COP26 Can't Ignore the Need to Place Grassroots Communities At the Centre of Talks

A gap exists today between our climate action policies and plans and their understanding by people on the ground.

Listen to this article:

When people think of the impact of climate change, they likely think of natural disasters – the floods in Uttarakhand that brought its Kumaon region to a standstill 10 days ago; the severity of the 2015 Marathwada drought or last year’s Cyclone Amphan, which affected close to 44.5 lakh people. 

But climate change is not just about global warming or disasters. It’s about agriculture, livelihoods, community health, sanitation and more. 

As India goes into the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), slated to be held in Glasgow from Oct 31 to Nov 12, it is worth understanding what climate change means to vulnerable communities in our country and what it will take for them to build their resilience in the face of repeated onslaughts, year after year.  

If we consider farmers, what does tilling land and food security in drought prone areas look like? With fisherfolk, how does one plan for good fishing practices so that fish species don’t go extinct and impact the long term livelihoods of coastal fishing communities? How do we ensure children get educated when they are made to stay at home because a drought in the region resulted in large family debt, forcing the children to work instead of study? 

Most of these are not part of any global – or even national – climate conversation, but they are all first-order impacts of climate change which aren’t being solved for. 

Also read: COP26: Negotiating for an Inclusive Climate Deal For All

Effects of climate change will wash out development gains

It is estimated that approximately 50 million people in India could enter into poverty by 2040 as a result of climate change. This isn’t only because of, for example, the increase in the number of cyclones. In fact, India’s GDP could contract by between 2.5 – 4.5% by 2030 if we do not address the decline in agricultural activity and rising sea levels that climate change is causing. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, floods and landslides have affected about 18 million hectares of farmland in the country.

The effects of these disasters will include falling wages, an increase in food prices, a slowdown in economic growth and much more. This, in turn, will impact the development gains we have made as a country so far.

For example, we have found that, whether it is drought, cyclones, or this pandemic, the women in a family are the worst affected. It’s the women who face increased levels of violence; it’s the women who have to walk further to collect water when there is a drought and it is young girls who are pulled out of school when family finances are detrimentally affected.

These are extremely regressive behaviours that we, as non-profits and funders, have fought to change for years through intense, community-driven work. But much of this progress that has been made on human indicators such as health, education, gender sensitisation and so on, is getting washed out with every successive disaster. It is therefore imperative to apply a climate change lens while crafting solutions, otherwise the problems faced by vulnerable populations are only going to get bigger. 

A flooded area in Uttarakhand’s Rudrapur. Photo: PTI.

The need to protect communities and natural habitats 

One of the goals of the COP26 this year is adapting to protect vulnerable communities and ecosystems. To do this effectively in India, we need to look at three factors: risk management, community preparedness and government participation.

Risk mitigation refers to plans and strategies to prepare for and lessen the risks faced by communities as a result of climate change. For risk mitigation, we need to have a collaborative approach. No one person has the answer to any problem and this is especially true when the problems are as complicated as climate, community resilience and disaster management. We need to look at the big mistakes we have made in the past that have brought us to where we are today.

We also need to look at the problems from multiple angles so that the solutions we come up with are intersectional, contextual and can be delivered with speed and scale. 

In terms of community participation, we need, first and foremost, to ensure that we listen to the most vulnerable populations and factor in their voices and lived experiences in our solution design. Today, those of us with resources are not listening to communities enough and the fact is, community preparedness is not just going to magically happen. Grassroots communities are suffering. Preparing them for disasters will mean that we have to enable their capacity to respond, in advance, to consequences that we don’t even see right now.

Additionally, we have to acknowledge the indigenous wisdom that these communities already have and learn how to integrate it with the science, technology and the language of climate conservation today. 

A gap exists today between our climate action policies and plans and their understanding by people on the ground. Policy level discussions, while well intentioned and well thought through, are not easy to comprehend by those who are actually at the receiving end of global warming. We, therefore, need smooth, easily communicable messaging around all things climate related; among policymakers, non-profits and the communities who have to actually adapt and change practices on ground.

Also read: What’s at Stake for India and South Asia at COP26?

Lastly, we need government participation. We need to consciously start looking at long term impacts across areas such as education, livelihoods, agriculture, women’s empowerment and so on and design solutions and policies accordingly.

Importantly, we need to ensure that any policies we create keep the voices of the communities at their centre. Given India’s geographic diversity alone, we know that interventions cannot be rushed; they need to be created with people’s consent and delivered to them with their participation. Governments must also think of deploying resources beyond immediate relief, rescue and rehabilitation. Moreover, we need good communication, alert systems and behaviour changes to make sure that those resources are delivered collaboratively.  

If we focus on the above three factors, we will be able to create synergies between governments and non-profits who will engineer efforts on the ground.

A good example of this approach being successful is that of UN Habitat, an initiative focused on providing national and local governments with tools for measuring and increasing resilience in the face of climate change, positively impacting approximately 1.3 million people across the country. The initiative’s goal is to increase the number of partners and networks working on climate change while providing support for organisations at a national and sub-national level. In India, the ministry of housing and urban affairs has launched five programmes under this initiative (including Sustainable Cities, Tackling Plastic Waste, and Disaster Flood Recovery in Kerala)

Also read: 4 Key Issues to Watch as World Leaders Prepare for the Glasgow Climate Summit

India is still grappling with the aftermath of COVID-19. Millions of people have lost their livelihoods and the economy has suffered. Given this and the simultaneous rising climate concerns, as people working in the social impact space, we need to reflect on our strengths and how we can help create a solution. 

For India to truly make progress, it needs a diversity of people and skill sets. From those who are good at creating band aid solutions (and can act as first responders during disaster management) and those working on policy level interventions, to the foundations and non-profits who are supporting work at the grassroots, there needs to be a coming together of minds and effort to co-create solutions.

Importantly, we need to start applying a climate lens to the work we already do, because climate does – and will continue to – cut across every developmental theme, be it agriculture, water, education, health or rights.

Naghma Mulla is the chief executive officer and member of the board of directors at EdelGive Foundation. She has also developed two collaboratives that are working to support education for children and economic and social empowerment of women. She is a chartered accountant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and has a M.Comm. degree from Pune University.