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Politics may be real climate hazard - experts

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 6 February 2012 18:25 GMT

Heading off climate-linked conflict means dealing with underlying tensions

LONDON (AlertNet) - Climate change impacts – from worsening droughts to new pots of climate-related cash for fragile states – may turn out to be a catalyst for worsening conflict. If so, keeping an eye on local politics and the quality of governance could be as important in heading off climate crises as breeding drought-resistant crops or protecting forests, climate security experts said at a recent meeting in London.

Growing climate change-related tensions “are not simply about climate change but about… the weak social contract between government and people,” said Janani Vivekananda, who works on the issue for International Alert, a London-based international peace-building organisation which hosted the gathering.

How are such tensions playing out around the world?

In Ethiopia, one focus of a new national climate change strategy is getting nomadic pastoralists, who have been hit hard by worsening drought, into permanent settlements. On the surface, the project seeks to boost resilience against climate pressures. At the same time, it allows Ethiopia’s government to gain sway over a long-time political opposition group through measures such as imposing taxes and more administrative control, experts in the region say.

In Tajikistan, the government is considering building a large hydroelectric dam for cleaner power. But it hopes to export most of the power to Afghanistan and the new reservoir will flood land belonging to political rivals. The project could also stir up regional tensions, with downstream countries unhappy about a potential reduction in the flow of water, warned Marc Fumagalli, a Tajikistan expert at International Alert.

In Nepal, local initiatives to combat climate change – the kind of projects many donors like to fund – aren’t always proving effective, in part because communities sometimes lack technical expertise to make good decisions, Vivekananda said.

One community she visited, for instance, used government funding to build a well to cope with the loss of water from a dried-up river. But within months, the well also ran dry, not least because the village didn’t have the knowledge to site it properly – a failure that has created growing frustration with the government.


“Bottom-up community initiatives in and of themselves aren’t enough,” Vivekananda said, noting that the problems in the area she visited “are as much about governance as water scarcity”. And “the fact that control is in the hands of people in the community doesn’t mean (they) won’t make decisions based on short-term interests”, she added, such as cutting down forests for needed wood rather than protecting them to preserve a threatened watershed.

Vivekananda also warned of the potential political peril associated with climate-related migration. In Nepal she visited a village where flood-displaced families had set up camp on the outskirts of town.

The newcomers were causing no obvious problems but had become the target of an opposition political party in town, which was trying to win votes by suggesting that the current government was unfairly letting the newcomers take jobs, school places and other community resources that rightly belonged to locals.

“It was politics that was the issue rather than the migration itself,” she said.

Daniel Yeo, a security policy analyst for WaterAid, a non-governmental organisation that provides clean water to the world’s poor, said one of the biggest problems in making climate adaptation succeed in Niger is simply trying to keep good people in local government committees.

“One of the dangers with setting up local water management committees is that (they) don’t last, particularly if key people are lost,” he said. The charity’s work suggests “informal institutions can be more effective and responsive” partners than official bodies in some cases, particularly if they have a more stable membership.

So what works best to promote effective responses to climate change and limit the potential for conflict?

Building capacity and resilience across the board – not just supporting particular schemes – is key, as is ensuring “equitable, participatory and transparent governance”, said Marisa Goulden who has conducted research on climate pressures in West Africa for the Tyndall Centre at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Fostering stronger relationships and trust between the government and citizens, based on responsibility and responsiveness, is also important, the experts said. And decision makers must take into account old fragilities and tensions – rather than just new hazards - when setting policy.

“We must understand the political nature of climate change from the outset,” Vivekananda said. “There is no purely technical response to climate change.”


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