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Climate crisis: a present reality

22 October 2021

Huw Spanner hears from aid agencies how the climate is threatening the people they work with — and how they are responding

Peter Caton/Tearfund

A local leader visits a desertification barrier in Chad designed to slow down the advancing desert

A local leader visits a desertification barrier in Chad designed to slow down the advancing desert

CLIMATE breakdown certainly registered in the news this year: British television showed startling images of devastating floods in Western Europe and China, and raging wildfires in Turkey, Greece, and North America. The “climate emergency” declared by hundreds of local councils over the past few years finally began to seem real.

What we were witnessing was “just the tip of a glimpse of the future that awaits us”, USPG’s director of global relations, Rachel Parry, says. She has worked for the society for almost a quarter of a century, and, “for the whole of that time, we have been hearing from our partners in the global South about the realities of climate change. And every year it has been getting worse.”

USPG used to have a modest budget “to spend into the odd typhoon here or flooding there”, but the demands on it have grown exponentially, she says.

The ferocity of the storms is not the only problem. Tearfund’s international group director, Veena O’Sullivan, says: “Many Asian countries have always been vulnerable to natural disasters, but they used to be prepared: they knew that ‘when the cyclone season is upon us, we do this, this, and this.’ But today, there is no ‘season’: it is haphazard, inconsistent, chaotic. It is a kind of disaster they haven’t experienced before happening all the time now, and all happening at the same time.

“In the places where we work, we used to hear murmurs of it, but people said: ‘OK, something’s gone wrong this year, but next year will be different.’ But, for the last ten years or so, it’s just been getting worse and worse.”

In India, where she grew up, “we would know that in July the monsoon would come. All of that has completely changed. We have farmers committing suicide now — they have suffered so much because of the droughts, the flooding, not being able to grow things the way people have done for generations. It is unprecedented.

“Which place has not been affected? Because of drought and the desperate need for food and water and land, we have conflicts in South Sudan, in Nigeria. And people are on the move like never before across the world.” When they migrate from the rural areas to the cities, she says, they exert “overwhelming pressure” on resources.

Christian Aid’s climate-justice policy adviser, Nushrat Chowdhury, reports from Dhaka: “Being in the centre of Bangladesh and, as the capital, quite well protected, Dhaka is better off. But for that reason, among others, people from other parts of the country are coming in.” It has been estimated that, every day, an average of 2000 new people arrive in the city.

Floods are a regular phenomenon in Bangladesh, Ms Chowdhury explains. “In many years, up to two-thirds of the country disappears under water. But for the last ten or 12 years, the intensity and duration of the floods has increased.” Moreover, “the water comes suddenly, when it is not expected, and all types of produce gets damaged or often completely ruined.”

Christian AidEbrahim and his wife, Fahima, stand inside the damaged house where Ebrahim’s father and son died after the house collapsed. Ebrahim’s other son died when he was four in Cyclone Sidr, in 2007, in Bangladesh

The frequency of the storms is growing, she says. “We had huge cyclones in 1970, 1991, 2007 — but more recently in 2016, 2019, 2020, and then this year.” Besides the obvious damage that these cause, she says, “there is a drastic loss in terms of biodiversity. I have seen this in person: animals and plants that were well acclimatised before are finding it more difficult to cope.”

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “does not give much hope”, Ms Chowdhury says. “In South Asia, it is talking about changes in temperature and rainfall that will have devastating impacts. As the Hindu Kush and Himalayan glaciers melt faster, there will be more water in the north, while there will be more salinisation and more storm surges in the south.”

Bangladesh is “a very small country with a huge population”, she points out. The IPCC has projected that, by 2050, rising sea-levels will take 17 per cent of its land.


IN NAIROBI, the country director for Send a Cow Kenya, Titus Sagala, says that the effects of climate change have been growing “slowly by slowly” since the mid-1980s, and “have been getting more and more serious”.

Eighty per cent of the country’s population depends on mostly small-scale, rain-fed agriculture. “They always knew that around 15 March the rains would come and they should be ready to plant. But these days it’s so variable — the rain comes early or it comes late; you can have heavy rainfall or very little.”

The melting of far-distant ice caps is affecting East Africa, too. Recently, Mr Sagala visited Lake Turkana, and saw for himself how far the water had risen, “to levels it has never reached before”. Last year, on the shores of Lake Victoria, “many houses were under water.” Twenty miles from his home in Kakamega, he says, there is a strong bridge that was constructed by the Japanese in 1972. “Last year, the River Nzoia burst its banks, and people were shocked the following morning to find that a section of the bridge had been swept away.”

Every region of the continent has seen “severe manifestations” of climate change, says the senior climate-change adviser for Africa at Christian Aid, Fredrick Njehu. Two years ago, Cyclone Idai, the second-deadliest tropical cyclone on record in the Southern Hemisphere, hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, causing catastrophic damage and displacing millions of people (News, 22 March 2019).

USPGA female pupil in Malosa Secondary School, in the Anglican diocese of Southern Malawi

Flooding has hit the Horn of Africa and some parts of Northern Africa, with “dire consequences” for food security as well as loss of property, and loss of livelihoods. At the same time, desertification has affected a swath of countries from Somalia to Senegal, with “a lot of impact on the land, and especially its productivity”.

