Published On  Dec 11,  2011






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With climate negotiations dominating global policy discourse, dry lands need special attention, as they involve the most volatile challenges for global peace, argues Jeffery Sachs, Professor of Economics at Colombia University, the United States. He insists that tailored and comprehensive adaptation responses are very important.


Climate Adaptation Avoids Conflict Epidemics



Dry lands are on the frontline of climate change, and they host the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. The harrowing effects of climate change on poverty, survival, health, hunger, human well-being, and peace, itself, can already be seen in them. The heavily impacted areas are among the most unstable parts of the world.

A significant portion of the world suffers from great vulnerabilities including poverty and deprivation of basic needs, whether food and nutrition, access to health and veterinary care, safety for crops and livestock, or, of course, water.

Instability is rising throughout these regions. Conflicts that are branded under the headlines of extremism or political conflict, often have at their roots the challenges of desertification, increasing droughts, more unstable rainfall, many more failed harvests than in the past, and, in some regions, an inability to grow crops reliably any longer. Recurring famines in the Horn of Africa are vivid and harrowing demonstrations of the perils of desertification and dry land instability.

Population has also increased fourfold or more in such regions since the middle of the 20th century. Climate change is hitting massive demographic pressures head on as an enormously threatening phenomenon. Yet, these issues are not getting the level of global policy attention and response required. Even standard security approaches do not take into account that, under the surface of the manifestation of violence and conflict, lays a much deeper and even more threatening danger of ecological risk from climate change and demographic pressures.

Military engagement is not working, because such issues as hunger, livestock survival, and increasing stresses between sedentary populations and nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock herders cannot be addressed by these means. The world has not seen a coherent, consistent, persistent, scaled, and science-based approach to these challenges, primarily because the resources and political attention have not been devoted to them.

Certainly, different kinds of responses are needed. Science is one such instrument.

There is not truly a thorough understanding of how global and regional changes are really affecting the climates of the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, or West and Central Asia. One priority is a thorough, state-of-the-art, and detailed account of how regions are feeling the global climate signals.

Downscaled models and better evidence about what the large models are saying about future threats for these regions are drastically needed. It is also essential to mainstream the authoritative collection of weather station data, to make it available to compile a detailed and thorough account of the climate over the last thirty years, and to create not just a baseline for the future, but a much richer base to enable the attempt of the attribution of observed changes.

There are huge gaps in the existing knowledge base of the adaptation or failure to adapt of human systems.

Of course, the secretariat of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) collects a lot of this information and, crucially, helps disseminate it to the wider scientific and development community. But, there is a lot more work to be done to get on-site real-time verification of changes; to use remote sensing more systematically to measure fluctuations in herders, livestock, and assets; to understand their vulnerabilities; and to see how demographic pressures are affecting these communities.

Total fertility rates remain at six, seven, or eight children a woman in many locations. A demographic disaster seems to be on the way, as a result of the huge overload on an already strained and fragile ecosystem that is only going to become more stressed in the future. Widespread family planning and modern contraceptive services need to be put in place to mitigate the crash between expanding populations and the future climate.

Intervention measures are desperately needed for adaptation to climate change. These range from preparedness for emergencies to other kinds of risk mitigation strategies, such as creating financial insurance, diversifying economic activities, or establishing alternatives in landscape management and water storage.

Impoverished communities facing a multiplicity of shocks and challenges need a holistic approach. One aspect is the whole complex of livestock and crops. Health systems include other aspects, which are affected by tremendous climate-related shocks as well as by such huge challenges as epidemics of malaria; education is also crucial.

How can impoverished communities ensure that the next generation is raised with the skills and knowledge to meet the growing challenges facing them?

Investment in infrastructure, starting with water, encompassing irrigation, storage, and water security in the event of drought but also including transport, the ability to connect local communities with regional and international markets, is desperately needed. Telecommunications and Internet connectivity can be very powerful tools for adaptation. No less important is business development, especially around livestock and other areas where increased added value could bring greatly improved well-being to communities.

In 2008, the Swedish government’s Committee on Climate Change and Development (CCD) put out a report on climate change, recommending how to build resilience, adaptability, emergency preparedness, and risk mitigation strategies. There should be scaled-up pilots of community-based adaptation projects with poor and vulnerable communities in urban and rural areas, it proposed.

Three years on, projecting is starting to take hold, as Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, and South Sudan have joined together in an adaptation initiative. They will work to use best practices and cutting-edge technologies to support their pastoralist communities’ efforts to escape the scourges of extreme poverty and famine, supported by partners including Ericsson, Airtel, Novartis, and Sumitomo Chemicals.

There is a pressing need for holistic, community-based responses, which are scientifically-grounded and address health and veterinary needs, water storage and other infrastructure, children’s education, improvement and survival of herds, and linkages to markets. This is of paramount and growing importance, not only for the well-being of these communities, but for resolving what otherwise will be a growing epidemic of violent conflict.

By Jeffery Sachs,
Professor of Economics at Colombia University,


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