Food Security Discussion Series
Summary by Dr Jane O'Sullivan

Prof. M. Adil Khan
Thursday, 22 September

“Climate Change and vulnerabilities: challenges and options for South Asia”

Prof. M. Adil Khan is a former Chief of Socio-economic Governance and Management Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the author of many papers on political economy of development, poverty, public policy and participatory governance. The perspective he brings is that of a practitioner, rather than an academic. His home region of South Asia is particularly prone to the impacts of climate change, despite being a relatively small contributor to greenhouse gas pollution.  

The climate change and vulnerability nexus sees climate change as acting on a wide range of spheres, which can disrupt people’s survival strategies in multiple interconnected ways. Vulnerability – the extent of exposure to risk and paucity of response options – may be embedded in culture or governance institutions creating structural inequality and barriers to strategic adaptations against climate change hazards, as well as resulting from poor access to physical resources and economic means. Changes in government policy may adversely affect people, such as the support for shrimp farming in Bangladesh causing widespread salinization of land which used to be rice paddies that provided food to the community. Another example of how growth-oriented agricultural policies harm both ecology and small farmers is the case of introduction of deep well for irrigation in Northwest Bangladesh. This has led to the depletion of groundwater in that region and has caused many small farmers to leave the land, allowing richer farmers, who can afford deeper wells, to expand and prosper. To make things worse, water quality is also declining as the groundwater recedes.

Vulnerability has mostly been approached in terms of short-term crises (natural disasters, conflict or other socioeconomic disruptions) but is poorly understood in relation to prolonged crisis situations. Repeated community-based research has shown that most poor people in the region that are under threat of climate change know nothing about climate change and have no information on how to adapt. Women in particular are rarely consulted, although they bear the brunt of ecological hazards. This is a governance issue which needs addressing.  

Furthermore, in-country solutions of climate change hazards are short-sighted and have limited benefits. As far as South Asia is concerned, most climate change impacts are border-less and thus can’t be addressed unilaterally. Greater cooperation and collective vision is needed, from global to regional and local level. Cross-border water governance is key. The prevailing tension, between richer countries offering inadequate measures, and poor countries demanding their opportunity to develop, is polarising rather than collaborative.

We also need a focus on demand-side strategies, to change lifestyles of the rich. However, this should not be framed as an issue of rich and poor countries, but of rich and poor people regardless of nation. South Asian values, which kept society in balance with the environment, can contribute to the paradigm change. In 560 BC, Lord Buddha defined sustainable human development “For the good of many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the nature”. However, it remains to be learned what policies and governance structures can best drive a lifestyle-based emissions reduction strategy.

Our discussion raised the conundrum of a growth-based capitalist economic model’s incompatibility with reducing consumption. The emerging of “lifestyle economics” or “ecological economics” is tackling this nexus, but is far from gaining mainstream attention. Prof. Khan emphasised the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals, which, unlike the previous Millennium Development Goals, apply to all countries and peoples, making sustainable and just development an obligation on all.  

Browse summaries from the  Food Security Discussion Series here.

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