Myanmar has experienced a number of extreme weather events in recent years, many of which are likely to worsen with climate change. In 2019, the country suffered record pre-monsoon heat. The city of Yangon recorded 42 degrees Celsius in April – a new record for the city. Dozens of people were admitted to hospital with symptoms of heatstroke, and seven individuals died in the Yangon and Bago regions due to the extreme temperatures. In 2008, Cyclonic Storm Nargis caused the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Myanmar. 84,500 people were killed, and 53,800 went missing. In 2015, severe flooding affected twelve out of Myanmar’s 14 states, resulting in about 103 deaths and displacing up to a million people.The Earth is getting warmer, meaning that extreme weather events are likely to become more severe.
efforts are essential for Myanmar to build its resilience to climate change, and
achieve its development objectives. As climate impacts become more severe,
Myanmar cannot afford inaction. The
country does have opportunities
to build its resilience to climate change, many of which are low-cost and can
result in positive co-benefits. Here are four adaptation opportunities that have the
potential to make a significant difference to the lives and livelihoods of Myanmar’s
1.Invest in Nature-based Solutions
Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are defined as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. NbS have a variety of co-benefits that can range from biodiversity conservation, decreases in water runoff, the creation of new jobs, and poverty reduction. For example, Myanmar’s mangroves can protect shorelines from damaging storms and hurricanes by dissipating the energy from waves and winds and preventing erosion by stabilising sediments with their tangled root systems. Mangroves provide nursery habitats for many wildlife species, including commercial fish and crustaceans, contributing to sustaining the local abundance of fish and shellfish populations. Restoring these natural habitats provides a valuable opportunity for building resilience and fisher livelihoods.
2.Ensure that new infrastructure is climate-resilient
Climate-resilient infrastructure is planned, designed, built, and operated in a way that anticipates, prepares for, and adapts to changing climate conditions. Myanmar needs to upgrade existing infrastructure to reduce vulnerabilities and adapt to a changing climate and reduce emissions through greener transport systems. Furthermore, ensuring the resilience of infrastructure protects them from further climate-related damages. For example, changing the composition of road surfaces can prevent them from deforming in high temperatures.
3.Strengthen community knowledge management
to use the tools for change is just as important as having them. There is an
urgent need to foster knowledge and design management techniques into planning.
Technological innovation and establishing institutional arrangements can help
strengthen Myanmar’s capacity to adapt. Providing vulnerable communities with
the knowledge, skills, and resources to mitigate the risks of and recover from
climate shocks, and stresses will empower them and strengthen their resilience
to climate change impacts. Additionally, educating people about different
adaptation practices, such as pursuing sustainable farming methods or using new
resilience infrastructure, doesn’t require any physical infrastructure to be
built, making for adaptation that is low-cost, high impact and long-lasting.
Myanmar needs finance and support to adapt to climate change and pursue low-carbon development. Whilst adaptation finance to developing countries is available, it needs to increase significantly, and improvements need to be made to make it more accessible. At this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, discussions over delivering the $100 billion finance target will take place. With Myanmar on track to experience worsening impacts of climate change, the country will need to develop investable adaptation projects that can attract finance from the principal climate finance mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF), Adaptation Fund (AF) and Global Environment Facility (GEF).
co-operation is needed
has already resulted in loss of life and damage to Myanmar’s economy and put its
renowned biodiversity and natural resources under increased pressure. The
country’s exposure to climate impacts is high, meaning that swift adaptation
efforts are necessary to protect the lives and livelihoods of its population.
These efforts need to be made across all parts of Myanmar’s economy and society
and become fully integrated into its development planning to ensure its
development. Myanmar will need support from the international community to realise
these goals, particularly in the form of climate finance, technology and
capacity transfers from wealthy countries.
This year’s COP26
will be significant. Coming five years after the Paris Agreement came into
force, it represents the deadline for countries to renew their carbon reduction
pledges, and increase their ambition towards meeting the 1.5˚C temperature
target. For countries like Myanmar, co-operation with other climate-vulnerable
nations will be important to ensure they are able to hold wealthy to account,
putting pressure on them to meet their obligations and limit the damage that
will result from climate change.
