Climate discourse

Stories of flood-affected communities in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, citizens from the disappearing islands of the Maldives and the drought affected communities of the Sahel, all in their own ways struggling to cope with the impacts of climate change are increasingly permeating mainstream consciousness within those countries whose carbon intensive development over the past 100 years has been contributing to these situations. At the same time, international donors from these developed countries are creating new aid funds in an attempt to help the vulnerable cope with the impacts of climate change we are already feeling. But are they helping – or are they part of the problem?

With the next round of global climate change talks starting in Durban this week, the high profile issues for agreement are about reducing carbon emissions and – more importantly for the affected communities – how much money the developed countries, who have the main responsibility for global warming, will put on the negotiating table to help people in poorer countries cope with the consequences. But these are not the only important issues.

One issue that is barely acknowledged is the heightened risk of political instability and conflict related to climate change. Factors linking climate change to an increased potential for instability and conflict include water scarcity, accelerated land degradation, decreased food production, and indeed the management of the climate funds themselves.

The risk will be greatest where governance is weak. International Alert’s report A climate of conflict estimates that just under three billion people live in 46 conflict-affected countries where climate change could increase the risk of violent conflict.

Climate policy-makers, however, are largely silent on the matter. International Alert’s latest research (Climate change, governance and fragility: Rethinking adaptation - Lessons from Nepal, Practice note: Conflict-sensitive responses to climate change in South Asia and our upcoming Climate change, water and conflict in the Niger River basin) finds that new funds, already coming into these countries’ coffers with more still in the pipeline, could make the situation worse if they don’t take account of the complex linkages between environmental change, security and governance.

What should inform climate responses?

Regardless of the doubts and conspiracy theories fuelling “Climategate” the reality is that climate change is happening, the issue is that we don’t know exactly how. The only certainty is the uncertainty. Communities in fragile contexts are already experiencing changes to their lives and livelihoods. With this uncertainty and change as a backdrop, responses to climate change are non-negotiable. They also have to respond to the political and social realities of fragile and conflict-affected countries or they will not work.

Climate change is not only a climate issue.

Climate change will affect political stability, development, government, equity, trade and the national economy. And these issues all affect the ability of people and the governments to respond constructively to the challenges climate change generates. The problems are interlinked, so the responses must be too.

In post-conflict situations like Nepal, countries where conflict is a very real possibility in the near future, such as Bangladesh, or countries experiencing ongoing conflict and instability such as Mali, adaptation strategies should address the broader dimensions of community resilience.

Adaptation decisions at Durban

Adaptation strategies should be defined not only by the nature of the natural hazard that is faced, but also on the basis of understanding the systems of governance and power. This must involve a deep understanding of the local context, and avoid pitting groups against each other. Nationally ownership of adaptation plans is important, but likewise is a clear-sighted understanding of the limitations of national and local government capacity and within local civil society to implement and monitor spending. This is not to undermine the principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level of governance – but rather to reinforce it by ensuring that adaptation funding also goes to support governance and dialogue processes which link decision makers at the top with communities on the ground.

Decisions on adaption must also address broader risks to resilience such as security. For example, a new government pilot project in Nepal to address energy security and reduce deforestation through promotion of biogas plants in nine districts halted implementation in three districts: Saptari, Udayapur and Siraha due to the security situation. Such decisions leave communities doubly vulnerable: to the lack of sustainable energy sources, and thus having to continue with deforestation thereby perpetuating risks of soil erosion and landslides, and to insecurity.

Development donors often speak about targeting the ‘poorest and most marginalised’ but base their programming on a generalised conception of who these people are. Speak to people in the villages and they’ll tell you: ‘A poor person is a poor person, regardless of whether he is high or low caste, a famer or a herder’. The local context is socially and culturally complex. It is social and cultural factors that determine economic activity – not simply ethnicity’. Local organisations must understand the local reality and they must make central governments and international aware of this complex reality.

At the grass roots level, donors are often seen to be bringing projects that are not fitting local needs. Everyone’s happy to get funds from donors but when they run out of donor funding, they look to resource strapped local governments for continuity – something which local administrations often have neither the resources not the ability to provide. This dependence on donor assistance usurps local authorities’ roles and responsibilities and undermines the social contract between communities and local government.

Likewise, peace and reconstruction efforts need to be climate-proofed by paying attention to the availability of resources for livelihoods such as agriculture or returning ex-combatants or people displaced by conflict. These could be under pressure because of climate change. For example, possible future plans to reintegrate ex-combatants from cantonments into villages where they may hope to make a living from agriculture could cause future problems. Farmers struggling with changing rainfall patterns and only getting one harvest per year rather than two are seeing their rice yields falling. The prospect arises of returned fighters becoming resentful unemployed farmers, and thus potential recruits, with their combat experience, in instability.

More broadly, with large-scale funding available for adaptation, low capacity and high corruption at the governance and civil society level will limit the ability to use it well. It is most likely to be diverted into the hands and pockets of one faction or another in the political elite. With public awareness of these funds coming in, people’s expectations for support - for example compensation for flood victims - are rising, and where they are not met, we are likely to see an increase in public unrest and dissatisfaction when their governments do not address these new and urgent needs, especially when there is a perception of misuse of funds or corruption.

If we can get responses to climate change to take account of the broad dimensions of what makes people resilient – not just drought-resistant crops and embankments to protect them from floods, but also the interlinked factors of livelihoods options, good infrastructure, social inclusion and effective governance, there’s a good chance that responses to climate change could yield a double dividend: increasing resilience to both climate change and conflict. Failure to take account of the linkages however could result in hours of debate at Durban and the millions of dollars of funding for adaptation actually becoming part of the problem.

Photo: Aurélien Tobie/ International Alert