All nations are currently working (hard, we hope) towards a new global climate change agreement which will hopefully materialize at the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in December this year. France will host COP 21, which is why the all-important meeting is also known as “Paris 2015”. There is some (albeit reluctant) optimism on the conference and possible outcomes, for example due to the G7 climate commitment from earlier this week. The hope is that the event in Paris may give the developing South (including emerging countries) and the developed North – to the extent one can still describe the world in these terms – a platform to negotiate responsibilities and opportunities for strengthening the international climate effort, and avoid the worst. At the very least, the hope is to do better than in Copenhagen.
A similar kind of negotiation process can also be witnessed at the local level. In local settings around the world, communities, policy makers and other stakeholders already and increasingly have to deal with climate change in their own context, against the backdrop of global (macro) changes and high-level multi-stakeholder negotiations. However, the way experts, natural scientists and modelers conceptualize climate change at the global level may have very little to do with how men and women (poor or rich, urban or rural) live with, understand and cope with the changes already taking place in everyday settings. The specific lenses through which problems are framed and actions are taken in these local contexts, deserve particular attention.
A classic case in point may be the Indian Sundarbans.
The Indian Sundarbans, literally ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali, is the largest mangrove delta in the world, spread over the southern end of both West Bengal (India) and Bangladesh. Recently, this area is gaining more and more prominence, not only as a UNESCO heritage site or as the largest remaining natural habitat of the ferocious Bengal Tiger, but also as one of the early victims of climate change. The islanders of the Sundarbans already live and (try to) cope with the clear and more hidden impact of climate change on the basic drivers of life like health, livelihood or shelter. Let’s elaborate a bit on what this entails.
As for the immediate impact, climate change in the Sundarbans, in the form of a sudden climatic shock, like floods or a cyclone, deals direct damage to livelihoods and shelter and causes breaching of earthen embankments. It also often leads to a sudden rise in the incidence of water borne diseases. Simultaneously, climatic shocks erode the opportunities for maintaining livelihoods and trigger food insecurity at household level. As for the long term impact, the slow and gradual changes in sea level and weather patterns (like erratic rainfall or extended summers), deplete the traditional agro-fishing economy, which leads to male migration in search of an alternative livelihood. Women are more likely to face a double burden of taking care of the children and having to depend on available low-wage unskilled labour. The mothers’ increasing burden of work disrupts the (already precarious) balance of the social determinants of child health like food security, psycho-social care, seeking quality health care etc.
Now the question is which actors share responsibility (and how much responsibility) for the changing climate in the new Anthropocene” era, in which human activities have a significant impact on ecosystems worldwide. Relatedly, what kind of impact does climate related coping behaviour have in the Sundarbans?
The Sundarbans region features five different kinds of actors who are working and functioning in the local socio-ecological system. First, the islanders, who were forcedly migrated into the region around 200 years ago. Till recently, they lived mainly from harnessing nature – cutting up jungle forest for settlements, engaging in overfishing and collecting tiger prawn seed around the coast, …. These activities indeed disrupt the bio-diversity of the region. Most islanders didn’t use a conservationist approach until the major cyclone Aila struck the Sundarbans in 2009. Things have been slowly changing since then. Aila has also pushed a bit the Government – another important actor within the system, towards taking climate change more seriously. Till then, the government had been mainly interested in infrastructural development, building roads and bridges… Although this kind of infrastructural development is clearly needed in a geographically inaccessible region like the Indian Sundarbans, people’s voices were routinely ignored while planning for “development”. For example, till now, when building concrete embankments, the government does not have any master plan for the rehabilitation of displaced people in the densely populated Sundarbans region. However, a group of other actors –the climate scientists – offer a solution to this issue by suggesting to relocate all people living in the Sundarbans into nearby towns and the mega city Kolkata. Their conservationist approach starts from the assumption of the shrinking of a major part of the delta around 2020, due to the increasing sea level. They reckon the land is better left to the tigers, in other words. This view has been challenged by another group of actors –the river scientists – who claim that the Sundarbans is an active delta and that erosion and accretion are part and parcel of the process and ecosystem. They think the people of the Sundarbans are resilient enough to tackle the changes in the climate and related consequences with the help of the other actors. When it comes to helping common people by providing services in vital spheres like health, education and disaster risk reduction, local and national civil society organizations, another key actor in the system, have been playing an important role for the last four or five decades. Although they started as voluntary organisations, the work of many of these civil society organizations has now become donor driven.
These five different actors are in continuous tension with each other, all with their own interests, incentives and power dynamics, occasionally aligning with one or another. The similarity with the global level is obvious.
A key question is: what does the Sundarbans area need to cope with its changing (climate) scenario, or at least what would be a way forward? One of the answers may lie in the creation of a common knowledge platform whereby actors from each of these five different sets would have a stake in improving the minimum knowledge base necessary to combat the huge challenges posed by a changing climate.