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Poverty and climate change present similar problems ​James Montgomery

Across much of the globe, the challenges presented by climate change are near identical to those associated with the problem of poverty alleviation.

People in the world’s poorest countries and regions are rendered more vulnerable to the effects of climate change because, quite simply, they face more immediate concerns to do with surviving now – finding food, water and shelter, overcoming ill health and disease, escaping war or securing basic education.

Those feeling the effects of climate change most severely are those least able to react. Central government is often weak, there’s low GDP and high external debt, people are physically weak due to poor diet and inadequate healthcare, and there’re high levels of illiteracy. People aren’t even aware of climate change, let alone equipped to do anything about it.

In such situations, providing engineered means of adapting to climate change cannot start to be attempted without tackling institutional and social barriers first.

Paving the way with institutional reform

Experience of addressing issues as diverse as HIV/AIDS, universal primary education and food and water security is that it’s difficult to achieve lasting, sustainable results on the ground without building awareness, influence and administrative capability centrally. There needs to be a handful of people in government who understand the issues you’re setting out to address, who can champion the cause, set objectives and secure the necessary financial, organisational and sometimes legislative backing to make things happen.

While the financial value of capacity building projects is relatively small, they are vital in preparing the ground for major capital investments. Experience is it takes about a decade to develop the strength needed exert influence and execute projects.

Meanwhile, it is well recognised by international development practitioners that the best results are achieved when a multi-sector approach can be applied – health in conjunction with education, water supply, sanitation and transport, for example. The barriers to progress are frequently interlinked. Removing one but leaving the others often limits the effectiveness of single-issue interventions and things quickly slide backwards not long after the project ends.

The kind of joined-up ‘big picture’ thinking required to address climate change will involve building alliances and achieving co-operation and co-ordination between government departments, international donors, businesses, international NGOs and local civil society organisations. This is no mean feat, but it is being achieved by Mott MacDonald on water, health and education projects funded by the Department for International Development in China, Nigeria and Bangladesh, for example.

Enabling people to help themselves

In those countries with the least adaptive capacity, the classic engineering practice of ‘predict and provide’ is almost always unworkable. Big infrastructure requires big government. Where governments are powerless to safeguard their citizens, it is the citizens themselves who need to be empowered to tackle climate change.

A lot of work has been done in the water sector, where scarcity and unequal distribution can become a flashpoint for conflict. On many river or irrigation systems it is commonplace that water is distributed to wealthy, politically powerful individuals and to industry. Poor management compounds problems by allowing over-abstraction and inefficient water use higher up the river or irrigation network, leaving too little for those at the bottom end.

Water user associations give farmers and other users a say in how water is distributed and how irrigation infrastructure is operated and maintained at the local and sub-regional level. The objective is to devolve control away from government and make management transparent. This involves establishing community-based management committees whose members are democratically elected by and are representative of the communities reliant on the water supply. Committees have the power to levy and collect water charges for building and maintaining infrastructure, can govern water use equitably, and can resolve any disputes.

However, the challenge remains that management of water resources still requires national and multi-national engagement as well. So local water user groups need to be empowered to engage and inform the national management as well. None of this happens overnight, and so action to support local groups is ever more important.

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