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Grassroots climate resilience in dryland Africa

A cassava farmer in Ghana

A cassava farmer in Ghana. CIAT under a Creative Commons Licence

Last month the British government announced it was pledging £720 million ($1.1 billion) to the Green Climate Fund. In doing so, it attracted criticism, seemingly from all quarters. Environmentalists criticized it for an unproven reliance on the private sector to deliver climate goals. Some politicians said the money should be used first to protect and help those at risk of climate extreme events in Britain. Somehow, the motivation for creating the fund – whatever its imperfections – slipped under the radar of media coverage. Why should we in Britain, or the other industrialized nations facing economic downturn and austerity, be funding poorer nations to prepare for the impact of climate extreme events?

Meinunatu Bonkpan is a smallholder farmer and mother of eight from Sakai, northern Ghana. She and her children eat whatever they can grow on their small plot of land. She sells any surplus to make a little income to buy clothes or medicine, or to pay for education for her children. But last year the rains were very poor and this year they came late. Next year, who knows?

The media like to focus on extreme weather events. We all have a tendency to marvel at the force of nature. We’re shocked when that leads to loss of life but, ‘well, stuff happens’. But for Meinunatu and her community, unpredictable growing seasons are not an inconvenience or an insurance risk; they are a matter of life and death. That death doesn’t necessarily come in a single catastrophic event. Instead, it arrives insidiously over a season or two of crops lost to a rainy season that didn’t start, or that started and then suddenly stopped unexpectedly, leaving plants to wither and die.

Communities like Meinunatu’s are disproportionately likely to experience weather extremes and unpredictability. They have fewer resources to deal with the impact and there is no social security system to provide protection when all else fails. To add insult to injury, the 350 million people currently living in poverty in dryland Africa have had an insignificant role in creating the climate change events that now threaten them.

It isn’t important whether you agree with the approach used by the Green Climate Fund or not. What’s important is the principle that those who have built up wealth from the processes that generate climate change should offer some financial assistance to those who suffer most from those events. That is, at the very, least natural justice.

But what to do? Over the last 20 years or so the focus of the climate-change discussions has been on reducing the actions that create climate problems. Of course, this needs to continue. But climate change is already with us, so actions that help us adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change are now imperative.

For the poorest and most vulnerable living in dryland Africa, there is no single technique that will protect them. Instead, we need to promote ‘resilience thinking’ and deliver ‘resilience action’. For families like Meinunatu’s, that means supporting them to adopt low-tech solutions that promote access to water, and improve crop, fodder and tree production. It means working with communities and local authorities to develop integrated local plans that ensure that those who need access to land and vegetation are able to get it and that access is fairly and transparently distributed. It means building climate information systems that local people can understand and use to help them make decisions on when to plant, when to sell their cattle or to draw on resources that they have put aside for times of hardship.

The Green Climate Fund is a small nod towards fairness and equality. It will go some way towards helping the most vulnerable to survive in the face of the negative impacts of climate change. But we must do more. We must actively promote resilience thinking and action. That means working with governments, with local authorities but, above all, with those most at risk – rural smallholders across the Global South. Ultimately, it is only by engaging people at village-level that climate resilience can truly be developed. It is our business to listen to the voices of people affected by climate change and work with them as they adopt or relearn the methods of resilience they need to survive.

Dr Philip Goodwin is the CEO of TREE AID.

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