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Fighting poverty is the best response to climate change

Thomas Dickinson's picture
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Mauritania, like its Sahelian neighbors, is struggling with three problems: drought, high food prices and security threats. All of these threats are driven in some form by global climate change to the point where they are threatening economic growth, stability and peace.

The crisis point was reached in 2011, when Mauritania was struck with a severe drought that cost the country over one-third of its cereal harvest. And because Mauritania is dependent on food imports for over two-thirds of its domestic consumption, high international food prices compounded the crisis. Food prices spiked, food availability dropped especially in many rural areas, and the country was on a verge of humanitarian crisis.
 
This is when Mauritania made an impressive move.
 
Short-term crisis response
 
Instead of appealing for food aid, the government launched a comprehensive emergency program funded from the national budget. The program, called Emel (‘hope’ in Arabic), included a broad range of interventions designed to support its vulnerable populations: free food distribution for the very poor, subsidized food for the poor, cereal banks for rural farmers and, essential for a pastoral country, livestock feed to keep herds – and thus, capital – alive.
 
Emel was a success: food was available, prices stayed down and a crisis was averted.
 
But success did not come cheap. The Emel program cost 2.6% of GDP, and nearly 9% of total government expenditure in 2012, and is growing into a national behemoth as the consequences of climate change keep justifying continued intervention.
 
Beyond the heavy fiscal burden, over time, such an emergency program distorts local economic activity and, in the case of large-scale food distribution, undermines domestic food markets and production. Worst of all, while averting the immediate crisis in the short-term, an emergency program does not tackle the root causes of poverty or vulnerability.
 
On a recent mission, the Mauritanian government was keenly aware of entering an unsustainable cycle: because the emergency program was so successful in protecting vulnerable populations, it has expanded and is growing into a policy on which the government – and the population – relies. The subsidized food shops for example, intended to operate for 6 months in 2011, have doubled in number and are still doing healthy business in 2014.
 
Long-term resilience
 
Faced with the choice to continue funneling vast resources into emergency activities that ultimately maintain the status quo, Mauritania chose to develop interventions that could work at the root causes of poverty and reinforce resilience over the longer-term.
 
Mauritania has been testing cash and voucher programs as alternatives to its emergency food distributions, and is preparing a national registry to target the poorest households for more permanent support. Important resources are also being channeled into sustainable agriculture (with a national goal of doubling arable land by 2017) and pastoralism, one of the country’s economic and cultural foundations.  These activities received a boost at the recent conference on pastoralism and its Nouakchott Declaration.
 
The best way to reduce climate change shocks? Pushing back on poverty
 
The threats that caused Mauritania to launch a successful national emergency program are now pushing it to develop a comprehensive and large-scale approach to fighting poverty.
 
With the 2011 drought, Mauritania showed that it was capable of facing a national emergency with vision and skill. In turn, the national emergency program proved that it is long-term investments in the resilience of the Mauritanian people, not emergency programs, which are the correct response to climate change.
 
But the real conclusion that has emerged from this experience is perhaps that it is not climate change, but poverty that is the national emergency. If the poor are adequately equipped when a crisis hits, they will be more than capable to adapt and push back themselves.
 
So perhaps, if ever there was a silver lining to drought in Mauritania and the Sahel, it is to show that fighting poverty is the best response to the many threats posed by climate change. 

Comments

Indeed, the applause for Emel is highly deserved. Fighting poverty is an important step to dealing with the devastating impacts that climate change can bring, and approaches like those undertaken by Mauritians are highly needed at address the immediate vagaries of poverty which is exacerbated by the changing climate.

Collecting data on what proportion of GDP was regained (for example as a result of the pastoralists retaining their livestock herds) and indeed the net effect of the program is imperative. However, would be exceedingly difficult to estimate (particularly when trying to account for malnutrition, deaths from hunger, and the like). To ensure both short term and long term planning there is an urgent need for long-term approaches, which focus on investment with viable returns.

What if 9% or even just 3% of 2012, 2013 and the coming 2014 national expenditures were put towards activities that fought both poverty and climate change? What if investments in were made in ecosystems that could provide food, lasting green jobs and income, and at the same time could truly insulate communities from future climate change impacts? Ecosystem-based Adaptation approaches have proven to be tried and true investments, and will become ever more valuable as climatic changes take effect.

Ecosystem-based Adaptation is a newly-defined activity in the quest to respond to climate change, but its techniques and theory are as old as man. Ecosystem-based adaptation is simply the category of activities that use biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people and communities adapt to the negative effects of climate change at local, national, regional and global levels. The comprehensive approach has many associated benefits including poverty reduction, resource-use diversification, and green jobs. EbA takes a whole ecosystem approach to building climate resilience by investing in management, rehabilitation, and diversification of natural resources so that the community can benefit from the ecosystem services now and in the future.

For example, an Ecosystem project in Nigeria used agroforestry to provide multiple, and lasting benefits to a large portion of Nigeria. The semi-arid areas of Nigeria are characterised by low rainfall, low environmental productivity, and sparse vegetation. Since a severe drought hit in the early 1970’s, desertification has remained one of the pressing environmental problems faced in the Sahel region. Ecosystem degradation resulting from environmental changes and human activities has culminated in formation of highly unproductive and detrimental mobile sand dunes. A total population of over 5000 men, women and children from Tohsua community risked being displaced by the moving sand dunes, water scarcity and the risk of food insecurity in the area as farm lands were being made unproductive by the effects of the encroaching sand dunes.

The agroforestry project involved the planting of 15,000 seedlings of the early colonizing and fast growing Prosopis juliflora on the lee side of the sand dunes to serve as barrier to movement of dunes and later to restore the fertility of the soil. The plant used was an ecosystem-enhancing species which will carry the added benefit of providing food for livestock and fuel wood for the people. The project also dug shallow wells in the oases to conserve water for household uses, watering of livestock and irrigation purposes.

This area with a population of 5,000 now has better access to water, has secured their land from dune encroachment, has increased availability of livestock feed and therefore their own food security, has more available fuel resources, and has succeeded in securing the community against climate change impacts such as desertification, encroachment, and water scarcity. These effects have reduced poverty by providing many costly inputs at zero monetary cost to the community simply from improving ecosystem services. If we properly asses the value of the ecosystem services now provided, the project has made even larger gains.

Healthy ecosystems can prove to be a win-win for poverty and for climate change resilience, while investing in ecosystems now can mean greater benefits and less spent on aid later. Africa boast vast reserves of natural resources and even in places where natural resources are limited, ecosystem resources still have immense potential to aid communities in emerging from poverty and food insecurity. We should invest in this potential before the costs are too much to bear.

*Thoughts expressed are my own and not those of UNEP.
Twitter: @M.Tingem

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