Hemantha Withanage Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice
Paper presented at the Climate Change and Ecological Justice parallel session at the South Asian People’s Assembly( People’s SAARC) held in Colombo from 18-20 July 2008
Most environmental decisions are still taken by the politicians and high level bureaucrats.
Those who have scientific knowledge are still not in the front line in these decisions. Climate negotiations once again prove this reality. While IPCC is clear about the global warming the mandatory emission cuts, it is a hot issue among the elite, corporations and the politicians. Self appointed body, G8 undermines the UNFCCC negotiations. The affected communities and the vulnerable communities nowhere near the discussion tables.
Floods and cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh killed over 3000 people and affected over 900,000 families in year 2007. Last floods in Sri Lanka affected over 200,000 people and killed few. Recent cyclone Nargis killed over 100,000 Burmese and affected more than 2.5 million people. Meanwhile stories from India, China, are much more catastrophic. During the drought of 1999-2001 in Afghanistan FAO suggest that about half of the population was directly or indirectly affected by drought. About 3 to 4 million people were severely affected and another 8 to 12 million were under the threat of famine and stranded. Around 300,000 people fled to neighboring Iran and Pakistan and more than 400,000 moved to safe places within the country. There are similar stories across South Asia.
According to new Greenpeace Report “Blue Alert, Climate Migrants in South Asia” More than 120 million people from India and Bangladesh alone will become homeless by the end of this century.” It estimates that 75 million people from Bangladesh will lose their homes. It also predicts that about 45 million people in India will also become “Climate migrants”. Around 130 million people now live in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in which are called low elevation coastal zones, which comprise coastal regions that are less than 10m above the average sea level.
Growing number of natural disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones are mostly affecting the poor who have no idea of what is happening in the world. How many poor coastal, communities knows melting glaziers in the North Pole and Himalayas is the reason for sea level rise and coastal erosion? How many poor people know that burning fossil fuel is the reason for the strong cyclones and disastrous floods? How many Maldivians know that they will go under water within next few decades due to the GHG emission produced by those tourists who come from the rich countries?
For the first time in the history Environment ministers from the South Asian regional body, SAARC, met in early July 2008 in Bangladesh have agreed on measures to tackle climate change. They agreed to share data on weather patterns and their experiences of dealing with natural disasters. The environment ministers have agreed to a series of resolutions to pool resources and know-how. Bangladesh, which is frequently hit by massive floods and cyclones, will share its experience of handling large-scale natural disasters. The ministers want South Asia to speak with as one in the international negotiations on climate change and also to appeal jointly for global funds. Will this alone solve the problems?
There is no question among the scientific community that GHG emission is the main cause for the melting glaciers and increased intensity of floods and droughts. Rich nations, mostly highly industrialized countries release more than 50 per cent of CO2 emissions by burning fossil fuel in order to maintain their luxury life style. Current per capita emission levels in the SAARC countries which is around Sri Lanka 0.6 tonnes, Bangladesh 0.3 tonnes, Maldives 2.5 tonnes, Pakistan 0.8, Afghanistan…..India 1.2 tonnes Nepal 0.1 Butan 0.2 is quite low comparing to the 21 tonnes in United States. Among few other solutions, reducing CO2 by limiting consumption of fossil fuel will be the number one solution.1
During the SAARC Environment Ministers meeting Bangladesh’s interim Prime Minister, Fakruddhin Ahmed, said that rich polluting nations had a duty to help poor countries adapt to changes, like rising sea levels, which threaten to inundate coastal areas.”However, the truth is United States and some other rich nations block reduction of emission negotiated by the UNFCCC. Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by 50 percent by 2050, which was among the major decisions of the recent G8 summit held in Japan which seems to be a reverse from the minimum action that was demanded by the global community during the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Bali last December. It was also projected the minimum cut needed by 2050 to be in the range of 80 to 90 percent, if the rise in global temperature was to be kept below 2 degrees centigrade in the 21st century.
Except India, no other countries in the SAARC region can make a strong voice in this debate. However, India is a growing economy that increases GHG emission day by day. To my opinion other countries in the region are more fascinated with the so called mechanisms provided by the UN and other Multilateral Development Banks which are more towards financial packages for clean development mechanism, climate investment Funds , Carbon credit etc. Sri Lankan Carbon Fund is an incorporated entity that promotes public private partnership. They deal with the big polluters in order to promote clean development and sell purchase carbon credits.
There can be engineering and scientific solutions to mitigate the problems. But it is not simple as the rising sea levels would be devastating. The impacts will also include flood and storm damage, drinking water shortage, loss of economic activities and income generation, erosion, saltwater intrusion, rising water tables and wetland loss. These will greatly reduce the ability of the SAARC countries to provide people access to land for living and cultivation, water, causing severe hardship.
As Greenpeace report pointed out “about 125 million migrants, comprising about 75% from Bangladesh alone could be rendered homeless by climate change. The bulk of migrants from Bangladesh are likely to move to India creating further tensions.” The region is already home to the largest number of people living in poverty and such impacts will take a horrendous human toll. The report says that India should seek policy options that are proactive in terms of developing international strategies to reduce the risk of destructive climate change.
Can the elected governments and handful of aid agencies deal with the problems without mobilizing the civil society? The Civil society, especially those Poor who are most vulnerable to the climate disasters are still in dark with regard to the climate impacts. Therefore, responsible governments and agencies should enlighten the civil society and bringing the vulnerable groups to the climate decisions.
True environmental governance needs all stakeholder groups to take part on the environmental decisions. Governments and the bureaucracy cannot manage the climate crisis without true participation of the civil society especially those who are vulnerable and affected from climate related disasters.
19th July 2008
1 UNDP, Human development Index 2007/2008- http://hdrstats.undp.org/indicators/238.html