AFRICA: Climate caught in red tape

Monday, June 25, 2007

The residents of Umkhanyakude, a poor rural district in northeastern South Africa, say they have been producing less food over the past few decades because the rains have become more erratic.

Unable to grow enough food, many have been forced to seek work away from home for long periods of time. HIV then rose, said development agency Oxfam Australia, which has been working with the community since 2005, and has tried to help the people of Umkhanyakude understand the link between their altered lifestyle and climate change.

Reduced rainfall often means children cannot attend school because they have to walk far to fetch water for the household. "Some even sleep by the river due to the long distances they need to travel, making them vulnerable to sexual assault or violence," said an April 2007 Oxfam Australia report, Where has all the water gone?: Understanding climate change from a community perspective.

The residents do not have access to any government-led long-term sustainable adaptation measures. They have tried diversifying crops or earning money by weaving, wood carving, beading and selling sweets, "but these raise little income due to the lack of markets to sell these goods," said the Oxfam report.

"The large majority ... are unclear about why the climate is changing ... while some see a link between the increase in temperature and reduction in rainfall, there are many misconceptions in the community about climate change, such as the belief that it is God's will, or that poverty has created climate change," the report adds.

Ideally, communities like Umkhanyakude should receive support from their local, provincial or national governments, which have been required to plan for changing weather patterns and mitigate climate change since the historic 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, organised by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

Too much red tape

Hard-pressed officials in African governments often lack the time or resources to devote to the processes laid out at the Rio summit and in subsequent international initiatives. Many have become so bogged down by the myriad inter-governmental treaties and bodies on climate change, environmental issues and natural disasters in the past decade that they "can't keep up", said Foday Bojang, head of the African Union's Environment and Natural Resources division, who met with IRIN at a UN conference in Geneva.
Between sessions of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction conference, African officials told IRIN that similar broadly environmental issues were being dealt with by different "compartments" within their governments, draining skilled resources and contributing to overlaps and weak coordination within and between governments.

Three conventions were signed at Rio: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification, known as the Rio Conventions, which cover environmental issues strongly affected by climate change.

Under the UNFCC, countries agreed to take climate change into account in their agriculture, industry, energy and natural resources, and develop national programmes to slow climate change.

In the biodiversity treaty, countries undertook to conserve species, transfer technology, and share fairly the benefits arising from the commercial use of genetic resources.

Parties to the desertification agreement have to carry out national, sub-regional and regional action programmes, and address the causes of land degradation, ranging from international trade patterns to unsustainable land management.

The mitigation measures to be undertaken under the convention to check desertification are quite similar to the ones proposed by a subsequent framework for action advocated by the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

In addition, the World Meteorological Organisation also drew up a Natural Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Programme, with natural disaster risk reduction as the core of its mission.

To keep up with the global process on each of these conventions and programmes, governments are required to devote personnel and other resources, often from different departments: agriculture, environment, water affairs or even land management.

"At the moment countries have to have at least three focal points on the Rio conventions related to climate change. There is no point in running parallel processes, and it ends up in duplication; there needs to be better coordination, maybe brought under one focal agency such as UNEP [the United Nations Environment Programme]", Bojang suggested.

"Then we also need focal points on disaster prevention and risk reduction. The mitigation measures to be undertaken under all these processes are the same, as the objective is the same: better management of our natural resources," he added.

An official from a Southern African government told IRIN that they often had to shut down the office dealing with risk reduction to move the personnel to disaster prevention "whenever there is an eventuality".

Different approaches

Officials of the various conventions and programmes at the Geneva conference maintained that their approaches were nuanced, and an official explained that the "conventions serve as a framework for developing programmes".

But Bojang argued that this often led to the duplication of processes. Various ministries need to get involved, and "there is often lack of synergy, even within governments, on their response to the issue" because of the different approaches.

"That is very true," remarked a UN official involved with one of the conventions on climate change. Choosing to remain anonymous, he added they often had to check with countries whether there was agreement within their government on the issue.

Integrated approach versus "compartments"

The way forward was an integrated approach, Yvette Stevens, the former UN Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator, told IRIN. "It will happen. There will be a common platform for all the agencies to coordinate and work together on climate change. A lot of energy is wasted in compartmentalisation."
Since the impact of climate change is so broad, as the residents of Umkhanyakude are finding, there has been some debate on integrating efforts to ameliorate its effects into the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Oxfam Australia found that climate change had reduced the effectiveness of development planning in Umkhanyakude and had cancelled out some progress towards the MDGs.

"We [the AU] have talked about it, and we are already talking about integrating the impact of climate change into our poverty reduction plans," said Bojang.

John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam-UK, said integrating the impact of climate change into national development plans would help to enhance the issue's profile.

"Often, climate change is seen as an environmental matter and left in the hands of the environment ministry, which often lacks political clout, and the issue does not get the priority it deserves," he commented. "Integrating climate change into national development plans would also enrich the debate around the MDGs."


Source: IRIN