Print Edition - 2014-04-27  |  Free the Words

More than meets the eye

  • Climate change adaptation interventions that ignore politics will only make the poor more vulnerable
- HEMANTA OJHA
More than meets the eye

Apr 26, 2014-

In Nepal, as well as in developing countries globally, discourses on adaptation have masked an important question about the need to understand vulnerability to climate change. This is similar to supplying medicines without knowing the disease. The vulnerability discourse, if any, is reduced to climate determinism, which attributes the problem to the effect of climate change alone. But as political economist Jesse Ribot has highlighted, “vulnerability does not fall from the sky.” It is indeed produced on the ground, and within societies. Of course, climate change is impacting people at an unprecedented rate, but the poor in Nepal’s mountains are vulnerable and suffer, not so much due to climate change, but due to problems in governance and the political economy.

Let me refer to the experience of Ram P Sharma (name changed), a resident of Lamjung district in Western Nepal. He lost his land to a devastating landslide in 2003. The disaster at first appeared to be a result of a swollen river following exceptionally heavy rainfall—a visible impact of climate change. Dominant climate science says that the Himalayas, which are known as the third pole for the mass of ice storage, are being severely affected by climate change. But the poor, like the Sharma family, suffer more due to politics and the economy than climate change alone.

The landslide hit the Sharma family the hardest, but not others, in the community. This is because they were too poor to buy land in a safer place away from the river. The family became involuntarily exposed to risk when they bought a parcel of land close to the Chepe River in Lamjung.

Adaptation challenges

The troubles of the Sharma family did not end with the landslide. They made struggled to adapt, but again the political economy was not in their favour. They received no support from the government to rebuild their house. Ram Sharma, as the head of the family, went to Beshisahar, the district headquarters, several times to request various government offices for help. The government was unyielding to the demands of the Sharma family. He borrowed money to travel but received nothing in return. During 2003-05, the Maoist conflict was at its peak, and much of the rural landscape was under their control. Government officials did not feel safe to travel to his residence, even when some of them appeared to be sympathetic. The area was too sensitive politically for them. Even the district Red Cross chapter did not pay a visit.

Frustrated by the lack of meaningful social support, one of the Sharma brothers joined the Maoist army. Fellow villagers with education and money went abroad to work and avoid being caught between the government and the Maoists. After 10 years, the Maoists headed the government twice, but people like Ram Sharma had no channels to approach it. He enthusiastically participated in the two Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 and 2013. But Ram Sharma’s fortunes did not change. “The leaders come to the village only at the time of elections to make promises, but they never come back,” he said angrily.

Till date, the disaster-displaced poor continue to seek public land for rebuilding their houses. There have been waves of democratisation, but the Sharma family’s struggle to adapt remains purely a family issue. The problem is the government threatens to evict them from the land where they have settled temporarily. The irony is, the community does not offer private land to the displaced and the government does not offer public land. So the family does not have a safe piece of land after the landslide.

Divisions in the community

The society in which the Sharma family lives is undergoing rapid socio-economic change as other places in Nepal. In many traditional villages where the government has no active presence, the community offers some kind of a safety net. In this case, the village has undergone profound changes as people moved in from different directions and moved out for work abroad. The community has become not only diverse in terms of caste and ethnicity, but also differentiated economically and politically. Cooperative actions and community solidarity have lessened within clans and castes. As a new settler of an uncommon caste group, the Sharmas were caught between such deep cleavages in the community. Clearly, the households are differentially vulnerable and the community breaks down instead of spearheading “community-based adaptation”.

What about the local government? There is a Village Development Committee (VDC) office a 30-minute walk from the landslide, but the Sharma family did not receive any help. The VDC receives nearly US$ 30,000 annually for development and social welfare from the national government. Likewise, of the more than 30,000 development NGOs in Nepal, none came to help the Sharmas and talk to the landslide victims. So who can assist in the adaptation struggle of the Sharma family?

Development aid is also not an answer. The district of Lamjung receives around US$ 30 million annually, but part of the development funding is being used to exacerbate disasters rather than minimise them. As a government engineer of the district development committee admitted, “Much of the tens of kilometres of newly built roads in the district are aligned without any engineering analysis.” Local politicians launch development projects to satisfy their interests, and they have haphazardly built roads adding to the landslide risk. Aid flows to their own loyal networks and not the most needy people. Unless the  vulnerable people themselves begin controlling the aid that comes in their name, it is unlikely to reach ever reach them.

Transformative politics

Champions of adaptation should listen to the Sharma family and others like them in the Himalayas before imposing “community based adaptation” frameworks on them. The community is an important unit of social life and safety net, but how it can work must be seen in the context of differential distribution of vulnerability. Besides, problems at community-level are rooted in the wider political economy, and any adaptation intervention that ignores the wider politics will only add to the vulnerability. We must take issue with the way a larger governance system creates vulnerability and shapes any adaptation responses. This means that without engaging in transformative politics, no adaptation effort is going to work.

Ojha is a public policy expert

Published: 27-04-2014 09:03

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