How to get poverty-stricken communities to adapt to climate change
Paul Mitchell, climate change advisor at Save the Children Australia, writes: Today, politicians, academics, the UN, aid agencies and community workers from around the world are all gathering in Vietnam. They’re there to talk about community-based adaptation. Adaptation to what, how and where? That’s where it gets interesting.
Three weeks ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report that shows the connections between climate change and extreme weather events. Climate change, as we know, is largely the result of greenhouse gas emissions that come from all communities, everywhere in the world. The impact caused by these emissions will also be felt around the world.
According to the report, the effects of climate change can already be felt through extreme weather events like heat waves, which have significantly increased over the past 60 years. Other extremes that already affect vulnerable communities, are projected to worsen — flooding, intense rains, rising sea levels, droughts, and stronger tropical storms will strike communities more often and be less predictable. Knowing in advance that these events may lead to disasters, allows donors and agencies to help communities adapt to the changes and be better prepared for current and future impacts before disaster strikes.
Because the truth is, although the impact of climate change will be felt by all, the extremes will hit some harder than others. The irony is that the people and communities least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions will bear the brunt of the impacts. While this is in part due to geography, the overwhelming reason is poverty.
The poor tend to live in more disaster prone areas, where no one else wants to live; they have less resilient infrastructure; and less access to healthy food, clean water, sanitation, education and medical facilities. Their livelihoods are often reliant on natural resources that are susceptible to climate change impacts. Poor families and communities are also less able to “bounce back” after a disaster, which leaves them less able to cope with the next disaster — making them more and more vulnerable each time crisis strikes. This can lead to a vicious cycle: poverty increases vulnerability to climate change, while climate change impacts keep people trapped in poverty.
What does this look like in real life? Outside Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, communities of H’mong people live in grinding poverty in remote villages along the steep hills of Hong Ca. They are entirely reliant on their increasingly fragile ecosystem for their livelihoods. The communities already face flash flooding, landslides, soil erosion and droughts. They are seeing increasing variability in weather patterns, making it harder to predict planting, as seasons are changing from year to year.
A lack of information and understanding about these changes lowers their productivity, which means already poor families have less food to eat and produce to sell, increasing their vulnerability to the kinds of extreme weather events the new climate change report predicts will increase in the coming years.
But the people of Hong Ca are not resigned to their fate. They are fighting back and, with assistance from Save the Children, are increasing their understanding of the impacts climate change will have on their communities. And they’re doing it by unique and innovative means, in some cases through songs and drama performed by children through village schools, using their native language.
Already, the children’s activities have catalysed action. In order to make sure they have fresh water stored as rainfalls become less predictable, the communities have enhanced the way they catch and store fresh water. They have diversified the crops they grow, including introducing drought tolerant varieties to make sure they can maintain access to food even during the driest periods. With these measures, the community itself is helping its people adapt to climate change, ensuring they are better equipped for potential extreme changes, while keeping the villages largely self-sustaining.
This project is only one of a growing number of initiatives that highlight the benefits of investing not only in climate change adaptation, but on community-based adaptation. This means working directly at local level to address the specific climate change challenges facing a particular community — like the H’mong of Hong Ca. Make no mistake, as the impacts of extreme weather events increase in the coming years, the community of Hong Ca, and people like them worldwide, will need to adapt to a more hostile climate. The difference these programs make is the focus of this week’s global conference, and the reason over 300 people from Australia to Brazil, have gathered in Vietnam.