Today, Myanmar is in the midst of a fight that will determine the future of its democracy. While this inevitably demands the full attention and energy of the population, the future holds other challenges of its own. The military takeover came just as the government was preparing for a crucial year for climate change, culminating in the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, UK, in November. According to the 2020 Global Climate Risk Index, Myanmar is the world’s second most disaster-prone country, exposed to multiple climate-related hazards, including floods, cyclones, landslides, and droughts. Climate impacts will be felt through the whole economy and will touch all aspects of society. Building resilience will require the government to put climate change at the heart of its decision-making processes and development plans. Only an integrated approach that recognises the interconnected nature of climate risks will be effective.
Over the past decade, Myanmar has made some progress. The country had decreased its poverty rate from 48.2 per cent in 2005 to 24.8 per cent in 2017. Whilst this represents good progress, climate change threatens further development as it will impact all sectors in Myanmar, including agriculture, transport and energy.
Despite this progress, seasonal food insecurity remains a concern across Myanmar. Kundhavi Kadiresan, Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said in a speech in 2019 that “much work remains to be done for Myanmar to achieve SDG-2, the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030.” Climate impacts threaten to make this goal even harder to reach.
Increased rainfall during the wet season and decreased rainfall during the dry season may reduce agricultural production for key crops. More frequent extreme heat and higher average temperatures may also lead to crop failures, reduce productivity, or alter staple crops’ nutritional content. Despite Myanmar’s economic progress, its reliance on the agricultural sector makes over half of the labour force highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Productivity is linked to connectivity – efforts to improve transport connectivity in Myanmar present opportunities to boost trade, growth and regional integration. When transport systems are efficient and reliable, they provide economic and social opportunities and benefits that result in positive multiplier effects such as better accessibility to market and employment.
Research suggests that increased public spending on transport infrastructure over the next decade could reduce logistics costs by around 30 per cent and increase annual GDP by up to $40 bn. Energy, water and telecommunications infrastructure also face increased risk from physical damage and disruption caused by storms, floods and other hazards becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change.
Over-reliance on hydropower holds its problems. Heatwaves and an increasing number of extreme heat days could increase energy demand for air conditioning and industrial cooling. At the same time, droughts and change in river flows due to erratic rainfall may affect hydropower energy generation. The costs of power outages will be felt across the whole economy, as industrial and commercial rely on a continuous power supply.
Diversified power systems that draw on multiple forms of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, are more resilient to climate impacts and can deliver energy closer to the communities that they serve. Nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, can also reduce the risk to hydropower by regulating water flow and stabilising the soil, preventing landslides and improving water quality.
When Myanmar is able to look towards the future once more, it must take steps to build its climate resilience to achieve its development objectives. An integrated approach is required to manage these interconnected challenges.
Climate change must be integrated into decision-making across all government departments. For it to be taken seriously, it must also be understood as a priority issue at the highest levels including within the Ministry of Planning and Finance. A broader process of engagement with Myanmar’s people is also required to ensure the country can move forward towards a future in which everyone can share. There is much reconciliation to do in the meantime to achieve this.
Cover image: Landslide in Myanmar. Climate change will make these events more common. By Sukun, 2017
i.Food Security Cluster (FSC);
ii. The Myanmar Times (2020);
Extreme weather in Myanmar’s Magwe breaks temperature record
iii. Frontier Myanmar (2019); The
National League for Democracy’s power fail
iv. Global Witness (2020); Myanmar
jade mine disaster highlights government inaction
* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On Feb. 23, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the threat that climate change poses to global peace. The question is no longer whether global warming sparks the flames of conflict; it is about where climate shocks are likely to tip already fragile situations into war or civil strife.
This could occur in the Arctic Circle, where melting ice caps are triggering a scramble for resources, or in the world’s populous and fertile river deltas, turned barren by rising seas, or in the Sahel and the Middle East, regions already blighted by conflict and acute water stress. In every region of the world, climate impacts are “threat multipliers” – they aggravate the risk of conflict, even if they are not directly responsible for instability or strife.
