Rigoberto Monge, a fisherman in El Salvador, has been to the United States and back. Now he sits in the yard of his home near the Guatemalan border with his wife and daughters. In 2012, Rigoberto left his home and family for the USA. “We had no livelihood,” he says. With the help of American relatives, he paid a trafficker and undertook a dangerous 45-day journey to the USA. He arrived, worked low-paying jobs, and sent money home. Four years later he had earned enough to build the house in which he now lives. Then he returned.
His house is on the beach and near a mangrove forest, home to the crab and fish he and his neighbours depend on for their livelihood. But the forest is dying. Extreme weather events, changing water temperatures, and rising sea levels have upset the delicate ecological balance.
“The rising sea brings sand which blocks the entrance of the rivers. The tide flows into the forest but does not get out anymore,” Rigoberto explains. Now the trees are permanently standing in water heated by the sun. “We can see how climate change affects our resources,” he says. “Many of the birds have migrated from the mangrove forest. The fish need fresh water, so they leave as well.”
Fire, flood, rising sea levels, warming oceans, drought, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, earthquake, and conflict. These are some of the increasingly common events that make communities around the world the centre of life-changing humanitarian crises. Many of these crises happen in communities that have neither the resources nor resiliency to manage an effective response on their own. As people of faith, we are called to respond generously and compassionately to support emergency relief during crises, as well as rebuilding and reconstruction afterwards.
Many of these increasingly common events act together to increase both the scale and number of humanitarian crises globally. Climate change intensifies events like floods and drought, meaning these events are more frequent, last longer, and are more intense.
The interconnectedness of causes often makes humanitarian crises complex, with the causes interacting in ways that exacerbate their impacts on people. For example, before war broke out in Syria, there was a multi-year drought, likely worsened by climate change. A 2015 report showed that water shortages killed farm animals, provoked food price increases, and drove 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s cities. This happened just as the country was coping too with a massive influx of refugees from Iraq that began after the American invasion. Years later, millions of Syrian refugees remain stalled in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.
In the wealthier countries of the global North, instead of questioning the conditions that drive migration, migrants themselves are blamed for fleeing. Central Americans, like Rigoberto, leave their homes because of a combination of perpetual poverty, worsening social violence, and unpredictable cycles of drought and floods.
People in the midst of crisis are driven by a will to survive but they are sustained by the hope that their children and their children’s children will have a better life. The United Church, together with global partners like ACT Alliance, are working together to make that hope for a better life reality.
—Pat Elson is the Emergency Response Coordinator in the Church in Mission Unit of the General Council Office.