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Community-driven climate action can achieve climate security in South Asia

Rice paddy cultivation in Ella, Sri Lanka

Community-driven climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives are increasingly taking root in all parts of the world, including South Asia. Systemic changes have been occurring at snail’s pace, with the existing international and national climate policies taking far too long to be implemented on the ground. Moreover, despite the proliferation of ‘Climate Emergency’ movements across the world, the current discussions on climate action are dominated by “discourses of climate delay.” These are often driven by those who choose to shift the responsibility of climate action to others, those surrendering to climate ‘doomism’, those who are unwilling to usher in transformative solutions, or those who highlight the alleged pitfalls of climate action instead of its achievements.

In face of these obstacles, community-led ‘local’ initiatives are breathing new life into climate action, and particularly adaptation. Not only do they have the potential to enhance decentralisation and support democratisation processes that give more decision-making power to those that are mostly affected by climate change, but can also generate bottom-up momentum that could boost national-level climate action. Importantly, these initiatives can foster climate security as they are often better able to take into account conflict sensitivities, socio-economic conditions, cultural norms and political volatilities, which are often better understood on a community-level.

Community-driven Climate Adaptation in South Asia

One of the common factors that binds the South Asian region toether is the lack of resources to cope with the impacts of accelerated climate change. Although government action has intensified in recent years, the vast scale of the problem necessitates a more vigorous approach at all levels. Some communities are taking adaptation to climate change into their own hands. For example, in northern Bangladesh, on the banks of Teesta River, the Village Disaster Management Committee (VDMC) has been actively promoting adaptation practices to cope with floods and droughts. Through participatory means and cooperation with the local government, the community has been assessing risks as well as introducing innovative socio-technical interventions (for information sharing, crop diversification and capacity-building, among others) and institutional changes. However, these initiatives have had some drawbacks, including the lack of women’s participation and some instances of conflict between the stakeholders over the “distribution of technical outcomes.”   

Similarly, in Nepal, various community forest user groups, disaster risk reduction groups, farmers’ cooperatives, and women’s groups are planning and implementing adaptation measures using participatory approaches. One of these initiatives has been the “Community Forest-based Adaptation Plan of Action (CAPA)” to help communities manage forest fires and water resources. The CAPA has also been successful in creating a platform for women in the community to engage, discuss, and raise funds to address these issues. Thus, these interventions have significantly improved the adaptive capacity of communities in the Panchase Mountain Ecological Region. They could be used to give more teeth to regional-level adaptation plans by providing a better understanding of the distinctive needs of the most marginalised communities in the region and the ways in which their participation could best be achieved.

Another example of community-based adaptation can be found in the Hambantota district of Sri Lanka, where paddy cultivation has been affected by saltwater intrusion into agricultural fields. The majority of farmers involved in paddy cultivation there are smallholders, who have limited resources to cope with climate change. However, community-based measures such as ‘traditional forecasting indicators’ and resource and risk mapping, are helping them address climate-related threats, build networks with researchers and authorities, and find the appropriate rice varieties for the changed natural conditions. 

Climate Action and Conflict Potential

India is no stranger to land conflicts over both industrial and non-industrial projects. In recent times, these have affected also climate mitigation projects; particularly renewable energy projects have in some instances run into trouble with local and indigenous communities. Although India is rich in renewable energy sources (sun, wind etc.), projects that could harness them require huge tracts of land. A recent study showed that India’s goal of achieving 175 GW of renewable energy capacity would require land ranging from “55,000 to 125,000 km2, which is roughly the size of Himachal Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, respectively.” It would also affect 6700–11,900 km2 of forest land and 24,100–55,700 km2 of agricultural land, thus bearing the potential to trigger environmental and social conflicts.

Similarly, some of Indian Government’s afforestation and wildlife protection initiatives, partly aimed at achieving India’s target of increasing the green cover to 33 percent of the total land area by 2030, set under the Paris Agreement, have been at loggerheads with indigenous and rural peoples’ rights. Indigenous and local communities in rural areas would in fact lose their main livelihood sources as their lands get earmarked for such projects.

Community-based Initiatives are the Way Forward

These examples show that the lack of community participation could hamper long-term climate objectives. At the same time, they prove that community-based climate action initiatives can reduce the potential of conflict. In a region like South Asia, where various types of political and socio-economic conflicts continue to exist, it is key that different vulnerabilities and risks are integrated into climate action planning, just as it is key that climate change is streamlined with development planning.

Development aid agencies and climate financing institutions need to be aware of these ground realities and support community-led projects. As an example, Earthbanc, “the world’s first green digital banking and investment platform,” is collaborating with local microfinance organizations and communities in India “to restore 10 million mangroves trees”. They create ‘green’ jobs, protect biodiversity, and ensure food and water security. Transnational community-led projects are still uncommon in South Asia, but organisations such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have made several successful attempts at enhancing regional cooperation on “sustainable mountain development” and transboundary river management in the Hindukush Himalaya region, for example. The mushrooming of such initiatives could bolster national-level climate action frameworks, while at the same time helping reduce the risk of climate change-related security risks in South Asia.

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.


[The views expressed in this article are personal.]