Every year, the world’s humanitarian bill runs into billions of dollars – and this, for natural disasters alone. When rebuilding costs and lost farming output are tallied up, the amount, requested or actually disbursed, reaches tens of millions. Much of this excessive sum is down to the common practice of responding after, rather than before, disasters strike. And the burden on both vulnerable populations and donors is likely to escalate: by 2050, the risks of both hunger and child malnutrition could rise by as much as one-fifth, with climate disasters being partly to blame.


At the World Food Programme (WFP), we believe the conversation must shift: we argue for a forecast-based, climate-conscious approach. This means assistance must flow at the first intimation that a crop will fail, not only after it has done so, and not once individuals are reduced to negative coping strategies (selling their assets or taking children out of school) to stave off hunger. A 2015 cost benefit analysis suggests early action based on climate-triggered forecasts would cut the cost of emergency response by half.

About 40 percent of WFP operations now include activities to reduce climate-related disaster risk and build resilience. Our newest initiative, the Food Security Climate Resilience Facility (FoodSECuRE), was launched in December 2015 at the UN Climate Conference. A combination of financial, scientific and practical support, it unlocks assistance before disasters, but also makes money and expertise available between cycles of disasters. In the aftermath of a disaster, FoodSECuRE will provide predictable multi-year funding to bolster food and nutrition security. The system is designed to strengthen communities over time, ensuring that each new disaster finds people better prepared and less vulnerable.

The piloting of FoodSECuRE shows promising results. In Sinaneca, five hours’ drive from Guatemala City, the weather has struck hard. For generations, farmers here have practiced rain-fed agriculture, tilling plots of maize and beans on sloping, increasingly degraded land. Last year’s rains quickly petered out. Some farmers lost their entire crop, along with the seeds saved for this year’s planting.

But FoodSECuRE is transforming this landscape of parched fields and withered crops. Farmers have been planting drought-resistant crops, building rainwater harvesting systems, and changing their agricultural practices to better conserve soil and water. The techniques “have helped maintain moisture after the late rains, and reduced the need for fertilizers and the time for crops to mature,” says Tinigi Chigopho.

Each lead farmer like Tinigi trains another ten, ultimately spreading their knowledge to 500 area growers.

The Sinaneca project and others like it testify to the potential of an anticipatory approach to disasters. At a relatively modest cost of US$400 million, FoodSECuRE could be expanded into a globally effective mechanism. The sum includes any amounts needed to deploy the system as required.