The Environment, Conflict and Cooperation (ECC) team talked to Janani Vivekananda from the peacebuilding organisation International Alert about climate change and community resilience in South Asia. She is co-author of a recently published study series Strengthening Responses to Climate Variability in South Asia with case studies of communities across Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.
ECC: Janani, what are the root causes of vulnerability and non-adaptation to current and future climate impacts on security in South Asia, according to your research?
Our research looked at diverse contexts across four different countries in an attempt to understand the unique contextual nuances which underlie vulnerability and obstruct resilience to climate related risks to community security. Whilst experiences varied across each context, five common themes emerged across the four case studies:
1. The need for strong, accountable and participatory local governance
2. Equitable management of and access to natural resources
3. Climate-sensitive alternative livelihoods
4. Fair access to credit; and
5. Peaceful and safe management of migration
Whilst some of the themes may not traditionally fall under current interpretations of climate change adaptation or resilience building, our findings highlight their importance to building resilience to climate variability. In the majority of cases studied, the reason why certain groups within society were particularly vulnerable to potential climate-related risks related to structural socio-political, cultural and economic factors such as poverty, being part of a particular cultural group or having a certain political affiliation. For example, in India, traditional fishermen were experiencing increased livelihood insecurity partly as a result of encroachment on their fishing waters by wealthier and politically connected shrimp farmers. To understand these dynamics, climate change vulnerability assessments need to understand the power dynamics and the politics of a given context.
ECC: Could you briefly explain the concept of local resilience and why you have chosen to take it as a starting point of your research?
The challenge of responding to climate change and variability is about building resilience, not simply to specific climate and environmental hazards in isolation, but in those complex systems upon which people depend every day. Whilst these systems are affected by international issues such as global food prices, or national dynamics such as elections, it is local level factors which determine the coping capacity of a society. These are factors such as whether a particular community is ethnically diverse or homogenous, predominantly agrarian or has equitable access to water resources. It is this level of granularity that is required to understand how to strengthen responses to climate variability. This is especially the case in fragile states, where more than ever it is critical to ensure context sensitivity and that adaptation responses do no harm. This is why we felt it is important take local empirical realities as a starting point to understand the complexities of building resilience.
To capture some of the different perspectives around local resilience, our methodological approach includes perceptional and anecdotal information from local respondents to supplement scientific data. This is important because in reality, perceptions of risk, resilience and obstacles to resilience are just as relevant to understand as the reality. This is especially pertinent in fragile and post-conflict contexts with a lack of social cohesion or mistrust between a community and governance providers.
ECC: What opportunities have you identified for strengthening resilience to combined risks of climate change and conflict? Could you give specific examples from your research?
Our findings show that resilience against one thing strengthens the capacity of individuals and communities to deal with other risks. If a community is resilient against the impact of climate change, then it is also likely to be resilient to the risk of conflict, the risk of economic shocks or poverty.
Given the limited data on specific short and medium-term climate impacts at the sub-national level, the challenge for actors seeking to strengthen responses to climate change and variability is to be able to better cope with the uncertainty and flux. This entails understanding the consequences of the consequence of climate change. It also entails ensuring that adaptation responses are conflict sensitive. For example, in Sathkira, Bangladesh, increased seasonal migration by men from vulnerable rural regions to urban hubs is a key way the community copes with unviable livelihoods from fishing. According to our research, this trend is likely to continue, but can lead to tensions between migrants and host communities. Ensuring safe migration for seasonal migrants through better planning and management and integration of migration into development and climate change adaptation strategies is thus vital for building long-term resilience to climate change. This means recognizing both the risks and benefits inherent in migration. And importantly, it also means not viewing migration in purely numerical terms and as a “problem”, but as a complex and nuanced phenomenon, which if managed in a conflict sensitive manner, can be part of a solution to building resilient communities.
Another priority area for promoting resilience to the linked risks of climate change and conflict across all four studies is effective and equitable governance. Communities dependent on Chilika Lake, India, for example highlighted the need for more effective governance of the lake’s resources. They stressed the need for a comprehensive lake management policy and more participatory decision making processes for effective management and equitable distribution of the lake’s resources. Similarly, in Nepal, it was evident that resilience to climate change and conflict is highly dependent on local governance and power dynamics over natural resource access. Yet most policies and activities are prioritized from the capital, Kathmandu. Strengthened connections between central government and district administrations would enable greater awareness of local contexts and thus better implementation of national plans at the district level. This would mean that national adaptation processes could be more locally embedded, distribution of funds on the ground would be more conflict sensitive and overall, their risk of inadvertently doing harm to fragile local security dynamics would be reduced.
These examples are of course very context specific, but that is the nature of the issue. Successful and sustainable resilience building depends on understanding the local contexts, including local-level experiences of climate change, whilst also taking into account existing peace and security challenges. The peaceful management of these complex interactions depends on the actions and capacities of local government and public service institutions to cope with the root causes of vulnerability.
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