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The WMDs That Hardly Get Talked About

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"Where now for aid to Syria and what role for Britain?" That's the question I'll be discussing this week with Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development, at a fringe meeting organised by Islamic Relief at the Conservative Party conference.

Syria's brutal conflict has killed over 100,000 people, driven seven million from their homes and created the worst refugee crisis for a generation. I intend to welcome the prime minister's recent vow to lead the world in aid for the Syrian people, and to ask the secretary of state to ensure that no stone is left unturned in diplomatic efforts to improve humanitarian access and bring about peace talks.

Party conference season is an important time for organisations like Islamic Relief to communicate our concerns to politicians and promote the work we do. Last autumn we had fringe debates at the Labour and Conservative conferences on another important issue - what can be done to protect the most vulnerable countries and communities against natural disasters. One year on, we have some positive news to share about the action Islamic Relief is taking in partnership with the UK government.

Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity as climate change bites, and the cost of tackling them is doubling every 12 years. Drought and floods are nature's most potent weapons of mass destruction, and yet the media tend not to take an interest in them until disaster strikes.

I'm pleased to say, however, that the Department for International Development sees the bigger picture. Justine Greening's department is in the forefront of global efforts to improve disaster protection, and has just put its money where its mouth is by joining Islamic Relief in a major partnership to protect nearly half a million people against the ravages of drought and floods.

The story of this partnership began last year, when our Ramadan appeal raised £14.4million. Most of this total - £9.4million - was down to the hard work and generosity of Islam Relief volunteers and supporters. The rest came from the UK government, which pledged to match every public donation to the appeal pound for pound, up to a maximum of £5million.

The government's pledge boosted the appeal from the start - we found that many supporters gave more because they knew their donations would be doubled. Islamic Relief was able to launch a new £9.5million three-year aid programme from the proceeds of the appeal, with £5million coming from the government's international development budget.

The money is being spent in five countries where poor communities face an increasing risk of natural disasters linked to climate change: Bangladesh, Kenya, Niger, Pakistan and Yemen. A staggering 466,000 people are beginning to see the benefits, and they are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the countries concerned.

The new programme is funding a range of disaster protection activities - things like raised housing to keep people safe from flood water; reservoirs to capture water in the rainy season that can be used during long, hot summers; and cereal banks where communities can store grain to feed their families in the event of drought.

Disaster protection works. Investment in cyclone shelters and evacuation procedures in Bangladesh after the 1991 cyclone, which killed 140,000 people, reduced the death toll to around 4,000 when a storm of similar intensity struck in 2007. Not investing in disaster protection, on the other hand, can be extremely costly. In 2002 Mozambique asked the international community for a paltry $2.7million to protect against flooding, but only around half of what they needed was provided. When the floods eventually came, the international community ended up paying $550million in emergency relief and reconstruction.

The story of " target="_hplink">Asma Begum, pictured here with the flood survival kit she has assembled on the advice of Islamic Relief, explains why disaster protection is so important. In June 2012 the Gaibanda district of north-western Bangladesh where she lives suffered its worst floods for a quarter of a century. Asma had already been flooded out of her home five times before, but this time her house was undamaged, her livestock survived and her children were safe - all thanks to an Islamic Relief project to build a raised earth platform on which 21 families from the flood plain rebuilt their homes, out of reach of seasonal flooding.

It costs £400 per family to build and maintain this flood protection for five years - less than the £440 it would cost in emergency aid in just one month if a family lost everything in a major flood and turned to Islamic Relief for emergency aid.

Fighting climate change effectively will ultimately involve taking big steps at a global level: we can't afford to neglect the task of reducing carbon emissions if we are to stave off dangerous levels of climate change for the whole of our planet. But at the moment emissions are still rising, and the success of any agreement to bring them under control could take decades to come to fruition. In the mean time climate change has become a life-and-death issue for the very poorest people, and initiatives such as disaster protection projects in disaster-prone areas offer their best hope of survival.

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