare of the Jamat — and their neighbours — who reside in disaster-prone regions.
AKAH interventions assist over 2,400 communities in monitoring and managing natural hazards, enabling them to prepare for disasters. They have helped remote communities build 50,000 homes, supported 40,000 local emergency responders, and established weather monitoring posts to provide early disaster warnings in over 600 avalanche-prone areas.
FOCUS, now a part of AKAH has been engaged for almost 30 years in relief efforts, aiding Afghan refugees, helping those affected by floods in Pakistan, Mozambique, and Houston, training men and women as first responders in disaster-prone regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, and setting up Community Emergency Response teams (CERTs) in several countries. Their mission encompasses emergency preparation, response, mitigation, rebuilding and rehabilitation.
Effective responses require trained volunteers to locate potentially affected individuals and provide medical aid, supplies, or evacuation. For instance, CERTs in Northern Pakistan safely evacuated over 8,000 people before floods and landslides reached their villages. In 2018, during heavy snowfalls in Tajikistan, avalanche preparedness teams, among others, responded and successfully evacuated more than 5,000 people.
Understanding what to do in an emergency and having the right supplies can be crucial during times of distress. AKAH has developed information and engaged in activities to raise awareness among the Jamat and others to prepare for potential risks.
South and Central Asia
AKAH has intensified preparedness and support for vulnerable communities. In response to the recent flooding emergency in Pakistan, institutions in Pakistan provided emergency relief supplies, evacuation assistance, shelter support, and technical coordination services with funding support from partners.
CERTs conducted a 'Summer Preparedness Plan' across Pakistan to protect disaster-prone communities. They organised exercises and helped communities plan to enhance resilience. The recent heavy rains and severe flooding in Chitral led CERT volunteers to respond promptly, providing emergency humanitarian relief and support, with assistance from Search and Rescue Teams.
For over two decades, AKDN institutions have trained and collaborated with community groups and volunteers to strengthen CERT capacity. Every year, the region faces threats from heavy snowfall, avalanches, landslides, and floods. AKAH and the government have installed early warning systems in mountainous and river areas. These systems are linked to local community authorities and CERT leaders, providing timely alerts about potential avalanches and river flooding. Information about disaster preparation and response, along with evacuation maps, is displayed in villages, Jamatkhanas, Masjids, and other community areas.
Jamati institutions have been working to offer the community emergency preparedness tips and advice, including via social media platforms. Some of FOCUS USA's initiatives include providing training and education, including CPR/AED and First Aid training for leaders and volunteers. They engage children with games like mazes, word searches, and crosswords to educate them about emergency preparedness. They also emphasise the importance of creating a family emergency plan, maintaining a disaster kit with essential supplies, and staying informed about potential hazards.
In collaboration with local authorities, FOCUS USA has established a Cluster Management System that enables volunteers and institutions to connect with families during and after emergencies, ensuring they receive support. Additionally, they've created Jamatkhana Emergency Roll Out Procedures to assist the Jamat when premises are open. Families are advised to have emergency procedures in place, stock essential supplies, and be aware of nearby safe locations in case of a disaster.
“FOCUS is involved in preparing the Jamat for climate change by raising awareness of the issue, and working with the USA National Council to map risks around the country to eventually be able to support the Jamat and the Institutions in their understanding of the natural hazard risks,” said Shenila Momin, Chair of FOCUS USA.
Europe and the Middle East
Following the 2023 earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, AKAH affiliates reached out to Embassies and Consulates-General of the Turkish Republic to provide donations. FOCUS USA partnered with Ismaili CIVIC and local groups to collect donations. Over 140 pallets, or six shipping containers of new winter clothing, medicine, sleeping bags, tents, diapers, and other items were shipped to assist the victims.
Considerations for a new reality
Knowing that sea levels are rising means that homes near beaches, rivers, or lakes may need to be examined for risk. Among the ten major cities at risk of rising sea levels are London and Dubai, while homes in flood plains, such as Houston, are also at greater risk. Residents near large and remote wooded areas may be at greater risk of wildfires. Those impacted by such events may suffer a significant loss of earnings, savings, and potential physical and mental health issues too.
Throughout history, humanity has faced the persistent challenges of war, disease, flooding, and fires — and they persist to this day. If Voltaire were with us now, he might have crafted a more vivid and sweeping elegy, as the current realities are similar but on a global scale, affecting more people. With the substantial growth in populations, urban development, and densities, climate change-induced disasters present historic threats to all. Governments and individuals alike must prioritise policies and precautions to ensure greater security in the future.