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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Climate Change and the Poor

Daily Times -- While it is still not possible to calculate what percentage of climate change has been induced by human activities, there is evidence that rising greenhouse gas emissions, for example, exacerbate it... There is need to help poor communities adapt to the climate change that has already occurred

Determining the exact cause of climate change is not easy. Nonetheless there are visible changes in local climate patterns the world over, which are disturbing human populations and disrupting the environment.

No country or region of the world is safe from climate change. In 2003, Europe experienced the most intense heat wave on record. It caused more than 15,000 deaths. Climate change is even more serious for developing countries. The United Nation’s Environmental Programme has estimated that on average 13 times more people die per reported disaster in countries with low human development indicators than those with high indicators.

Developed countries have greater capacity to cope with adverse climate changes. But poor people in developing countries are dependent on the natural environment and more vulnerable to climate change that alters their surroundings; they have few resources for adapting to the changes.

Tearfund, an international relief and development charity organisation, has recently gathered and published findings from over a dozen countries across Africa, Asia and South America. These depict the havoc climate change causes in poor communities, providing compelling evidence that decision makers should pay attention to climate change and not just address its potential causes but also help the poor cope with its impact.

Many countries in Africa are experiencing longer and more frequent droughts, as well as more flash floods. Droughts have affected the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa with increasing frequency. It is estimated that a third of African people now live in drought-prone areas. Crop production in counties like Ethiopia has been declining by the year. In the Boricha area of southern Ethiopia, the number of people affected by food shortages has increased from 20,000 to 60,000 between 2001 and 2004.

It is not uncommon for some African countries to experience droughts and floods in the same year. In Malawi for example, heavy rains on the upper plateau caused flooding in the lower plateau. However, record indicates that on average precipitation has been declining across Africa since the late 1970s. Fewer rains are causing a decline in water availability for people and livestock and for sustaining the environment.

As water sources dry up, the poor cannot afford to dig and maintain deeper wells and are forced to walk for kilometres for water, which often turns out to be contaminated. This compounds their hardships.

In Asia, floods, droughts and monsoon patterns are becoming more unpredictable. About 75 per cent of the world’s major hydro-meteorological catastrophes, such as cyclones and flooding, occurring between 1970 and 1997, affected developing countries in Asia and the Pacific region. As mountains have been denuded of forests, the upper riparian areas of the Himalayan countries — India, Bhutan, China and Nepal — are experiencing excessive flooding. This results in erosion of river banks and causes silting of dams and canals. The unpredictable climate also leads to crop failure, threatening livelihoods.

Of the 800 million undernourished people in the developing world, almost two-thirds are in Asia, with nearly 30 percent in India alone. Water-borne diseases are reported to be increasing, as well as skin, eye and chest problems. It is ironic that while the Asia and Pacific region accounts for about 36 per cent of global run-off, the region has the lowest per capita availability of freshwater. Several countries including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh already suffer from water scarcity or water stress. The situation will become more serious as populations and consumption increase.

In Bangladesh, population growth and land scarcity has compelled more than 10 million people to migrate to neighbouring states in the past two decades. Such migration is driven by floods and droughts, which damage crops, houses, and infrastructure. Isolated and shelterless people are then threatened with starvation.

Floods, droughts and storms are becoming more prevalent on the South American continent. Temperatures are rising and dry spells are getting longer. In Central America and southern Mexico, tropical cyclones and associated heavy rain and landslides are becoming more frequent.

In several South American countries, seasons are becoming less distinct and less predictable. In the Mosquitia region of Honduras what used to be the rainy season is now dry and the dry season is becoming wetter. In other places productivity has been affected due to too much rain.

South America also has the highest urbanisation rates in the world, with large groups of people migrating within the countries from drought-prone rural areas or poverty-stricken communities to overcrowded cities.

These widespread effects of climate change highlight the need for more effective action. While it is still not possible to calculate what percentage of climate change has been induced by human activities, there is evidence that rising greenhouse gas emissions, for example, exacerbate it. But besides moving forward to evolve a consensus on, and implement, agreements like Kyoto protocol, there is need to help poor communities adapt to the climate change that has already happened.

The poor need assistance to safeguard their livelihoods, food security and health which are threatened by climate change. Governments of poor countries should also build their own meteorological data gathering systems as this will bolster attempts to increase pressure at the global level for protecting and rehabilitating the environment.

The author is a development consultant and an international fellow of the Open Society Institutes network. He can be reached at syedmohdali555@yahoo.com

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