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Where the crisis is 'catastrophic': How is Ireland helping countries facing climate threats?

“Covid has created a global awareness of the interaction of everybody together on one planet.”

THE CLIMATE CRISIS is a global concern, but some of the countries with the fewest resources are bearing the worst of the burden.

Experts have long-urged developed countries, including Ireland, to increase support for developing countries, which are paying the costs for greenhouse gases emitted by more industrialised states. 

This month, The Journal’s The Good Information Project is focusing on the climate crisis, including Ireland’s role in climate action in developing countries.

New projects that the Irish State and NGOs are set to roll out to support developing countries in fighting the climate crisis will look at rising sea levels, sustainable food production, and protecting the ocean.

Two years ago, Ireland committed to doubling the proportion of Official Development Assistance (international aid) spent on climate finance by 2030, which amounted to at least €80 million in 2019, according to that year’s annual report – €65 given in bilateral climate financing to least developed countries and nearly €20 million disbursed through civil society organisations.

At a European level, the EU has set a target for member states to collectively allocate $100 billion USD (over €866.7 million) per year towards international climate finance until 2025.

But researchers and campaigners on the ground are anxious to make sure that commitments made around meeting tables are put into practice – and that they happen urgently.

Ireland’s role in climate action

In an interview with The Journal, Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid Colm Brophy said: “The most really important aspect of this for people to get their heads around is that in a lot of small island developing states and in some of the least developed countries, the impact of climate change is absolutely happening now and it has the potential to be completely catastrophic.” 

For small island states in the Caribbean, the Pacific, South America and Africa that are threatened by rising sea levels, storms, and heatwaves, climate change isn’t a marginal worry, but an immediate threat to their country’s existence, the minister said.

Meanwhile, some of the world’s least developed countries are facing changing weather patterns and temperatures that make it extremely difficult to sustain food production.

“They’re going to a situation where huge parts of their country can no longer sustain the population that is living on the land and that is a really important thing for us to start addressing,” Brophy said.

“We’re going to look at a couple of new projects, we’ll be rolling them out, and most of them will be to do with enabling countries to deal with the impact of [climate change], particularly the impact of water level rises and the impact of that on small island states, and also empowering the whole area around how you look at the oceans,” the minister said.

Creating a sustainable blue economy will also be a focus – that is, looking at fishing, coastal tourism, maritime transport and other marine activities and how the ocean can be used sustainably, which happens through measures like restoring ecosystems or combatting pollution.

Projects around resilient food production are “key” – how food can be produced in a “particular way that’s sustainable in terms of the decades ahead, and that’s all about the localisation, about doing it in a way that is as climate-resilient as possible and making sure that we play our part in making climate finance available and help countries adapt to that”.

I think one thing that came out of Covid – nothing good comes out of Covid, but to look at a small positive – is that it has created a global awareness of the smallest fragility and interaction of everybody together on one planet.

“Within the last 18 months, humanity learned how dependent it is on each other, how what happens on one side of our planet can completely and utterly impact [the other]. I think the positive we would take out of that into climate change is a willingness, hopefully, for the international community and groups to say, right, we have to all work together – we cannot ignore parts of the world.”

‘We are seeing people becoming more and more vulnerable’

In Kenya, Hassan Olow is the Livelihoods Coordinator for Concern, Ireland’s largest humanitarian agency, where one of the biggest challenges to everyday life is an ongoing emergency drought – a drought that surfaced only a few years after the last one.

Up to the 1990s, Kenya experienced a significant drought around once every ten years. In the intervening decade, there was enough time for residents to recover and prepare so that the next drought didn’t threaten irreversible damage.

But from 2001, the country has recorded a drought roughly every five years – in 2001, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2016, and now in 2021.

“If you look at the frequency and speed of recurrence, even before people recover and restore their asset base, they’re already in another one,” Olow told The Journal.

“The loss of livestock, loss of farmlands, the areas that would be cultivated, the loss of some indigenous vegetation species – all of that, and with the speed of recurrence, before you even rebuild anything, you have another drought that you are contending with, so gradually we are seeing people becoming more and more vulnerable,” he said.

failed-maize-langobaya-kenya-image-shot-2008-exact-date-unknown Failed maize in Langoboya, Kenya after a drought in 2008 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is a well-documented effect of the climate crisis – one that some countries, like Kenya, are already experiencing.

A major UN report on climate change released this year explained that increases in hot extremes, like heatwaves, are expected to continue in Africa throughout the 21st century alongside global warming.

Heavy precipitation events, which can lead to flooding, are also projected to rise almost everywhere on the continent.

