The clock is ticking faster in the South

The debate about climate change is all too often about our industry and wealth, while the developing countries and the poor have been feeling the negative effects of pollution for a long time now. In Ecuador, Burkina Faso and Bangladesh, Geert De Belder talked with farmers and other citizens about the climate chaos threatening their way of life.
Ester Ventura, an elderly woman farmer from Meroseco, in the Ecuadorian coastal province Manibi, used to cultivate coffee with her husband on the fertile slopes of her native region. Year after year the shrubs bore fabulous amounts of beans. Now, not even one coffee shrub decided to grow. ‘We can’t even grow corn, or beans, or watermelons or cassava. The land is too dry’, she sighs. Her children were raised with a healthy variety in fruit and crops, but the increasing drought and poverty chased them to the city.
Fernando Buendía of the Ecuadorian agricultural NGO FMLGT explains that the climate shift in Manibi –an agricultural area– has serious consequences for the well-being of the people. The average annual income plummeted to a maximum of 600 dollar, not enough to make ends meet. And this is the case for eighty percent of the families. Every year, one inhabitant in 25 leaves for the cities, hoping for a better life. Most of them migrate only to end up with a lifelong stay in the slums.
On top of that, Manibi increasingly has to deal with heavy downpours, which are as destructive as the drought. ‘These drastic changes of the last decades, between excessive water and extreme drought, disrupt the agriculture and the food supply of the cities’,  explains farmer Jorge Loor from Rocafuerte.

Agriculture receives heavy blows

Abdul Barek Molla, mayor of the amalgamated municipality Parishad in Bangladesh, tells a similar story. ‘If we need rain, the crops shrivel under the sun. And if we need sun, the rain is pouring from the sky. It seems the seasons are upside down nowadays.’ In Burkina Faso the farmers and stockbreeders complain about the drought as well. Crops and pastures are being destroyed. But in early September 2009, 150.000 citizens of the capital Ouagadougou were rendered homeless by a flood.
In May Satkhira, a region in Bangladesh, was hit by a heavy cyclone. The entire rice harvest was destroyed. Sowing after the storm is impossible, because the salty water does not draw back as fast as usual. The inhabitants are facing a long period of hunger and hardships. While she stands up to her knees in the salty water of her flooded rice field,  Munira Begum laments: ‘We, adults, can handle food shortage, but our children cannot. After the cyclone we had a flood, it keeps getting worse. I am even expecting heavier cyclones. We can’t breed chickens or ducks, we can’t grow rice anymore. There is no hope left.’
Bangladesh is familiar with natural disasters, but in recent years their frequency and intensity have increased. Nasimul Haque of UNDP, the development program of the UN: ‘Since the nineties the frequency of floods and cyclones are rising, especially since 2000. The farmers don’t have the time to recover. If you sow, you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to harvest: a disaster is likely to happen.’

Everybody poorer?

‘In the Sahel people are as poor as churchmice, but the climate change makes it even worse’, says Paul Bayili in Burkina Faso. ‘People don’t have the money to send their kids to school, to buy them enough food, or to bring them to the doctor. And they themselves are suffering from malnutrition, with only one or two meals a day.’ Paul Bayili fights climate change in the Sahel with his NGO ROAPE (Reseau des Organisations et Associations pour la Protection de l’Environment), through consciousness-raising and adaptation projects. 
The inhabitants of the Sahel have gone through a lot concerning climate issues, like when an exceptional drought in 1993 led to a severe famine. But the current problems are worse, the people say, because there’s no end to it. Even those who don’t have a clue about the nature and causes of the worldwide climate shift, are pessimistic. Issouffi Alimonzo, the old chief of the Sahel village Oursi, knows this: ‘When there was a drought, we used to pray with all the marabous of the region. Now we can pray all we want, it just keeps getting dryer.’
Mamadou Honadia, expert of the Burkinabe Centre National des Semences Forestières, shares the pessimism of the village chief: ‘The agricultural profits will continue to fall, water will become even scarcer and biodiversity will decrease even more. Living conditions are under more pressure, especially in the short-term. This process is reversible, but not without international commitments.’ Houmadia relies on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN institution that follows climate change closely and that advises governments and the international community. So Houmadia knows the plea for moderation well: the restriction of the consumption of fossil fuels in order to reduce CO2 emissions. ‘The average Belgian citizen has to realise that his conduct in life has an immediate impact on the already paltry life of the average Burkinabe’, says Paul Bayili.
According to the British economist Lord Nicholas Stern, such a moderation of our way of life and of our consumption habits is not the beginning of the end. ‘It’s not like we have to leave paradise, on the contrary. The on CO2 based growth like we know it, has turned out to be a very dangerous path. We have to choose for a sustainable development, for low-carbon growth: it’s safer, more attractive and certainly cleaner. And everybody benefits, the South as well.’ Stern calculated the costs of an investment in sustainability and adaptation for the British government. According to him, it is ten times cheaper to invest today instead of waiting another ten years, because by then the climate change will be far more obvious.

