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01 November 2009

It's a Justice Issue

It's a Justice Issue

In the run-up to December's Copenhagen climate summit, Hazel Southam examines what global warming means for people around the world and how Christians can help...

Climate change can no longer be considered the bogeyman in the shadows. Scientists agree that we are already feeling the effects of global warming, with more to come.

At the G8 Summit this summer, the world's leaders agreed to cut emissions of harmful greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by 2020. It was the benchmark for which development agencies like Tearfund and Christian Aid had campaigned for many years. Yet it falls short of the 25-40 per cent cuts that many scientists say is needed.

The aim is to prevent a 2 degree rise in world temperature. This doesn't sound like much on a chilly British winter day (in fact, it could sound like a positive benefit), but scientists say that a 2 degree rise in temperatures could be cataclysmic for the world, most crucially for the world's poorest. It would create unpredictable climate change, and we all depend on weather for food, security and fresh water.

Poor people didn't cause climate change, but they are hit hardest by it

Meanwhile, sea-level rises of 1 metre by 2100 are predicted due to melting glaciers. This could displace 10 per cent of the world's population - that's some 600 million people on the move, looking for a new home.

And the poorer you are, the worse the impact. In a recent report, Christian Aid says, "Most of the world's 2.7 billion poor people depend on natural resources (water, forests, seas, soil) for survival and economic development, but the environment and the world's natural resources are already substantially degraded and increasingly being affected by changes in the climate."

But the report was not a hand-wringing exercise. Titled Community Answers to Climate Chaos, the report claims that change already is being brought about in local communities.

"Community action can build the resilience and stability of countries and their economies in response to ongoing changes in the climate," the report says. "Through local sustainable development, working to improve and conserve the natural environment they live in, communities can improve food security and the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people."

Helping communities

Development agencies are already hard at work helping local communities to adapt to the changes that are affecting them today and to prepare for the effects that will come in the future. Some of these initiatives are costly, others are remarkably cheap, but both are more efficient than paying to clean up countries later, experts say.

"Helping people adapt is an issue of justice," says Tearfund's Sara Shaw. "Poor people didn't cause climate change, but they are hit the hardest by it. We have a responsibility to help them adapt."

Arguably, a key place to do this is in Bangladesh, much of which is less than 1 metre above sea level. Rising temperatures, frequent floods and cyclones hit the country's poor population annually. And as the sea level begins to rise, the land where people live is literally being washed away. Salt water can now be found up to 100km inland.

Minu Basar knows all about this. She often travels the whole day to find fresh water. "Because of the salt water, we have to suffer hardship just to survive," she says. "We can't even wash our own vegetables or fish with the water. If you wash anything with it and then leave it, you'll see it go black. When we wash our hair, it becomes sticky and smelly. Once a month, when we go to collect water from freshwater sources far away, we take all our clothes and wash them there."

Some 40 million people like Minu in Bangladesh still lack safe drinking water, but local Christian agencies are helping people to run their own community water organisations.

Working with professionals, they bring people together to identify the best water supply methods for the households and wider community. This encourages rainwater harvesting, doing simple things like collecting water from tin roofs in jars that are kept clean with bleach powder and covered with mesh to stop insects and bacteria getting in.

It's an inexpensive scheme that's transforming lives. Rina Begum, is just one person whose life is better thanks to the scheme. The 20-year-old mother is part of a community water organisation. "Before we learned about the dangers of drinking water, we used to drink water from the pond or the river and even dirty rainwater that we'd collected," she says. "But we didn't know how to do it safely. Now we have very clean water. We preserve it safely and collecting it has become very easy. We even have less health problems now."

Learning to adapt

Elsewhere, protecting yourself from the weather - adapting to it - takes different forms. In Honduras, the problem people face is an increase in storms that bring floods and landslides with them.

Climate change is increasing the size of storms in the Atlantic, where the annual hurricane season finishes at the end of November. Honduras often feels the brunt of this season; the worst was Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when some 20,000 people died or were missing. According to Honduras' then president, the country's development was put back 50 years.

So what do you do about ever-bigger hurricanes if you grow flowers for a living? For 58-year-old Florentina, the storms ruined her business. "We made a lovely cover [for our flowers] but the wind tore it down," she recalls. "We have very strong storms here ... terrible winds that destroy everything."

Through a UK-funded project that costs £65,000 over three years, Florentina's situation is changing. The answer to the problem has proved simple: the roof that protects the flowers from sun and heavy rain has now been reinforced using wire mesh. It now holds firm against the storms, and the flowers aren't lost when hurricanes arrive.

In many countries across the vast Sahel region in Africa, the so-called hungry season is a fixed part of the calendar. It's the time when the food runs out and the harvest hasn't yet come. And it's getting worse.

Subsistence farmers are badly affected by erratic rainfall and rising temperatures. Last year, floods washed away every last seed of Pastor Philippe Yampa's sorghum crop. Today, Philippe and his wife Wendenda are one of hundreds of families being helped by development agency Tearfund to learn how to use their allotments more productively.

In Africa, the so-called hungry season is getting worse

This simple strategy has helped some of the poorest farmers in the Sahel ensure that they have enough food, even though their environment is unpredictable.

"We need to help others," says Christian Aid's Alison Doig. "We have a responsibility as the causers of climate change to help other people adapt. It's our obligation to help those feeling the impact of climate change now."

The Millennium Development Goals

  • To eradicate poverty: specifically to halve the number of people living on less than $1 a day
  • To provide universal primary education
  • To promote gender equality
  • To reduce child mortality by two-thirds
  • To improve maternal health
  • To combat HIV/Aids and malaria
  • To ensure environmental sustainability and halve the number of people who don't have access to safe drinking water
  • To provide a global partnership for development

Achieving these goals (MDGs) will be a key way of combating the effects of global warming being felt in the developing world. So says Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia.

Long-term targets, he says, can "too easily provide a rather convenient way for governments to say, 'We are doing good things,' when what actually would make a difference today is being overlooked.

"Climate change gives us an extra reason why attending to the MDGs is a good thing to do. We don't have to know what the climate danger is to know that we will make real beneficial progress for people if we attend to them."

The Millennium Development Goals - agreed to by the world's leading nations - are due to be met in 2015, just five years' time. Yet, over the last 18 months governments have backed away from meeting these commitments, which aid workers argue would save lives.

Micah Challenge is motivating Christians in the UK and around the world to hold governments to account for these promises. For more information, and ways to get involved, visit: micahchallenge.org.uk

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