“In the in-between years, we have at least two years of flooding, which is related to climate change, so you either have too much rainfall or too little rainfall. It’s uncommon to have a year of normal rainfall,” Olow said.

We might not be contributing to climate change at the same rate as more industrialised countries are contributing, but we are feeling the impact of climate change at a worse rate, especially the people who are extremely poor.

“The people who are hovering on the poverty line are the ones who are easily pushed into poverty, which means there’s more dependency, the government has to provide more social protection, there’s a need for increase coverage of basic services which are not being paid for, and everyone is really stretched in terms of service delivery,” he said.

“You have more people who need the services but fewer people who can afford to pay for private service delivery – healthcare, water, food, education, all of those.”

Climate change adaptation efforts are especially focused on farming, one of the largest contributors to Kenya’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The country adopted a “Climate Smart Agriculture” strategy that spans 2017 to 2026 and aims to make agriculture more productive, more resilient to climate change, and less of an emitter.

“If people change what they are doing within agriculture and agroforestry and become more conscious and more deliberate and understand the impact of climate change, then we can stem the tide, we’ll reduce the impact,” Olow said.

With climate smart agriculture, “you undertake agricultural practices that give you zero greenhouse gas emissions and practices that give you more food than you usually get back, which means it is more intensified, and that are more conscious about sustainability, that a piece of land you are farming should be accessible to another generation in 50 years’ time”.

Additionally, organisations like Concern are working with communities to try to prevent conflict that emerges over scarce resources, which Olow said is “intricately related” to climate change.

“We’re seeing a direct relationship between violent conflict and climate change,” Olow said.

“The more the farmlands are shrinking, more and more people are competing for the resources and farmland that are still usable,” he said.

“We’ve been trying to help communities to map their natural resources, grazing, water and trade routes, their potential conflict areas, and before the conflict actually occurs, to start a discussion with the potential enemies, because these are mostly neighbouring communities – sometimes that are well inter-married, they have coexisted with each other for centuries within the same location, so it’s just a matter of sending elders, sending leaders, to start negotiating access and movement.

“It’s a give and take relationship whereby you allow me to access your dry season grazing areas, I allow you to access my wet season grazing areas.”

agriculture-corn-growing-in-lush-fields-kenya Corn growing in fields in Kenya Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Minister Brophy said that in Ethiopia, Ireland has worked “quite a bit” on creating sustainable agriculture.

“So going in and saying right, how do we put in irrigation projects that enable the farmers to irrigate land to improve their crops?

“How do we make sure that we’re providing the proper quality seed variety that will work where weather situations are less favourable and work to increase the resilience of what’s happening on the ground in agriculture to try to make it sustainable against climate change and to try to prevent a famine or food shortage situation occurring?”

For women in rural communities, the negative effects of the climate crisis are particularly acute.

At times of strain on resources due to climate change, instances of gender-based violence and abuse can increase, Olow said.

Similarly, the work that women do on a day-to-day basis can be quickly impacted by a change in resources or weather patterns.

“Any time we have a disaster or a shock, it’s normally a burden on the women. In a normal time, most of the rural women could be working sixteen hours a day, and it’s work that doesn’t come with an income. She puts in all this effort but she doesn’t control the household income,” Olow said.

“Women are responsible for feeding and milking the livestock, feeding the family, tending to the children. They are the main drivers of social structures in the community – if someone is sick, most likely the women are the ones who will create the initiative for fundraising and supporting the person who is sick, whether it is a man or a woman, to get treatment and things like that.

Most of them are giving birth every 12 to 18 months, which means they’re either breastfeeding or pregnant and still expected to do all these tasks.

“With climate change, with the reliance on water, if your water pan that’s 400 to 500 metres from the settlement dries, the next one could be four or five kilometres.

“The same woman who is probably carrying a one-year-old child or is pregnant is expected to carry 20 litre cans, either with donkeys or by pulling them, to go four or five kilometres, find another 200 women queueing at one water point, spend two hours queuing to get the water, and is still expected to cook food.”

Lake Malawi

Further south on the continent, a PhD student from NUI Galway is researching water systems in Malawi and how to predict the way climate change will affect them.

Jonathan Kafausiyanjij, whose work is supported by Ireland’s Research Centre for Energy, Climate and the Marine (MaREI), is studying Lake Malawi, the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and a key water source for parts of Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique.

village-on-the-shore-of-lake-malawi-chilumba-malawi A village near Chilumba on the shore of Lake Malawi Source: Alamy Stock Photo

“Because of climate change, we have already noted that there’s dwindling water resources in the country,” Kafausiyanjij told The Journal.