Policy-makers are only now beginning to look at the hidden peace dividend that flows from investing in climate adaptation. The idea makes intuitive sense. It is one our leaders should explore more fully.
We know there is no simple connection between climate change and conflict. But in a world already weakened by COVID-19 and existing climate stresses, we have a moral duty to do everything we can to eliminate or avert future threats to peace. And climate adaptation is something we know how to do. We just don’t do enough of it.
The adaptation gap
A new report by the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) estimates the world spends just $30 billion a year on climate adaptation – that is five to 10 times less than the $140 billion-$300 billion a year the UN Environment Programme and others estimate is needed to address climate impacts in the developing world.
It is also seven times less than the total global cost of climate disasters, which amounted to $210 billion in 2020, according to Munich Re, the global reinsurance house, and only a tiny fraction of the $14.5 trillion in lost annual economic output due to war and civil strife, according to the 2020 Global Peace Index. In the face of the devastating human and economic consequences of war and civil strife, we need a new approach to building peace.
The GCA’s State and Trends in Climate Adaptation 2020 report highlights some of the initiatives that are contributing to regional peace and stability.
In the Arab world, for example, a regional platform for assessing the impact of climate change on water resources is playing a crucial role in defusing potential tensions over water scarcity. The RICCAR platform’s knowledge hub is being used to raise awareness and promote regional co-operation and coordination in water management. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, two-thirds of freshwater resources cross one or more international boundaries, making regional co-operation on water management essential to guarantee peace and security. In this context, the importance of a regional knowledge hub that promotes shared policies for water management and for avoiding conflicts over water cannot be overstated.
Another encouraging story comes from Rwanda, where Christie Nicoson of the University of Uppsala has been studying the impact of climate adaptation programs on the cohesion of communities still traumatized by the 1994 genocide. One particular program worked to reduce vulnerability to heavy rains and mudslides by establishing early-warning and disaster preparedness systems, and by planting trees to prevent soil erosion. Nicoson found that communities were better informed and better able to cope with climate impacts thanks to the program. And by reducing resource stress, climate adaptation is having a positive effect on social cohesion and peace.
The link to peace
We know it is difficult to establish a direct link between climate adaptation and peace. And we are not touting climate adaptation as a cure all against poverty, social inequalities, weak institutions, the arms trade, religious extremism, or national, regional and ethnic power struggles and rivalries.
But climate adaptation does have a positive contribution to make, both in terms of promoting peace and in removing potential flashpoints for conflict. That is because social justice lies at the heart of successful climate adaptation. And peace, broadly speaking, is a measure of justice, fairness, and wellbeing of society.
Done well, adaptation reduces social exclusion and inequalities by promoting sustainable livelihoods and stronger coping mechanisms against severe climate shocks. Farmers who have access to drought-resistant crops will be less likely to abandon their landholdings when drought strikes. Nature-based solutions, such as tree planting, and good water management reduce the potential for conflict over scarce resources.
The Global Commission on Adaptation has estimated that investing $1.8 trillion in climate adaptation by 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in social, economic and environmental benefits. The peace dividend from climate adaptation investment might be harder to quantify, but it definitely exists. Climate adaptation can help avert conflict by increasing communities’ coping capacities, and by facilitating development and progress toward greater wellbeing. For that reason, it is worth considering as a powerful tool for promoting global peace.
Tawakkol Karman is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation.
Young people from the LDCs have the energy and knowledge to drive climate action – but they need collaboration and investment from decision-makers at the national and international level.
“Young people are the future, and we need to hand over a better world.” Youth often hear such sentiments – and we are grateful. But in the run-up to the UN climate talks (COP26) in November, young people from all sectors and countries need actions: collaboration, binding agreements and funding.
This year is the moment to reset and start building back better. As a main stakeholder, young people globally are doing what they do best: self-organising, disrupting and creating movements to drive collective global action to accelerate climate adaptation and build a resilient future.
