How to stay safe from climate threats? Talk to the neighbours

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 April 2016 09:24 GMT

A woman holds a water bucket at a slum house by the Mekong river in Can Tho city, Vietnam, April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

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Communities around the world are getting together to build bridges, buy solar panels and install early warning systems

What’s the single most effective way to become more resilient to threats from climate change? It’s simpler than you think: Get to know the people next door, especially if you live in a city.

“When you run into a tight spot, who do you turn to? Your immediate neighbours,” Chime Paden Wangdi of Bhutan’s Tarayana Foundation told this week’s conference on community-based adaptation to climate change in Bangladesh.

The neighbours are often the ones who watch your kids in an emergency, help you board up a broken window, offer a shower when your plumbing’s up the spout, or lend you some cash when you left your wallet on the bus.

As climate change brings more flooding, water shortages and other crises big and small – or makes existing problems worse – pulling together as a neighbourhood may be one of the most effective ways to cope and stay safe.

The problem is that, in cities, bonds with neighbours sometimes can be weaker than in rural areas, experts said at the conference.

People move more often or your neighbours might not speak your language or share your religion, culture and political views - all of which can make forging relationships harder.

But the benefits of knocking on the door can be big.

In Davao City in the Philippines, for instance, one community of migrants who had arrived in their new neighbourhood from areas across the country, found itself facing flooding from the nearby Matina River – the river their kids had to cross to get to school.

With little prospect of government help, largely because the slum community had no rights to the land where they lived, families got together to try to sort out a solution, with support from the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines.

Each household began contributing small amounts of savings to a group fund. In time, they had enough to build a sturdy, arched bamboo bridge, made with cheap, local materials and designed with the help of Indonesian bamboo architecture engineers.

When flash floods hit the community in 2011, the bridge “saved thousands” who fled over it to higher ground, remembers Janeth Bascon, who works with the homeless federation.

In India, slum communities that teamed up have brought in legal electrical connections for the first time, by working with the government and power company to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, said Dharmistha Chauhan of the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust.

BUILDING TRUST

Other communities around the world are pooling money to buy solar panels at discount rates, build efficient shared heating systems or install disaster early warning systems.

In Medical Slum, an area in Dhaka’s Tongi district, migrant families who once knew each other only tentatively – despite living feet apart in tin-walled huts – have now joined in learning first aid and other emergency response skills to deal with threats from flooding, fires and earthquakes.

“We are one team and we are ready to interact if something happens,” said Poly, a 32-year-old resident who has received training.

Knowing your neighbours, said Wangdi from Bhutan, is the first step to building trust – and trust is key to surviving and bouncing back when things go wrong.

“Should climate-related disasters occur, if we don’t build that trust and have a collaborative plan of action at hand, there’s going to be a lot of looting and unpleasant activities,” she warned.

But chatting to people has many benefits, she said. “Take time to understand each other,” she urged. “Listen to each other. Listen twice as much as you talk.”

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