Lessons from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis

Last month I travelled to Nepal and Bangladesh, to visit communities at the frontline of the climate crisis. In partnership with local NGOs rooted in these communities, we are piloting our first Climate Resilience Programmes.

In Nepal we are working across two locations. In the first, in the Sindupalchok District in the mountainous northern part of the country, we have identified three communities that are struggling with droughts, floods and landslides, that are damaging crops and fertile land. The terrain, climate, soil and agricultural opportunities vary significantly over even a few kilometres but is poorly documented. So, we need to start by investigating how each environment is being affected by the changing climate. With the communities we are mapping out ways to draw upon their skills and resources to utilise opportunities to develop resilient livelihoods and sources of income. The second location is in the Mahotarri District, in the southern, plain area of the country. Here we are working to secure access to fertile land for extremely marginalised ‘untouchable’ caste communities. They are not entitled to legally own their land, and are therefore frequently displaced and have little incentive or savings to invest in adapting their livelihoods to withstand intensifying droughts and flash floods. However, our local partner has a strong relationship with the local government, and together they are providing alternative land ownership schemes, and agricultural trainings; things are changing.

In Bangladesh we are focusing our efforts within Cox’s Bazar District, widely known for hosting millions of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. But the area is also home to many coastal Bangladeshi communities whose previously viable agricultural and fishing livelihoods are being destroyed by sea level rise, salinisation, drought, and shifting rainy seasons. They are receiving far less support from international charities than their neighbours in the refugee camps but are struggling to meet their basic food and water needs. During my visit, I met many parents who were sacrificing food to ensure that their children can eat, and women who were not able to earn a living at all. We are working with a local partner to provide training and equipment for these women to establish themselves as seamstresses. This will tackle livelihood and food insecurity, whilst also promoting gender empowerment for the women on the programme.

Photo 2   once fertile land... detail
Once fertile land in Bangladesh is used to farm salt.

Visiting our partner communities has opened my eyes to the daily realities faced by people who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. It has reaffirmed our commitment to providing tailored support that meets local needs and draws on the communities’ existing knowledge. Below are key lessons I have taken with me from the visit:

1. The impacts of the changing climate are clearly visible in the land:

While in Nepal, I drove past a 30km stretch of the Kathmandu Valley, where once fertile land was now covered in rubble, and family homes were uprooted, fixed into the debris, and hanging upside down. This damage was caused by unprecedented flooding and landslides in the past year. In Cox Bazar, farmers showed me their damaged rice paddy crops that used to sell for a high price but are now much lower quality due to drier conditions. And women showed me the skin conditions they are developing due to the salinisation of their fresh water. The devastating impacts are clearly visible in the landscape and among the affected people.

Photo 3   a 30km stretch of fertile land... detail
A 30km stretch of fertile land in the Kathmandu Valley was destroyed.

2. The climate crisis is having unequal impacts on the affected people:

Within both countries people are experiencing completely different impacts depending on their ability to own land, their mobility, citizenship, gender, control over the water resource management, and whether they could find support from strong local governments, or predatory banks issuing high interest loans. At the same time, the opportunities emerging from the changing climate are not benefiting people evenly; in Cox’s Bazar many rice paddy farms are being converted into salt farms to profit from the new environmental conditions, but these are being run by larger businesses and small-scale farmers cannot afford to capitalise on these changes in the same way.

Photo 4   farmers in cox bazar... detail
Damaged rice plants will no longer make a good profit.

3.   Local people are acutely aware of the impacts of the climate crisis, and which solutions will work for them:

It is obvious within minutes of speaking to the communities that, whilst the concept of human caused climate change may be new to them, they are acutely aware of how their environment has changed. They also know more than any outside organisations which solutions may or may not work. Whether discussing which agricultural training would enable them to cultivate the most profitable crops in local markets, which members of local government would be supportive of their plans, or which irrigation techniques would be the most beneficial, it became clear our support will be most effective if we listen to and document their local knowledge, whilst empowering them with information about future climate conditions and small injections of cash.

Photo 5   landless populations in mahotarri... detail
Landless populations in Mahotarri, Nepal, have received little support

4. Effective climate resilience can only come from building on this local knowledge:

Our local partners told us that our approach, utilising local knowledge and helping them to continue grassroots work, stands out from much of the international development work they have seen in the past. Community members showed me examples of ineffective development programmes; in Nepal I saw a livestock initiative that had very recently spent many thousands of pounds on a goat shelter, in an environment that is now too dry and hot for goats to survive. We are exploring irrigation technologies that could enable livestock to survive. I also stood in new houses that had been built from cement to be more earthquake resilient than traditional wooden houses, but which are no longer suitable for rising temperatures, meaning people are uncomfortable and seeds cannot be stored without rotting. We will now work with the community to design and build additional seed storage facilities, and to modify their houses, so that they can be protected from all hazards that they face.

At this early stage in our climate agenda, we are learning everything we can to make our interventions effective. We are working with the most vulnerable people, who are being left behind by governments and larger international charities, and focusing on issues around migration, land rights, displacement, and livelihoods. Our ambition is to scale up our work, as millions of people around the world are forced to migrate due to the climate crisis.

To learn more about our work tackling the climate crisis, visit https://bit.ly/38Opo9i

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