But we are not homogenous. And more importantly, where we come from and are situated heavily influences our voice and agency.
While a growing number of youth climate initiatives are supported and brought into the fold by respective governments or international organisations, we hardly see representation from least developed countries’ (LDC) youth.
As an LDC youth representative, I have to speak truth to power, and demand that governments, organisations and leaders uphold the equity, inclusivity and diversity they speak of, and integrate LDC voices in youth initiatives. As the IIED-ICCCAD event emphasised, the time for asking has passed: it is now time to demand.
Two crucial COP26 outcomes that will support LDC youth
LDC youth want to be heard and to contribute to decisions that will affect our future. I would like to pitch two areas for urgent climate action and outcomes from the COP26 process that will empower LDC youth.
1. Embed LDC youth leadership in decision-making
The absence of young people’s voices in decision-making is deafening, and even more of an issue for LDC youth. Globally, young people are largely relegated to advocacy roles. While these roles are valuable, they do not provide the platforms for providing meaningful input and action.
Young people face systemic and structural barriers, and more so for LDC youth due to political, economic and socio-cultural contexts. If you are poor, your priority is survival – not climate change; you do not have the bandwidth and means to think beyond your struggle to survive.
Even with knowledge about the climate crisis, you may not have the safe space or capacity or enabling environment to act, because larger and more overwhelming powers are at play. LDC youth fall short in scaling up and sustaining climate solutions due to lack of influence, funds or other forms of support.
We want LDC youth councils or groups established at national and international platforms to recognise us as a key stakeholder in decision-making. We are not looking for tokenism. We want global alliances between the developed, developing and LDC youth groups. We need to lift each other up.
2. Support social entrepreneurship and innovation for LDC youth
The young are on the frontline of disrupting systems to find solutions. Social entrepreneurship and innovation are largely youth driven. Reports suggest eight out of 10 people in the developing world will need to create their own jobs, illustrating that entrepreneurship is the solution.
We want impact funds, accelerators and mentoring programs targeted at social climate entrepreneurs. This is an opportunity for all world governments (including LDCs), international bodies and businesses to show responsible leadership and to join youth in building a social contract based on trust, collaboration and opportunity.
We are not asking for charity, we are asking that you invest in us. We ask you to work with us, to brainstorm with us, design and implement youth inclusive climate actions for adaptation.
We hold dialogues on climate change and climate education, building our narrative and call for action. I also work with entrepreneurs for nature positive and social enterprise start-ups. Climate change and the green economy are business opportunities – especially for youth as the job market shifts as economies decarbonise.
But we do this largely in a vacuum with no real collaboration and investment for growth, scale and impact. This restricts us to taking only a step or two when we could be making leaps and bounds. We are not in the boardrooms of corporates, nor cabinets of political parties nor policymaking rooms of governments.
We need these decision-makers to join us and let us join them, to meet each other where we are, and learn from each other. We need intergenerational allyship to solve these intergenerational challenges.
If we are the future, let us work together for that future.
When the rains never arrived in the East African nation of Somalia in 2016, nor in 2017, hundreds of thousands of rural residents were forced to abandon their lands and livelihoods due to one of the most severe droughts in decades. Then, in 2019, from September to December, heavy rains led to severe flooding there, displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in rural areas and towns in the districts of Belet Weyne, Baardheere and Berdale.
These climate migrants traversed barren and dusty landscapes, or traveled through torrential rains, in search of food and shelter. Many ended up in refugee camps in urban areas such as Badbaado, a sea of makeshift tents on the outskirts of Mogadishu that is now home to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.
The challenges they face are profound, says Ben Mbaura, national emergency response and disaster risk reduction coordinator at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), including inter clan conflict, poor sanitation, limited education and insufficient access to food. On top of that, many “do not have the necessary skills to match labor market needs, which also results in high levels of unemployment and exclusion,” Mbaura notes.