Unexpected shifts in the seasons are playing havoc with food security in sub-Saharan Africa, Ms Parry says. Madagascar has endured four years of drought, and is now suffering an “absolutely appalling” famine, she says. In northern Kenya, too, Mr Sagala says that there is a drought “in a month when they have never experienced drought before. You know that a drought is very serious when you see donkeys dying — and we have seen more and more dying.” On 8 September, the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared a national disaster.

Moreover, as temperatures have risen, swarms of desert locusts have invaded areas in Kenya where, in the past, they would not have survived. Other pests have increased in number and frequency, Mr Sagala says. “There used to be years when you would see fall armyworms [a type of moth], and years when you would not, but, of late, they have been affecting maize plantations almost every year.”

Ms Parry refers to “the multi-pronged effects” of climate change. “We think of it in terms of more extreme weather, but there is no area of life that isn’t increasingly affected in the global South. They’re seeing its impact on health, on education, even on gender relationships.

“For example, in periods of prolonged drought, women have to make longer and more frequent journeys to get water, which makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault — which also entails the risk of under-age pregnancy.”

Ms Chowdhury offers an example of “the personal impacts these immense changes have”, especially on women. “A colleague was telling me how the women of her community are suffering from urinary infections because of the water shortage in their area. [And] it’s not just that women are finding it difficult to cook; water is used for personal hygiene, and females need more water because of their physique. I was thinking how privileged I am, because they have to deal with this every day.”


WHERE do we look for hope? There is talk of technical fixes and other practical measures. In Bangladesh, Ms Chowdhury says, “solar panels are very, very common on houses. We have a saline-resistant variety of rice, and we are trying to develop a flood-resistant variety. We have technology that enables us to grow food, even in floods.”

Tearfund is promoting “climate-smart” agriculture. Send a Cow is “encouraging people to farm in a regenerative way”, to conserve water, to protect springs by planting trees around them, to use biological means to control pests, and to feed their livestock well — because “the cows that produce a lot of methane are the ones that have poor nutrition,” Mr Sagala says.

Much investment has gone into early-warning systems, Mr Njehu says, and there has been discussion about how insurance might help farmers to cope with “the vagaries of climate change”.

Send a CowRecipients of a cow from Send a Cow, like Rose Nabirye from Uganda, pictured here, are encouraged to feed it well, as the cows that produce the most methane are those with poor nutrition

More important, perhaps, is how people respond. “We need to help each other to live, basically,” Ms Chowdhury says. “In Bangladesh, in times of distress, after every cyclone, every flood, people take shelter in other people’s houses, maybe for months. This is how the societies I have seen work, because you cannot bear to see other people in distress; plus, you may be in their shoes the next day.”

Ms O’Sullivan refers to “the people who we would think are not intellectuals, but who are the true intellectuals because they’ve found a way to respond, without power or resource”. She refers to the example of Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. “The people that Tearfund’s partners work with there are the most marginalised: they’re treated like they don’t belong on planet Earth.

“The heart of [their response to climate change] has been human solidarity: ‘Come, let’s find ways together, to survive another day, another month.’ And, when you have that kind of energy, and you experience that kind of goodness, it becomes infectious. More want to learn, and more want to do.

“We need to share what we have, be it knowledge, skills, ideas, resources — but also commitment. We urgently need our governments to make a commitment that goes beyond ink on paper.”

Ms Chowdhury finds hope in the youth of her country. “They have taken climate change very seriously. They’re amplifying their communities’ voices, which is really important, and they are coming up with ways to live with the disasters.”

Tapping into “girl power” is critical, Ms Parry says: educating girls increases their resilience and their influence.

“People think that, because the crisis is so huge, and you, as an individual or an organisation, are so small, there is nothing you can do about it,” Mr Sagala says. “But the small things we all do will actually build up.”

He tells the story of the hummingbird, beloved of the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai. When the forest is burning, the other creatures stand and watch, overwhelmed by dismay; but the tiny hummingbird flies back and forth from the stream, each time with a drop of water in its beak to put on the fire. When the other creatures ask it why it bothers, it says: “I am doing all I can.”

The Church has “a big role to play”, Mr Njehu says. Its message to date has mostly been about how we can live sustainably and ensure that human activity does not go against the will of God and cause harm. “What we have not heard is a strong voice against those who are most responsible for causing greenhouse-gas emissions and rising temperatures, and those outfits from the developed countries that have been extracting resources and causing environmental damage.

“In Africa, where there is a moral argument, in most instances the voice that is listened to most is the voice of the Church. We need a broader conversation across the entire faith spectrum, beyond dedicated institutions like Christian Aid and others. At COP26, we hope that the UK Churches can amplify the voices of African communities, so that they can actually be heard in the negotiations.”

“I think it’s doable,” Ms O’Sullivan insists. “Yes, we are in the red zone, but we can still turn this around. It’s going to take huge effort, but we have to do something extraordinary, for the sake of our children and our planet.”


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