Climate Change Perpetuates Poverty   

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By Himanshu Sekhar Panigrahi

When any calamity, be it flood, cyclone, drought or earthquake, hits any part of the globe, it is the poor people who suffer first and the most. Similarly, the poorest people are the most vulnerable to human-induced climate change, the biggest menace the world is facing of late. Climate change compounds existing poverty. Developing and underdeveloped countries find it hard to adapt to the impacts of this threat.

They face a huge risk in their attempt to mitigate poverty as climate change threatens to undo years of development initiatives. Effects of change in climate stand as obstacles in the way of creating welfare infrastructure and systems. The macroeconomic and microeconomic costs of the impact of climate change will threaten development process in developing and underdeveloped countries. The adverse effects of climate change have already been felt with high increase of frequency of natural disasters.

The vulnerability of poor people to climate degradation is so high because they highly depend upon natural resources which get affected due to disturbances in climatic system. They are directly or indirectly dependent on goods and services from ecosystems, either in primary or supplementary source of food, fodder, building materials and fuels. Since the very beginning of the existence livelihood sources of the poor are generally narrower.

Also, poor people have limited capacity to withstand climate volatility and extremes. While local social and economic conditions drive poor people into marginal areas and force them to exploit natural resources to support their livelihoods, climate change further erodes the quality of the natural resource base, thereby reinforcing conditions of poverty.

Climate change in different forms and nature disturbs both physical and biological systems in varying degrees. It has resulted gradually in heat waves, sea level rise, increasing surface temperature and alteration in precipitation patterns. The frequency and magnitude of natural catastrophes has increased distressingly in the last few decades.

Rising temperature brings enormous and varied changes in weather patterns, ocean currents, regularity of natural habitats, and thus biodiversity. Climate imbalance is projected to further reduce water availability due to increased frequency of droughts, increased evaporation and change in rainfall pattern. It reduces access to drinking water, negatively affect the health of poor people and pose a real threat to food security. Where livelihood choices are limited, decreasing crop yields results in famines.

Climate change brings about sea level rise. Many a times it affects coastal settlements through flooding, salinization of farm areas and loss of soil fertility. Loss of landmass in coastal areas triggers distress migration. Impact on marine life is linked with changes in human life. Due to depletion of marine resources like fishery, livelihood of families dependent upon it gets upset. Places where tourism represents a major source of income may be affected by a decrease in revenues due to the effects of both gradual climate changes and extreme weather events.

Agriculture is the most climate-sensitive sector. Agriculture gets affected due to erratic rainfall pattern, shifts in the growing season, change in temperature and precipitation, early flowering of trees, and emergence of harmful insects. Reduced soil moisture in summer season leads to land degradation and desertification. It is an added risk to those regions which have already been undergoing a process of increased desertification and land degradation. Extreme climatic hazards diminish soil fertility.

Water availability, a key component of agriculture comes under attack from frequent and incessant dry spells. Climate disturbance has direct negative effects on production in terms of harvest failure and indirect impacts on purchasing power of poor people. Droughts, floods and storms destroy entire annual harvests in affected areas. And, poor people lack the resilience to come out of quagmire. Food scarcity caused by climate change leads to undernutrition and many diseases.

Undernutrition and morbidity takes a heavy toll on poor families. When the working member of the family suffers from low productivity, children and women reel under recurring health problems.  Worsening child health causes low level of education among children which acts as a ladder to come out of the circle of poverty.

Climate change has direct and indirect adverse effects on human health. It reduces opportunity by interfering with education and ability to work. Apart from disaster-related deaths, mortality and morbidity rate increases due to intense heat waves. Changes in temperature and rainfall increase vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue.

Climate change induced droughts and floods degrade and reduce water availability of regions and increase water-related diseases like cholera and diarrhoea. It reduces labour productivity. Low agricultural production exacerbates malnutrition. Children and pregnant women are more susceptible to this.

In periods of stress, poor people are forced to sell off their physical assets such as land, farm implements, thereby undermining the sustainability of their livelihoods over the longer term. Getting a substitute source of livelihood is also difficult for them. Migration, the only alternative, causes social disruption. As crucial resources become degraded and livelihoods are threatened people leave for new places deserting old ones. Loss of land in coastal areas leads to permanent or semi-permanent dislocation of many community groups. Besides creating pressure to start life and livelihood arrangements afresh, it gives rise to economic, social and political disturbances.

Developing and underdeveloped countries have limited institutional and financial capacity to foresee and respond to the direct and indirect effects of climate change. The ability to adapt to climate change depends on economic resources, infrastructure, technology and social safety nets. Poor countries are devoid of the resources for these and thus are ill-prepared in terms of coastal protection, early warning and disaster response systems, relief and recovery support. And, within those countries, the poorest are the most vulnerable. Many sectors providing basic livelihood services to the poor in those countries are not able to deal with climatic uncertainties.

Under this circumstance poor people find it tough to come out of the vicious circle of poverty. Most of the world’s poor population are found in geographically vulnerable places, and live under vulnerable environmental, socio-economic, institutional and political conditions. Climate change again augments the inequities between “haves” and “have nots”. It harms the overall economy of poor countries and hampers their potential for economic growth.

When any calamity strikes, funds are likely to be diverted from long-term development plans to rehabilitation efforts. Climate change puts an additional threat that reinforces existing risks, placing additional strains on the livelihoods and coping strategies of the poor. Poorer communities also have limited means to cope with losses and damage inflicted by natural disasters. Lack of insurance and savings makes it almost impossible for poor people to replace or compensate for the numerous things lost or destroyed including houses, livestocks, food reserves and household items. Recovery strategies like selling assets further impoverish them.

Looking into these challenges the responsibility ahead is to increase the adaptive capacity of affected poor communities and countries.  It will minimize the damage to livelihood system and increase resilience of vulnerable sections. Adaptation measures should be merged with other environmental and socio-economic concerns. Also, devastation mitigation approach should be adopted proactively. Both mitigation and adaptation approaches complement each other. Integration of adaptation measures into sustainable development and poverty reduction strategies should be practised to ward off adverse effects of climate change.

About the Author: Himanshu Sekhar Panigrahi is the Dy. Manager-CSR working at Hindustan Copper Limited (A Government of India Enterprise). The views expressed in the article are personal.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.

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