The response to internal displacement like this has long been to provide emergency or short-term assistance. In recent years, however, with so many internally displaced persons living in protracted displacement, humanitarian organizations have increasingly recognized the need to empower them to move toward greater self-reliance. As a result, in 2016 the U.N. and the government of Somalia created the Durable Solutions Initiative (DSI) as a way to introduce long-term solutions for internally displaced persons in Somalia. The DSI gives these people a voice in decision-making processes that shape their future — and offers a model for other cities that are, or soon will be, in similar circumstances.
Every year, millions of people around the world are forced to abandon their lands, livelihoods and communities due to the effects of climate change. And the rate of climate-induced migration is increasing — with most taking place in the form of rural-urban migration within countries.
According to a recent World Bank report, “internal climate migrants” could number more than 143 million by 2050, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia. If the past is any indication, most will be forced from their homes by extreme weather events. Others will move from rural areas to cities due to slow-onset climate-related events, such as desertification.
Humanitarian experts predict that the current trajectory of climate change will displace millions of people in the Global South. Source: Kanta et al. 2018. Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.
Pablo Escribano, a specialist on migration and climate change in Latin America for the IOM, says this migration will create “urban hot spots” where displaced persons converge in search of shelter, food and jobs.
Climate migrants who arrive in cities are likely to move to informal settlements, and many of these hot spots will occur in rapidly expanding cities in low- and middle-income countries with weak governance and limited capacities to provide social services and infrastructure.
“In Asia, recent estimates of the increase in sea-level rise have strong implications for cities like Jakarta, Bangkok and Dhaka,” Escribano says.
In Latin America, he says, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, La Paz and Mexico City will experience migration pressure from sea-level rise, melting glaciers and other climate-change effects. “Fast-growing cities in Africa, such as Lagos, Luanda and Kinshasa are also considered to be city hot spots,” he adds.
Urban development expert Robert Muggah has dubbed these urban settings as “fragile cities.” As the co-founder and research and innovation director of the think tank Igarapé Institute in Brazil, Muggah developed 11 indicators that determine urban fragility, including crime, inequality, lack of access to services and climate change threats.
Ani Dasgupta, global director for the Ross Center for Sustainable Cities at the World Resources Institute (WRI), says fast-growing cities face multiple threats that increase the vulnerability of new arrivals.
“As cities expand, many municipal governments are overburdened. They are not able to keep up with increasing demand for basic services, like housing, jobs, electricity and transport,” he says. “The climate crisis is an additional challenge on top of this. Flooding, heat waves, water shortages and more powerful storms tend to affect new migrants and already vulnerable populations most severely.”
Move Toward Self-Reliance
The goal of the DSI is to strengthen the ability of government at all levels — local, state and federal — to help internally displaced persons integrate into society. It has mobilized funding from donors such as the World Bank, U.N. agencies and the Peacebuilding Fund (the U.N.’s financial resource for supporting peace in areas experiencing or at risk of conflict) to support initiatives that allow internally displaced persons to present their ideas for community infrastructure projects along with strategies to become self-reliant.
Teresa Del Ministro, the DSI coordinator for Somalia, says the DSI is a response to a growing global awareness of the limitations of traditional humanitarian approaches to deal effectively with internally displaced persons. “With that trend increasing worldwide, it appeared that multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed at all levels,” she says.
The DSI is considered particularly innovative because it lets internally displaced persons articulate the kinds of solutions they need to move toward self-reliance.
“A participatory, locally owned approach is one of the programming principles for the DSI,” says Isabelle Peter, the DSI’s coordination officer.
One example is the Midnimo I project supported by the Peacebuilding Fund with the IOM and UN-Habitat as partners.
With support from Midnimo I (“midnomo” means “unity” in Somali), climate migrants and other displaced persons in southern and central Somalia met with representatives of their host communities, along with city and national government officials, to develop creative solutions to the many challenges they face. Among other things, the initiative sought to help communities define and drive their own recovery — most prominently through community action plans (CAPs), documents that lay out local priorities for community-driven recovery.
As part of Midnimo I, the IOM trained Somali government representatives to engage displaced persons in visioning exercises to help them articulate their short-term needs and present ideas on strategies to move toward greater self-reliance.
