14 February, 2020

Local heating, not just global

Western science is lauded as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge. When it comes to climate change, they are often quoted as the experts, with people from all fields urging the irrational: “Listen to the science!”

The only problem: scientists are limited in their imagination and cannot see beyond the 1.5 degree threshold. Much like Tom Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” they imagine the planet to be flat, warming at an even rate all over like a nice tortilla, from mountains to Himalayan glaciers, from Antartica to the Gulf.

But the world is not shaped like a tortilla. It has immense geographical, environmental, social, political and policy variations, even a few kilometers apart.

In some parts of India, peak summer temperatures already reach 50 degree centigrades. This is unsustainable for human habitation. Some of this heating is caused by global climate change, but other reasons for warming and drought is local deforestation, extraction of water without rain recharge, and industrial application of chemical fertilizers which turn soil into fine dust. Cities and tenements built without planning for greenery exacerbate the urban heat effect. All are catalysts for heating.

A policy decision made a kilometer away can create a thriving, water rich, forest dense community living sustainably while another can be a desert only a few minutes drive away. I visited one such community in Nepal in 2009. A village of Khadgas, poor but still educated, were tending a community forest from which they harvested herbs for essential oils. They had plumes of water from groundwater to grow corn. Their lives were on the upswing with one liter of essential oil bringing in Rs.30,000 in income. The next community of Chidimars, a Dalit community which made a living off trapping birds, were living in an desertified environment—they’d been encouraged to put in a tubewell by a development agency, had stopped building traditional gadda to store rainwater, and had cut all their trees to build a schoolhouse. The community was on the edge of migrating due to desertification caused by bad policy and environmental distress.

How poor communities build up resilience to survive the global as well as local warming effects will depend heavily upon local policy decisions. In Nepal, local governance structures like ward offices and village development committees have been annihilated by the Loktantric regime. In my own neighborhood in Handigaon, I have been hard pressed to find an elected representative who could address my concerns about huge numbers of motorcycles driving through a historic area. I would like to stop this onslaught. But who do I turn to? There is no clear representative, no ward officials, no VDC structure.

This lack of local governance means special stress and vulnerability to poor communities often at the mercy of outside actors. Often current policy decisions, made ad hoc and on the spot, are driven by external Kathmandu based NGO actors whose motivations may consist of showing a progress report to the donor agency rather than the true concerns of the community. Tubewells and now solar pumps that pump up riverwater, which are unsustainable in the long run, are being introduced (to much applause) at the expense of long-term sustainable water harvesting and irrigation systems. As the traditional methods fall apart, and the people have no way to maintain expensive polythene pipe systems, a rural community can plummet into drought and distress.

This sort of development-triggered distress is never accounted for in M and E reports, a genre of writing which documents glowing successes. “Is this policy sustainable in the long run?” is not a question asked of development practitioners. Grant burn rates (throw money at people who can use it up fast), flashy new technology, hot button themes, progress reports and deliverables drive policies, rather than long-term environmental stewardship.

Fossil fuel needs to be phased out, as does plastics.  But central to people’s survival in the climate heating era will be local governance. A strong network of local governance existed in Nepal in the past. This is quickly being eradicated as crony communism takes hold. If we don’t address this, this will be a threat to the very existence of local communities.

Annapurna Post, February 14, 2020