The shocking coincidence of deadly mudslides in Sierra Leone, unprecedented monsoons in South Asia and 50 inches of rain falling on America’s fourth-largest city, has created a terrifying global picture of the destructive effects of climate change.
Around the world, One Young World Ambassadors have seen their homes and communities threatened by rising waters.
In Sierra Leone, where rain-induced mudslides have claimed between 500 and 1,000 lives, Aminata Wurie is struggling to make sense of the scenes of destruction that she can see from her home. “The view from my balcony, where the clouds once cut across the lush green mountains, is now a patch of earth, the result of the landslide,” she said. “I can’t help but think that could have been me.”
Some 10,000 people have been displaced by the disaster in the nation’s capital Freetown. Relief efforts are hampered by contaminated water systems and fears that new rains could bring further mudslides in a country that has undergone significant deforestation.
Ms Wurie, who works in private sector development and with female Ebola survivors as co-founder of the Survivor Dream Project, said: “The lack of urban planning coupled with urbanisation over the past ten years has resulted in deforestation and the use of dangerous methods to make space for new communities. These methods not only contribute to the growing trend of climate change but pose a real and present danger to our lives.”
PJ Cole, another Sierra Leonean One Young World Ambassador, runs the Lifeline Nehemiah Projects in Freetown to provide shelter, education and training for former child soldiers and other Sierra Leonean youth. He said the disaster has shown that the threat from extreme weather conditions is more than a looming threat. “We often talk of climate change as a future event, something that will hurt us down the line, but I see a clear and present danger.”
He said that teams from Lifeline Nehemiah Projects, who previously deployed to give help to communities during the Ebola crisis in 2014, were “part of the first responders” in the wake of the mudslides. He said that Sierra Leone has suffered three recent floods and that the rainy season continues. “As I speak we are experiencing heavy downpours and I can only pray that we do not have our fourth (flood),” he said.
The only way to address the situation longer-term, he said, was through improved public education, community mobilisation in response to flooding and the implementation of the country’s National Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. “It is time we begin to come together to tackle the very issues of climate change and deforestation which have left us here.”
The heaviest monsoons in a decade have wreaked devastation in mountainous Nepal and inundated villages in India and Bangladesh, leaving around 1,200 people dead. In low-lying Bangladesh more than two-thirds of the country has been reported as underwater, representing the worst flooding in nearly 30 years.
Nishat Farzana Sinthy, a Bangladesh-based One Young World Ambassador and the communications manager at SBYA Global, said the “devastating” disaster was “living proof” of “the constant lurking” of climate change, even on days when the weather was “sunny and bright”.
She called on Bangladesh’s government planners to do more to take weather conditions into account when building cities for the future. “It's an issue that has always been an impediment on our road to progress and it’s high time that the government took it into consideration in developing our cities.”
Citizens, she said, could play their part by being more conscientious in their disposal of daily waste. “Not littering a day, saves the city from being flooded away!”
Fellow Bangladeshi Ambassador Sajeed Alam, has said "the recent floods have left people, particularly children, vulnerable to disease and massive settlement changes." Despite the devastation, Alam is confident in the resilience of Bangladeshis and is grateful for the global outpouring of assistance.
Nepalese One Young World Ambassador Sunita Basnet pointed out that problems from the monsoons did not end with the initial floods. Damage to water pipes from high rains can lead to the spread of infections and illness, including cholera and diarrhoea. The destruction of communities also leads to rising crime, including burglaries, she said. “The fear of getting robbed is rampant.”
One Young World’s imminent Summit in Bogotá, Colombia, which opens on 4 October, will feature a Plenary Session on Environment, encouraging greater use of sustainable energy sources and asking: “What is Holding Back the Clean Energy Revolution?”
The sight of the biggest city in Texas swamped by flooding after Hurricane Harvey was a reminder that even the wealthiest and most-prepared countries are not immune to extreme weather conditions. The flooding in Houston claimed 53 lives and forced tens of thousands to flee to temporary shelters.
One Young World Ambassador Chris Conley said that because he had lived in North Carolina and Florida he had previous experience of extreme storms and had a “high level of confidence” in dealing with the approaching Hurricane Harvey. “The point at which I really became worried for my safety was when the decision was made to drain the reservoirs in Houston, because I live in the affected zone of the predictable flood path,” he said.
Cody Meglio, a One Young World Ambassador and manager with Deal Advisory, said that, although Houston had been underwater in the past, “neighbourhoods that have never been flooded before are flooding now”. He predicted that even residents who had been displaced from their homes would remain to rebuild the city “and make Houston even better this time around”.
Another Houston-based One Young World Ambassador, Jeffrey Jensen, Chief Technology Officer with Arundo Analytics, said he and his friends had been affected “both physically and mentally” by Hurricane Harvey. “I have friends and colleagues who have lost parts of their home and personal belongings.”
He said that despite “extremely stressful” warnings of further “tornadoes and flash floods” many people had volunteered to help others “despite the risk to their own personal safety”.
Casey Yaw, a One Young World Ambassador and engineer with BP Gulf of Mexico, will remember the disaster for the unifying effect it had on Houston’s people. “I have seen nothing but a city of wonderful people coming together to help each other out (and) through all of this I got to know my neighbours much better, which has been a great experience,” she said, noting how residents with dry homes had given shelter to those displaced.
“Our country has been so divided lately and it’s so difficult to see the hate that has been spreading between all sorts of different groups - Houston is the most racially and ethnically diverse major city in the United States but I never doubted for one second the strength of our city,” she said. “I hope the rest of the United States is watching and sees that, regardless of ethnicity, political affiliation, sexual orientation or religion, we can all come together as Americans for a common goal.”
The whole world will need a similar unity in fighting the obvious challenges of climate change.