Hope from action

Anju Sharma's picture
Insight by 
Anju Sharma
09 December 2011

As climate-related impacts become more frequent and extreme, the primary preoccupation of a progressive global society should be to protect the more vulnerable amongst us – countries and individuals at the front lines, already bearing the brunt of climate change on their livelihoods, food, water, energy sources, and housing. They are mostly unsupported, unprepared and uninformed about the complexities of climate change.

That does not come across as the primary concern at the ongoing climate change conference in Durban, where humanity is buried under the politics and diplomacy of sub-text, brackets and commas.

It was something of a relief, therefore, to attend the Development and Climate (D&C) Days organised by IIED on the sidelines of the conference. The event focussed on taking stock of the impacts of climate change on poor and vulnerable communities, and learning from, aiding and inspiring responses. The rich discussions over the two days are summarised elsewhere, but I’d like to share some highlights.

It came as no surprise to learn that we are already facing severe impacts. At the national level, government representatives from both Bangladesh and Pakistan admitted that they were driven to action after a series of climate disasters resulted in heavy human and economic losses, and left no doubt for the need for adaptation planning. The representative from Pakistan said the floods in 2010 and 2011, which displaced millions of people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage, forced the government to formulate a national climate change policy.

At the individual level, the stories of the impacts of climate change on individuals and communities were poignant. Representatives from the People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia recounted how their flimsy housing offered scant protection from increased rainfall and wind, blowing away the paper and sack that, for instance, they use for privacy over community pit latrines. Flooding causes the latrines to overflow, causing outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. Flooding also prevents people from getting to work. The communities’ own efforts to repair roads and drainage are washed away by rain. Recently, the community has teamed up with the city council to find a more lasting solution.


Vulnerability assessments

How does one even begin to map out the extent and complexity of such threats posed by climate change to a country/ community/ individual? Conventional wisdom suggests “vulnerability assessments”. But not everyone is convinced that such assessments are needed or effective. In a session where participants presented for and against vulnerability assessments, one speaker felt that it is more important to understand why people are vulnerable than who is vulnerable, so the root causes can be addressed. Even those who presented in favour of them admitted that such assessments tend not to be popular among “assessment-weary” communities because they can be messy and frustrating and require time and money.

There were some advantages mentioned as well – for instance, their use in planning risk management strategies, and as a means of getting people to talk to each other about the risks. In any case, there seemed to be a consensus that we need to re-think why we do vulnerability assessments, how we do them, and how they are used.


Effective responses

Over the course of the two days, several essential ingredients for effective responses to the impacts of climate change impacts emerged, including – take a deep breath as I name but a few – access to user-specific information; addressing power relations among stakeholders to protect the vulnerable; collaborations and partnerships; monitoring and evaluation; and building in flexibility for trial, error and correction.


Information insecurity

One participant put it rather well when he spoke of the “information insecurity” faced by affected communities. A speaker told of a sharecropper in Bangladesh who was poorly advised to move from sharecropping to mango farming to counter changes in climate. This decision did not pan out well in the long term – it had impacts on local food security, it did not take into account the seasonal nature of mango crops, or the fact that the local markets would be flooded by mangoes as a result of other farmers using the same advice, leading to a crash in prices.

It is not just affected communities that need reliable and locale-specific information  – it was recognised that it is an essential ingredient for building political will, and ensuring that governments learn from past development experiences (for instance, the need to take on board gender concerns) right from the start.


Power play

Not everyone is equal when it comes to accessing support for dealing with climate impacts. A session at D&C Days addressed the impact of power relations between actors, and how adaptation planning can serve as a vehicle to ensure that the more vulnerable and marginalised have a greater say. Three core issues were identified that need addressing for this to happen:

  • institutional frameworks, policies and laws;
  • the financial architecture; and
  • political will.

There were also positive examples of action already underway to ensure better access by affected communities. For instance, a government official from Nepal spoke of his government’s commitment to ensure that 80% of the funds available for climate change will be channelled to the local level. Nepal has also pioneered “Local Adaptation Plans of Action”, as a counter to the top-down approach of most national adaptation plans.


Sharing experiences

The importance of sharing knowledge and experiences is an essential element for adaptation. In this context, D&C Days appear to have a concrete action outcome. Following sessions on two comprehensive programmes – Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) and Adapting to Climate Change in China (ACCC) – a participant pointed out that the bottom-up approach of the former and the top-down approach of the latter had a lot to teach each other. This resulted in an enthusiastic decision to explore future collaborations between the two.


Keeping track

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of climate change adaptation activities is not only about promoting accountablity. Presenters highlighted the role of M&E as a critical tool for local stakeholders to articulate their needs, measure changes in adaptive capacity and vulnerability, and facilitate a continuous learning process. In order to serve its full potential, however, participants felt M&E processes must be participatory, simple and useful.


Flexibility, for learning by doing

Finally, the presentation made by a representative of the eThekwini Municipality, of which the host city Durban is a part, held a number of lessons for the rest of the world. The municipal government of Durban is considerably advanced in adaptation planning – it already has a locally-rooted climate change strategy in place. There were no precedents to follow and there could be no definite long-term goals – so the strategy was developed in a phased manner, with the flexibility for making and learning from mistakes along the way.

This is an important message for all of us to take home from Durban. We may not necessarily know where to start, given the scale of action needed for adaptation, but that is no reason not to begin, or to wait until the next big disaster strikes.

Anju Sharma is Head of the european capacity building initiative publications and policy analysis unit and a visiting fellow with IIED’s Climate Change Group.