A Tale of Two Communities

Last month I was in Israel giving lectures at the Hebrew University. Each night, I plugged into the news on my iPad and was struck by two stories coming from very different parts of the world yet sharing the same common tragedy.

One was the frightening scene of people escaping Fort McMurray as searing flames threatened to block their way. The other: concerned families on flimsy boats in the Mediterranean, desperately escaping from war, drought, and devastation in Syria. In both cases people were escaping a disaster, facing the unknown, uprooted – the fate of the refugee.

Of course the degree of degradation and the scale of suffering is not the same. One difference was that Fort McMurray had governments that were in control, and a civil society and private sector that are both generous and prepared to reach out to those in need.

In reality these events are not unique but rather harbinger that in every part of the world people are on the move, pushed or pulled by a variety of disasters that make life unsafe. We are living through the worst crisis of forced displacement since the Second World War. In 2010, some 10,000 people worldwide fled their homes every day – a number that today has quadrupled. The new UN head of the Commission on Refugees predicts that 60 million displaced persons in the next 10 years will be searching to find asylum.

So let’s switch the lens back to Fort McMurray. Where does it fit into this global scheme? Aaron Crosby, Councillor in the B.C. city of Rosalind wrote: “As I watched the disaster unfold in Alberta, I fought a terrible nagging question: Is this the new normal?”

The International Institute for Sustainable Development and University of Winnipeg launched the Prairie Climate Atlas, which illustrates how climate change is likely to impact the Canadian prairie provinces. One of the most dramatic maps in the atlas shows how the number of days per year with temperatures equal to or greater than 30 degrees Celsius triples or even quadruples across the southern prairies by the end of this century.

A multitude of negative outcomes can be anticipated. Extreme heat can increase the frequency, duration and intensity of forest fires. The extreme heat will greatly impact agriculture, as many of the crop varieties we currently grow are not able to tolerate these high temperatures. The heat may also increase the risk of crop diseases and pathogens. In contrast, many invasive species can better take the heat. Even if we reach the emission goals of the Paris Agreement we will only limit the impacts on future generations. So we need to adapt and make our communities more resilient.

This is where the lines from Syria and Fort McMurray cross. We need to become engaged in local efforts but at a global scale to re-design our communities, make them more secure, resilient, and engage in preventative practices. The cost of prevention seems like a bargain compared to the cost of the cure. The Alberta floods in 2013 forced insurance payouts of almost $2 billion; and Fort McMurray could top $9 billion. Those figures don’t begin to count the monumental human costs.

Fort McMurray’s fate has brought forth a flood of support from Canada and beyond as people band together in common cause. The heroic actions of the firefighters on site managed to avert what could have been a much worse disaster.

Crisis often brings out the best of the human spirit.

But I hope that Fort McMurray can also be a wakeup call – a touchstone that reminds us how critically important it is to invest in preparing for the next event, whether due to fire, drought or flood, and all those that will follow so as to avoid our next refugee crisis.

Here’s a challenge for community foundations: to use their resources and commitment to make our world a safer place under the kinds of pressures that are faced from northern Alberta to the Middle East and beyond.