The Asia and Pacific region is uniquely exposed to the impacts of climate change. Landscapes across the continent are as diverse as the populations, from the Hindu Kush Himalayas to the low-lying islands across its seas.
Despite significant progress in reducing poverty in recent decades, there remains a sizable number of people in the region that are living in poverty. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has further exacerbated this, in some cases reversing trends of poverty reduction.
Some estimates put the number of people living in extreme poverty in Asia as high as 400 million. These households are the same ones most affected by the climate crisis—increased sea levels, flash flooding, and severe drought are but a few examples of what many people are now facing on a regular basis.
Poor communities already living close to the edge have little resilience against extreme weather events and the more incremental climate impacts such as higher-than-average rainfall, or increased salinity on agricultural lands.
Research from the World Bank found that by the end of the decade climate change could force over 130 million people across the world into extreme poverty. Women and children are often the most vulnerable groups within these communities.
Earlier this month, a broad range of stakeholders gathered in Bangkok to discuss how to solve this problem.
Everyone from community leaders to government officials attended the first Community Resilience Partnership Program (CRPP) Partnership Forum to discuss what solutions work and how to implement them in double quick time.
Evidence on the nexus between poverty, climate, and gender is not hard to find. Districts in Bangladesh that are repeatedly impacted by climate hazards, for example, are the same ones that have made limited progress on reducing poverty. Climate change is simultaneously exacerbating gender inequalities and undermining progress on poverty and making it worse.
The forum was convened to discuss how this new partnership program can support poverty reduction and build climate resilience for the many. One way to do this is by ensuring that investments are aligned from the start with shared objectives on poverty, gender, and climate.
It’s only by joining up efforts that we will have the most impact across these inextricably linked issues. “This intersection is critical. We can’t deal with one without the other,” commented Warren Evans, a senior advisor at the Asian Development Bank.
Strengthening local agency for building resilience
A key consideration is how to ensure funding is properly directed, with an understanding that less than 10% of adaptation finance currently goes to the local level. Despite this, we know effective climate responses are often highly specific to the regions and communities where they are being implemented.
The tricky part is knowing how to scale up these solutions without losing focus on context and the unique circumstances each community finds itself in.
Syarifah Anggreini, a leader at the Yakkum Emergency Unit, a local organisation in Indonesia, spoke of the need for greater collaboration between grassroots groups and the government to roll out new and innovative climate and poverty schemes, especially among those in the community who are currently being left behind. “Failure does not dampen our enthusiasm to learn,” she added.
For too long development finance has worked with a top–down approach—those who supply the money dictate the terms as to how it is spent and on what. It is widely understood that this needs to change, but building a culture of true collaboration where communities are at the centre of decision-making can take time.
It is clear we need to think more strategically about how money flows to communities, focusing much more on building local partnerships, strengthening institutions, and supporting policy reforms that promote downward accountability toward communities and prioritise gender-specific responses.
Asian countries on the frontline of the climate crisis, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Nepal, already have plans and policies to adapt to the widespread impacts they are seeing, such as climate migration, decreased agricultural income, or spikes in inequality. Development financing needs to be appreciative of these plans, many of which focus on bolstering social protection programs.
Put women in charge
While time is against us, one idea discussed at the forum was to support women-led approaches that build resilience. Female leaders repeatedly pointed out that if we believe in no one being left behind then we should put women in charge.
Suranjana Gupta, an advisor at the Huairou Commission, a women-led social movement, spoke of the need for a change in perception on how to implement climate and poverty solutions.
“What is transformational is the idea that women’s groups get to renegotiate their roles, that they are viewed in a different way: as partners, as stakeholders, and not purely as beneficiaries,” Gupta said.
One of those roles must be for local grassroots women’s organisations to be a central part of the process. Those women who live in the community, who are on the ground day in and day out, are naturally best positioned to improve our understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
Collecting this ‘hyperlocal’ data is one way to identify which are the most vulnerable households. But to further close the evidence gap, we will also need to look at the whole suite of data collection, from satellite imagery to deploying machine learning techniques.
It is this focus on reliable and relevant data that will support better policy-making, sensitive to the complex ways in which climate and poverty interact within local contexts.
Experts in their respective fields, from academics to community leaders, agree on the essential connectedness of poverty, climate, and gender. Tackling one crisis on its own may seem daunting enough, but the task is made harder by ignoring the whole.
Policies and financing to solve the problem will need to be highly targeted with local communities and adaptation plans at its heart. A willingness to be innovative and test out new ideas without fear of failure will also be key.
The time is now to scale up these solutions and ensure the millions of vulnerable people across the region have a fighting chance against the crisis.
The Community Resilience Partnership Program (CRPP) aims to help countries and communities in the Asia and Pacific region scale up investments in climate adaptation that explicitly address the nexus of climate change, poverty, and gender.
The CRPP is being implemented in partnership with a variety of partners and stakeholders including the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Huairou Commission, and has financing commitments from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom, the French Development Agency, and the Nordic Development Fund.
Further information about the CRPP and how it plans to scale up investments in community level adaptation can be found here.