Midnimo I was implemented in the cities of Kismayo and Baidoa, home to more than 450,000 internally displaced persons.
“Together they would come up with priorities for infrastructure investments or other types of investments. If a project didn’t have funding for these priorities, the government would convene other actors and ask for their support,” says Del Ministro.
According to an evaluation report by the IOM, the Midnimo I project created short-term employment opportunities, led to the construction of community infrastructure projects and contributed to the establishment of a land commission and to improved relations between authorities and displaced communities. Nearly 350,000 people directly benefited from the Midnimo I project as a result of constructing or upgrading community-prioritized schools, hospitals, water sources, police stations, prisons, airports and more, according to the IOM’s Mbaura.
The DSI in Ethiopia
The DSI also has been implemented in Ethiopia, where a drought that began in 2015 left millions dependent upon emergency food aid. The government of Ethiopia, with support from U.N. agencies, governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organizations, launched its own DSI in December 2019. As in Somalia, the focus is on long-term self-reliance.
“The scale of the displacement surprised many in the international community, and there was recognition that collectively we needed to support Ethiopia,” says Hélène Harroff Atrafi, the DSI coordinator in the U.N. Resident Coordinator’s Office. “In doing so, we looked at international good practices, including in neighboring Somalia.”
At this point, the governance structure for the DSI is being established with the government of Ethiopia in the lead. “We have agreed on the vision forward, we have brought together all of the partners who want to work together. Now the operational rollout must begin,” says Atrafi.
In the Somali region, one of 10 regions of Ethiopia, the DSI is now at the stage of detailing the options that internally displaced families have: urban and rural relocation, return to the location of origin, and potential integration in the settlements where the displaced individuals currently reside.
According to the World Bank report “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” the number of climate migrants in Ethiopia could close to triple by 2050, with Addis Ababa set to become an urban hot spot for climate induced migration. Smaller cities, such as Jigjiga and Deri Dawa, are also expected to receive increasing waves of climate migrants.
Around the world, fragile city governments can partner with international humanitarian organizations, NGOs, research institutions, the private sector, U.N. agencies and other city governments to strengthen their capacities to tackle challenges at the intersection of urbanization, climate and migration.
For the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), a think tank based in Geneva, multi-stakeholder partnerships play a crucial role in gathering information about internally displaced persons.
“We start with the people affected — internally displaced persons and host communities — and from there, we build up the agenda, collaborating with national governments, U.N. agencies, NGOs, academia and research centers,” says Pablo Ferrández, a research associate with the IDMC.
Andrew Fuys, senior director for global migration at the nonprofit Church World Service, says that one of the priorities for research is to identify how the risks climate migrants face are similar to, or differ from, those of other internally displaced persons in cities so that organizations can provide the appropriate services for climate migrants.
This article is part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19. As a build-up to International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020, the series examines these connections at local and global levels, highlights impacts on migrants, and provides evidence-based insights for United Nations member states, governments, and policymakers.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a stark image of what a world looks like when health is threatened on a global scale. Life as we once knew it has come to a standstill. When we do overcome this pandemic, however, the health and well-being impacts of climate change, will continue. The 2020 Lancet Countdown report published earlier this month shows how climate change is leading to immediate, profound, and worsening health impacts across the world. Bringing together 120 scientists from various research fields, and covering 43 global indicators, the report reveals how no country is immune, but also how some populations (such as people on the move) will suffer more than others.
I have been part of the Lancet Countdown since its very beginning and I currently work with the sub-working group focusing on human migration in a warming world. We estimate that, based on current population data, 145 million people will be exposed to potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. The amount of people exposed jumps to 565 million with a five-metre sea-level rise scenario.
Unless we act now, we will be able to observe how more and more vulnerable people face further disruptions to their livelihoods and lives. We do not have the luxury of tackling one crisis at a time. The health harms of climate change are compounding the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Extreme weather events and climatic changes are displacing people at the same time as the pandemic. Adding to this, both climate change and COVID-19 exacerbate existing social inequalities within and between countries. We cannot afford to focus attention only on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.
