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Column: Dragging heels on climate change hurts the poor

The changing patterns of climate and other factors have caused chaos in the developing world, writes Concern’s CEO Tom Arnold. This week’s Earth Summit is a chance to prioritise solutions.

Tom Arnold

THE THREE-DAY United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development which starts in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday presents world leaders with an excellent opportunity to adopt a new approach to climate change that reflects the priorities of the developing world.

Called Rio+20, it marks the 20th anniversary of the historic 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development attended by 179 countries which put sustainable development on the global agenda.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. In the poorest countries where Concern works, the strains caused by climate change are increasingly evident. Erratic seasons, rising droughts and floods, uncertain planting dates and shorter growing periods for essential staples are all having an impact. For the world’s poor, who overwhelmingly depend on rain-fed agriculture for their survival, the changing patterns of climate, land availability and food production have caused chaos.

In the Sahel region of Africa, where a current food security crisis threatens more than 18 million people, rainfall has decreased by 25 percent in the last 30 years wreaking havoc on farming communities. Other factors like deforestation, overgrazing, continuous cropping, desertification and poor water management have also contributed to a deteriorating environment.

Today, over half of the working population of 28 million in the Sahel – an arid belt of land just south of the Sahara desert – are dependent on agriculture, yet The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over 80 percent of the land there is degraded.

“We are way off course”

The global population has now crossed the seven billion mark and is projected to reach nine billion by mid-century. For the world’s population to be sustained in the future, a 70 percent increase in agricultural production is required. We are way off course.

The United Nations has stated that climate change, water scarcity and land degradation will cause a 25 per cent reduction in the world’s food production by 2050. Our failure to act now to address the changing landscape in the food system will cause severe shortages of food and water driving prices higher and plunging the poorest deeper into crisis.

Already developing countries are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change despite contributing little to its causes. Africa accounts for less than 3 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, yet its 840 million people bear the brunt of the effects of widespread drought and disrupted water supplies.

Concern’s engagement with the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice has prioritised the urgency of advocating for an equitable share of the burden between the world’s rich and poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, between 80 and 90 per cent of food produced is produced by women, yet they own less than 2 per cent of the land and have the least access to the resources required for climate adaptation.

The displacement and conflict exacerbated by climate change as people are forced to move long distances are intensifying global imbalances – with children most at risk. The International Food Policy Research Institute calculates the impacts of climate change on food security as representative of 24 million additional children at risk of hunger.

Two areas of focus have come to the fore in the context of addressing climate change and threats to food security: that of investing in community resilience to help people better prepare and react to disasters; and producing food in a way that is more resilient, sustainable and more equitable

“The benefits of conservation agriculture are indisputable”

The benefits of conservation agriculture – which is based on the concept that soil is best left undisturbed – are indisputable. Drought resistant seeds, terracing and irrigation techniques, reforestation and the construction of damns and embankments have all contributed to protecting communities from the effects of a weakening environment.

Concern’s livelihoods programmes in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia have seen maize production more than double in areas where conservation agriculture techniques have been adopted. Similarly, crop and livestock micro insurance can be utilised to curb fluctuating prices and build farmers’ resilience, while providing incentives to increase production.

In the Bay of Bengal, where rising sea levels, erosion, prolonged droughts and cyclones have placed Bangladesh and India at the epicentre of weather disasters, Concern has pioneered a multi-country disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation programme in response to the emergence of new pockets of poverty where decreased paddy production, the destruction of crops and increased soil salinity have pushed people to the brink. Early warning systems and shelters are crucial in enabling communities to prepare for disasters, but measures that address the community’s ability to adapt to the changing environment are just as important.

Farming practices play a significant role in helping developing countries adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change, yet the agriculture sector remains substantially underfunded. As a percentage of total investment, agriculture has dropped from 22 per cent in 1980 to approximately six per cent today – a drop of roughly half of the funding allocated 30 years ago.

What is needed now is action at the international level for a new approach to agriculture and food security; one that fosters growth with resilience. Once climate change and food security policies better reflect the priorities of the developing world, we will be better equipped to build resilient programmes that unleash its extraordinary potential. Rio+20 presents us with that opportunity.

Read more about Rio +20 at Earthsummit2012.org. Tom Arnold is Chief Executive of Concern Worldwide.

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Tom Arnold

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