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Loss and damage is a reality today

by Kees van der Geest and Koko Warner, UN University
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 11:57 GMT

Filipino children stand along the main eastern Samar costal road with signs to make passing aid trucks stop in the village of Mercedes near the regional Pacific costal town of Guiuan on November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

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What do people do to deal with climate change impacts, and what happens when all they do is not enough?

What do people do to deal with climate change impacts, and what happens when all they do is not enough?

A new study from United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security tries to answer this question by looking at loss and damage that climate change is already causing in nine vulnerable countries around the world.

Findings show that households in these countries are desperately trying to adapt and cope with climate change impacts, but despite their best efforts their livelihood and food security is being threatened. This means mothers are taking food out of their mouths to feed their children and families cannot support themselves.  

This study provides a local-level human perspective of the losses and damage resulting from climate change. It is the first multi-country investigation of “loss and damage” that uses a combination of household surveys and interviews as well as meteorological data to tell us exactly what loss and damage looks like on the ground - a perspective that is lacking in research and policy.

Researchers in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Micronesia, Mozambique and Nepal conducted a total of 3,269 household interviews and over 200 focus groups. They looked at a wide range of climate change-related stressors, including droughts, floods, changing rainfall patterns, sea level rise, cyclones, salinity intrusion and coastal erosion.

Each of the nine case studies has a different story to tell, but all point to the same key finding: loss and damage is happening now, despite adaptation efforts, and families in vulnerable communities around the world are suffering.

Bangladesh: In Satkhira, a coastal district, saltwater intrusion due to sea-level rise and cyclones severely impacts the mainstay of the local economy: rice cultivation. To adapt, farmers planted new saline tolerant-rice varieties. This worked well until 2009, but then cyclone Aila hit, causing a sudden and drastic increase of salt content in the soil. Almost all farmers lost their complete harvest that year.

Bhutan: Changing monsoon patterns are affecting the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Bhutan who depend on these rains to irrigate their rice fields. Rainfall amounts have decreased substantially over the last two decades. To adapt farmers are shifting from rice to maize cultivation, developing water-sharing mechanisms and intensifying the maintenance of irrigation channels; however, these measures are insufficient and costly.

Burkina Faso: In the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, pastoralists’ herds have been decimated by extreme droughts, forcing many to give up their pastoral way of life. To adapt they migrate for work and turn to crop cultivation. These measures are unsuccessful. Additionally, the death of livestock and move to crop cultivation represents a loss of identity and culture.  

Ethiopia: In the Gambela region, people suffer from increasingly frequent and severe floods. As preventive measures, households dig ditches, erect boundary walls and move property and livestock to unaffected areas. These measures were effective in normal flood years; however, an extreme flood in 2007 resulted in severe losses.

Gambia: The North Bank Region experienced a severe drought in 2011, affecting almost all farmers in the area. Many lost their entire harvests. To cope, farmers looked for additional income (e.g. sale of property) for food. However, the majority still had to reduce their food intake, for example by changing from three to two meals a day. 

Kenya: In December 2011, River Nzoia broke its dykes and wreaked havoc in Budalangi Division. Crops were washed away, livestock drowned, houses were severely damaged and there was an outbreak of waterborne diseases. To survive, many households were forced to adopt erosive coping strategies, such selling productive assets and taking children out of school, which pose severe implications for future livelihood security.

Micronesia: On the Pacific island of Kosrae in Micronesia sea-level rise has been 10mm a year over the past decades, compared to a global average of 3.2mm. Coastal erosion, storm surges, and other coastal hazards are a constant threat. People try to adapt by building sea walls and planting trees along the shore. However, due to the scale of the climate stressors, these measures are insufficient. The islands’ cultural identity was also damaged as ancient ruins were dismantled to build seawalls.

Mozambique has a long history of droughts and floods. After a severe flood in 2001, the government resettled households to upland areas that are instead susceptible to drought and have poorer soils. As most of the resettled population depend on crop cultivation, this severely affected their food security. Some moved their fields back to the more fertile lowland areas, while living in upland areas. This gives them better crop yields, but in case of flooding they risk losing their entire harvest.

Nepal: In Udayapur district floods have become more severe over the past two decades, destroying crops and damaging houses. Following floods, food prices also increase sharply, further threatening food security. While households expend much effort on preventive and coping measures, they have not been enough.

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