Climate adaptation or recycled development?

Over recent weeks I’ve reluctantly concluded that the threat of widespread hunger will be back in the headlines before the year is out.

There’s already bad news coming out of Kenya and Ethiopia but I’m also worried about countries like Malawi and Zambia. Governments are intervening more after the wild price swings of last year and the resulting mix of private and state food distribution seems to be causing problems.

I’ve therefore laboured long to update our Food Security Guide, ultimately failing in the task of condensing the subject into our preferred length of 2,000 words. But at least it’s ready for any surge in interest in food issues.

I confidently expected endorsement of my views at Tuesday’s Practical Action conference, Hunger and Climate Change, led by keynote speaker, Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientist at DEFRA. But the professor seemed to be more agitated about water than food, observing that 35% of the world’s irrigation is unsustainable and that 50% of the global population will experience severe water stress by 2025.

Having axed a paragraph about fish stocks in slimming down the Guide, I was further deflated by Watson’s reminder that the world’s fisheries are in an even worse state than agriculture. Then Dr Saleemul Huq, one of the lead authors for the IPCC, understandably promoted the Copenhagen climate change negotiations as the central issue for 2009.

All of which was a useful reminder of the interdependence of these development issues within the complexity of safeguarding life on the planet. The same conference speakers could just as competently have addressed the topic of Hunger and Energy, or Hunger and Biofuels, or Hunger and…..population, GM technology, trade rules, human rights……

Excessive carbon emission is just one manifestation of our unsustainable lifestyles whilst agriculture is itself a major contributor to climate change. Biofuels are not just about the indulgence of the rich to convert food into petrol. They are equally the salvation of millions of poor households who burn wood for heating and cooking, setting off a chain of deforestation, soil degradation and……food insecurity.

This is what worries me about channelling the climate reparations of industrialised countries into a catch-all Adaptation Fund. It works fine for the construction of sea defences as these are unequivocally a response to the impact of climate change. But the vast majority of adaptation programmes are designed to tackle the components of food production – irrigation, farm inputs and soil quality. How will potential donors distinguish these from the more familiar business of rural development??

Practical Action’s new book Understanding Climate Change Adaptation has the perfect title to address this question. But the examples of the charity’s field work have a familiar ring to them – “flash flooding in the foothills of the Nepal Himalaya”, “multiple pressures on pastoralism in semi-arid Niger”, “extreme weather in the Peruvian high Andes”. Could these same case studies have illustrated a 1970s text on “climate variability”?

I can’t put my finger on the problem. It may be that we are creating a structure which will enable donor governments to shuffle aid funds from one place to another, dodging new commitments.

Or it may be that the focus on village level programmes is simply inadequate to respond to the scale of global warming. Coping mechanisms may not suffice with the elephant in the room.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK