By Zoe Tabary
KAMPALA, June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Gabriel Kulwaum was talking about climate change issues to a group of fishermen in Papua New Guinea, he was met with an unexpected response.
"One old man at the back of the room stood up and asked me 'What's climate change? Can you eat it?'"
"Climate change, adaptation, the environment … whatever message governments are trying to send is not getting through to those who need it the most – people on the ground," Kulwaum, a fisherman himself, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While many governments and organisations seek to assist the people most vulnerable to climate change, few actively involve those the programmes are meant to benefit, experts told participants at a conference on community-based adaptation to climate change in Kampala this week.
Julius Ng'oma from Southern Voices on Adaptation, a coalition of climate networks, said that "when we design development programmes, we tend to look at the needs of scientists and development workers, rather than those of communities."
Kimberly Junmookda, a climate change adaptation specialist at Plan International, a charity, said that climate adaptation efforts should "start with those who are generally excluded from them: women, children, the elderly, disabled people".
"In Southeast Asia, for example, children have little to no access to climate information, let alone any influence on decisions that affect them," she said.
Since 2011, the charity has been holding classes in nine Asian countries to encourage children to talk about climate change and the environment in their own words.
Using materials such as pictures and flipcharts, it asks them to describe how their environment has changed.
"That's taught us that children are actually highly observant, as they are always running around. Some in the Philippines were even collecting rainwater in plastic bottles to compare it over time," Junmookda said.
In Papua New Guinea, women are rarely – if ever – involved in climate planning, or even allowed to sit in on meetings, said Kulwaum.
"That doesn't make sense," he said. "Their hugely important role in managing natural resources like food and water should translate into more public representation."
Mette Wilkie, director of environmental policy implementation at the U.N. Environment Programme, said adapting to climate change impacts while tackling poverty requires a radical rethink of how vulnerable communities earn a living, rather than incremental changes.
"In Kenya, for example, pastoralists struggle to survive as prolonged dry spells kill off their livestock and main source of income," she explained.
"They should instead focus on raising fewer cattle but feeding them better, so they can sell them at a higher price. But changing those practices is extremely challenging as they are so engrained in traditional cultures," she said.
Experts added that ancestral beliefs – like ways of predicting the weather – also need to change.
One conference participant from Malawi related that a programme he worked with had issued flood warnings in January but found them ignored.
"The community refused to take any action, saying that 'Floods don't happen in January, they always happen in March,'" he explained. "So they suffered much more damage as a result."
But while innovations are needed from communities themselves, global agencies and banks must also step up to ensure climate funds reach poorer communities, said Clare Shakya, director of climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, one of the conference's organisers.
"We need to be reaching hundreds of millions of people, not hundreds of thousands," she said. "If finance isn't spent at the local level, it can't get to the poorest people." (Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)