Some rivers that used to flow throughout the year now only flow for around nine months, the dry seasons are longer, and the distribution of annual rainfall has become more uneven, Kafausiyanjij said.

“For example, we have a lot of rain within just a month. The other months, where we used to have rain, we have very little rain,” he explained.

The changing rainfall patterns impact the growth of crops that previously had a growing period that coincided with months of well-distributed rainfall between December and March, for example. Now, rain that was once spread across the four months could be mostly concentrated in January and then be followed by dry spells.

“Because this much rain is concentrated in January, we have floods, so we have crops being washed away, houses damaged, and lives lost,” Kafausiyanji said.

“Having the rains in just one month means that we have a prolonged dry season, and because of that, the water flows in the rivers are significantly reduced to such an extent that most of the rivers that used to have water throughout the year now have water up to August. As I’m talking now, this is October, and many of our rivers are dry,” he said.

We have to adapt to climate change and that’s why, as part of my project, I’m trying to project the future climate and by doing so I’m trying to have a picture to say, ‘this is what the future is likely to be’.

“With that, we can say maybe, for example, we used to plant crops that required four months of a growing season, but the future does not have four months of rain, it has maybe two or two and a half. So we have to plan to grow crops that would be ready within two or two and a half months.”

Climate finance

Work like Olow’s and Kafausiyanji’s tries to safeguard people and communities against climate change, but they say that without adequate funding, developing countries will be left behind to suffer the worst effects of the climate crisis.

In November, world leaders are meeting in Glasgow for COP26, where they will negotiate new climate commitments, much like they did in Paris at COP21 in 2015.

“We have to recognise that there’s a real impact out there in terms of what will happen if we don’t work collectively together at the COP to ensure that we as the planet and all the governments and countries on it are working together to ensure that we’re reaching our targets,” Brophy said.

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“If you don’t have that level of commitment, then we are facing some very catastrophic situations,” the minister said. “We need to make sure we are meeting our commitments that we reached at Paris but also that we’re trying to strengthen those commitments and be even more ambitious in the future.”

But Olow is cautious and says that leaders need to demonstrate their commitment to fighting the climate crisis by reaching goals that they’ve already agreed to.

“Every time, there’ll be a new commitment and a new directive before the previous commitments are fulfilled,” Olow said.

He said that the need to address climate change has given rise to innovative solutions, but in Kenya, the cumulative impacts of drought and the losses that people have had over the years mean that people don’t have the kind of assets that will allow them to fully benefit from climate solutions, and there needs to be “more concerted investment” internationally.

“We are going to a place where we’ll be in a crisis and we’ll reach a point where climate change will be irreversible.

Right now, to a large extent, climate change is reversible, but at the rate that it’s increasing, inaction could mean that we will be in an irreversible position. However much money is given at that time, if it’s irreversible, nothing can be changed with any kind of investment.

And those seeking climate finance can find that the path is not an easy one.

“Right now, in the world, there are so many crises,” Olow said.

“We go to the donors – for example, the European Commission, the emergency response arm of the EU, the USA, the FCDO in the UK – and the response is the same; that right now we have our worst crisis in Yemen, the worst crisis in Ethiopia, the crisis that no one has even started doing anything about in Afghanistan, and so there’s a feeling that the drought is not even so big,” he said.

Additionally, Kafausiyanji said that Ireland could make a difference by supporting locals who are experts in a particular area related to climate, such as irrigation, and equipping them to teach other people in their communities, as well as funding scientific research.

“Supporting such projects in countries like Malawi or in sub-Saharan Africa is really recommendable,” he said.

“In countries like Malawi, Irish Aid is involved in a number of projects – for example they are promoting irrigation projects, promoting energy-saving stoves, sometimes they come in when we have natural disasters, mostly caused by floods or droughts.”

“Say, for example, after scientific research… why can’t we put these experts in strategic places or positions where they can demonstrate this knowledge? An irrigation expert, for example,” Kafausiyanji said.

“People who can use tools for planning climate adaptation to say to the communities and let them understand, ‘this guy has the scientific background’ – the people in the communities, they may not understand it well, but in the near future, they will be able to appreciate, ‘okay, those people, this is what they were talking about’,” he said.

“Whilst here in Malawi and neighbouring countries, if they can support that environment where these people that have been equipped with knowledge can make that impact to the community, I personally think that would help.

“I read what the Irish are doing on climate change. They’re doing great in their country, but they can also do great by supporting people from sub-Saharan Africa to do the same, because this climate war is a global thing.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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