Adapt or perish

Moderation is not enough to save humanity or the planet. The already existing surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere will definitely continue to change the climate for a while. Nasimul Haque: ‘Moderation is avoiding the uncontrollable. We try to contain something we will not be able to control: climate change. But because its impact is largely inevitable, adaptation is necessary, measures to control these unavoidable changes.’
Adaptation encompasses all possible ways to help people prepare for the new climate. Building new levees or fortifying old ones may help to reduce the effects of the rise of the sea level. Developing new seeds and crops that can resist high temperatures and lack of irrigation is another example. But these are adaptations which require a lot of money. In poor countries like Burkina Faso, small-scale projects are an alternative.
We have been travelling for hours in the dusty and dry Burkinabe landscape, when suddenly in Ouahigouya a small, fresh, green field surprises us. Eight women are working under the blistering afternoon sun. Salimata Sawadogo explains this small miracle with pleasure. ‘This is a drop irrigation project, we use the available water as efficiently as possible. Alongside the crops there are small pipes with holes, irrigating the soil locally and specifically drop by drop. We only have to make sure the holes are not blocked. Since we adopted this system, we gain more profit for the same work. Our standard of living has tangibly improved.’ Never again hauling with heavy watering cans or squandering valuable water. A piece of the Sahel is made livable again, and this opens up new prospects for a continent that is increasingly threatened by desertification.
Not all the adaptation initiatives are as successful as the green field in Ouahigouya. ‘The strategy that people use to adapt to changing conditions often comes down to an overexploitation of the means of production they have’, Fernando Buendía says. ‘The exploitation of the labour factor, for example, has to compensate for the loss of income from the agriculture. One can see whole families put to work, the women at home and the children in the marketplace. Or they cut down trees in old-growth forests to secure land for crops. Or they use chemical fertilizers to increase productivity, which pollutes the soil.’
A tragic example of a wrong adaptation strategy is the exploitation of the páramo, the spongy Andes plains that supply with water whole regions throughout the year. Until recently this mountain country was not suitable for agriculture, because of the cold climate. But the rising temperatures provided farmers with an opportunity, even more so because mouths had to be fed.
Meanwhile, the people of the Andes regret the exploitation of the páramo. They seriously underestimated the importance of the rough mountain country for the water management of the region. Engineer Ricardo Suarez of the Central Ecuatoriana de Servicios Agrícolas, the Ecuadorian Centre for Agricultural Services: ‘Since the increase in temperature the inhabitants of the Cotopaxi province farm at a height of as much as 3900 meters above sea level, at the expense of the once humid páramo. In the meantime the wells run dry.’ Which in the end finishes off the farmers as well, because they can’t properly irrigate their fields anymore.
Adaptation clearly has limits, and can even backfire. Buendía: ‘The problem is that 300 million people all over the world find themselves in similar situations, and that the majority tries to secure their income by putting more pressure on nature. Thus, poverty becomes a factor that facilitates climate change and environmental pollution. The preservation of the planet requires a more righteous world and more responsibility toward nature.’

A matter of environmental justice

The hundreds of millions of victims of climate change in the South have to be able to adapt their lives to a new climate situation, a situation they didn’t cause themselves. All my conversation partners in the South agree on that. They keep getting more support in the North, for that matter.
‘Even if we succeed to restrict the increase in temperature to 2°C, even then the developing countries will have to adapt to the climate change’, states Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research. But these countries do not have the money to counterbalance the effects of something they did not cause. More and more, one can hear the demand for far-reaching financial commitments from the North for moderation and adaptation in the South. ‘With a probability of more than nine to ten, climate change has been caused by human actions, more specifically the emission of greenhouse gases,’ says climatologist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele. ‘Three quarters of this climate change is the sole responsibility of the rich countries.’ The fact that rich countries have to compensate developing countries for the damage, is not only a moral matter, but also a matter of international law, believes Syeda Rezwana Hasan, jurist in the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Society. ‘I consider this as a matter of environmental law, which states that a people cannot suffer excessive damage because of the development of another people. The North has developed, with large amounts of CO2 emissions as a result. The North has to take responsibility.’
In their speech to the United Nations General Assembly this year, almost all government leaders from the South asked that the rich countries ensure ‘new, sufficient and predictable’ funds to support developing countries in their climate policies. The Bolivian president Evo Morales even called for an International Climate Justice Tribunal, ‘where countries can be brought to justice and punished if they break international laws  and continue to destroy the earth.’ For the planet it’s a race against the clock, but it’s also a race the South is likely to lose.

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