Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Climate funding: Creating a climate for conflict?

by Janani Vivekananda | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 6 October 2010 23:26 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

During a recent field trip to mid-monsoon Nepal, stories of floods affecting vulnerable communities across the country dominated the daily headlines. At the same time, international donors are pouring in funds in an attempt to help the vulnerable

During a recent field trip to mid-monsoon Nepal, stories of floods affecting vulnerable communities across the country dominated the daily headlines. At the same time, international donors are pouring in funds in an attempt to help the vulnerable cope with the impacts of climate change we are already feeling.

Last week, the Adaptation Fund, a fund set up by the U.N. to help poor countries cope with the impact of climate change, became operational. But are these funds helping - or are they contributing to the problem?

With less than two months to go until the next global summit on climate change in Mexico, the issues for agreement are about reducing carbon emissions and - more importantly for poor countries - how much money the developed countries, who have the main responsibility for global warming, will put on the negotiating table to help people in poorer countries cope with the consequences. But these are not the only important issues.

One issue that is barely acknowledged is the heightened risk of political instability and conflict related to climate change. Factors linking climate change to an increased potential for instability and conflict include water scarcity, accelerated land degradation, decreased food production, and indeed the management of the climate funds themselves.

The risk will be greatest where governance is weak. Nobody will dispute that this is the case in Nepal.

'A Climate of Conflict', a report by International Alert, estimates that just under three billion people live in 56 conflict-affected countries where climate change could increase the risk of political instability. Nepal is one of the 56 at risk.

Climate policy makers, however, are largely silent on the matter. International Alert's latest research finds that new funds, already coming into Nepal's coffers with more still in the pipeline, could make the situation worse if they don't take account of the complex linkages between environmental change, security and governance.

What should inform climate responses? Responses to climate change have to respond to the political and social realities of fragile contexts, like those in Nepal, or they will not work.

Climate change is not only a climate issue. Climate change will affect political stability, development, government, equity, trade and the national economy. And these issues all affect the ability of people and the governments to respond constructively to the challenges climate change generates. The problems are interlinked, so the responses must be too.

At a meeting of the South Asia Network on Security and Climate Change (SANSaC) co-hosted by International Alert and the E.U. on Sept. 3, SANSaC recommended that in post-conflict situations like Nepal, adaptation strategies should address the broader dimensions of community resilience.

Resilience is multi-dimensional. Adaptation strategies should be defined not only by the nature of the natural hazard that is faced, but also on the basis of understanding the systems of governance and power. This must involve a deep understanding of the local context, and avoid pitting groups against each other. They must also address broader risks to resilience such as security.

For example, a new Government of Nepal pilot project to address energy security and reduce deforestation through promotion of biogas plants is being rolled out in nine districts. The switch to biogas aims to curb deforestation for fuel wood thereby decreasing risks of soil erosion and landslides. But the pilot implementation was halted in three districts - Saptari, Udayapur and Siraha - due to the security situation in those places. Such decisions leave these communities doubly vulnerable: to the lack of sustainable energy sources, and to pre-existing insecurity.

Who are the 'most vulnerable'? Donors often speak about targeting the 'poorest and most marginalised' but base their programming on a generalised conception of who these people are. Speak to people in the villages and they'll tell you.

"A poor person is a poor person, regardless of whether he is (high status) Brahmin or (low status) Janjati. Ethnicity is a political construct. The local context is socially and culturally complex. It is social and cultural factors that determine economic activity - not ethnicity," a local from Sunsari explained. "It's not so simple that because you are a Brahmin you have all the resources and rights, and because you are a Janjati you don't". Local organisations must understand the local reality and they must make central governments and international actors aware of this complex reality.

A further problem already giving rise to local community level grievances is a culture of dependence on funds. "Everyone's happy to get funds from donors but when they run out of donor funding, they come back to local government," stated a local municipality employee in Dhankuta.

This dependence on donor assistance usurps local authorities' roles and responsibilities and undermines the social contract between communities and local government. This relationship between government and the governed is already fraught and may not be able to take the strain of well intended but ill-advised interventions.

Likewise, peace and reconstruction efforts need to be climate-proofed by paying attention to the availability of resources for livelihoods such as agriculture or returning ex-combatants or people displaced by conflict. These could be under pressure because of climate change.

For example, possible future plans to reintegrate ex-combatants from cantonments into villages where they may hope to make a living from agriculture could cause and face future problems. Farmers struggling with changing rainfall patterns and only getting one harvest per year rather than two are seeing their rice yields falling. The prospect arises of returned fighters becoming resentful unemployed farmers and thus potential recruits, given their combat experience, in future instability.

More broadly, direct access to large-scale adaptation funding combined with low capacity and high corruption within government will limit the ability to effectively use it. It is highly likely that funds will be diverted into the hands and pockets of one faction or another in the political elite. With public awareness of these funds coming in, people's expectations for support - for example compensation for flood victims - are rising, and where they are not met, we are likely to see an increase in protests and political instability.

In Nepal's Koshi basin, recent experience shows that community protests are easily hijacked by political and criminal gangs who promote violence for their own ends. Misuse of funds may thus be the primary factor exacerbating instability.

If responses to climate change take account of the broad dimensions of what makes people resilient - not just drought-resistant crops and embankments to protect them from floods but also the interlinked factors of livelihood options, good infrastructure, social inclusion and effective governance - there's a good chance that responses to climate change could yield a double dividend: increasing resilience to both climate change and conflict.

Failure to take account of the linkages, however, could result in the billions of dollars of funding for adaptation actually becoming part of the problem.

Janani Vivekananda is a senior advisor on climate change and security at international peacebuilding organisation International Alert.