A globally coordinated effort tackling COVID-19 and climate change will also mean a triple win: better public health, a more sustainable economy, and environmental protection. Unless the global COVID-19 recovery is aligned with the response to climate change, we will fail to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals. Taking action to address climate change offers a way to protect the health and well-being of vulnerable people on the move now and in the future.
People on the move during the pandemic
It is still too early to get a good picture of how the pandemic has impacted people on the move, whether displaced in their own countries or seeking refuge elsewhere. That said, in our recently published article we give an overview of what we do know. We know that people seeking work in the cites, after being unable to sustain themselves through natural resource-based livelihoods (such as fishing and farming), often settle down in slums upon their arrival. In these informal settlements, migrants often reside in overcrowded spaces while struggling with fragile healthcare systems and lacking basic infrastructure such as access to water and sanitation.
About a billion people around the world, including approximately 30–50% of the urban population in the global South, live in slums. This is also where many internally displaced people end up. Imposing lockdowns in these areas can leave millions of people stranded without livelihood opportunities or food. We also know that migrants sometimes are not entitled to support services available to other citizens, and conflict-traumatised refugee populations often do not trust or seek help from the official authorities when feeling unwell.
Fear among refugees in regards to COVID-19 is also spreading due to misinformation. For example, one Rohingya refugee in the world’s largest refugee camp located in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh stated that ‘If anyone gets infected, the authority has to kill her/him. Because if (s)he stays alive, the virus will transfer to another person’s body.’ In this way, fear and stigma among the Rohingya refugees result in people avoiding to seek care as well as infected people being denied treatment.
The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important that we remember this brutal lesson, but also that the pandemic represents a new beginning. People on the move must be safeguarded throughout the pandemic as well as after. We must unite together in these efforts and refuse to let ultra-vulnerable people be pushed aside. We need to pay more attention to human rights violations, not simply those forcing people to flee, but also those that follow in the footsteps of people on the move — whether it is through the denial of basic health services, water, food, and sanitation, or the intensified justification of hostile treatment and removal of asylum seekers.
It is more important than ever that we ensure that people do not end up in situations where their health and safety are not guaranteed. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us it is that the risk to one person’s well-being can be a slippery slope towards putting us all at risk. The recommendations long made by human rights and sustainable living frameworks would have reduced the spread of this deadly virus. Ensuing that we ‘build back better’, and create a more sustainable future for people on the move, will benefit us all!
By PhyoPhyo Wai, APDC, Jose Arianne Gonzales, Oxfam and Marino Deocariza, Oxfam
Building community resilience to the impacts of climate change is essential in ensuring that vulnerable cities can thrive and survive but involving the community in the process is equally critical.
Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, is vulnerable to several types of disasters, including cyclones, floods, drought, and heatwaves. These events are likely to get worse with climate change as Yangon will also experience increased temperature, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise resulting in saltwater intrusion on coastal areas. The impact of these hazards, shocks, and stresses is exacerbated by unregulated urban development and the loss of green spaces and vegetation cover in the city. In addition, poorly maintained urban infrastructure and inadequate urban service provisions (such as water supply, solid waste management, drainage, and sanitation) increase risk exposure to the residents of the city, limiting their ability to be resilient to impacts and lowering their quality of life.
In July 2020, the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) and Oxfam Great Britain, along with local partner Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), launched the ADB-RETA 9329: Promoting Urban Resilience in Selected Asian Cities–Developing of Pilot Activities and Project Development Support (Subproject 3) or the Community-Led Project (CLP) – in Yangon, Myanmar. This project aims to support poor urban communities through an inclusive resilience planning process – especially women, youth and vulnerable groups – to enhance their well-being even in the face of the impacts caused by disasters and climate change shocks and stressors.
Inclusive and participatory planning
The UCCRTF project is piloting approaches to integrate community-led projects into ongoing or planned ADB projects. The inclusive and participatory workshop brought together city stakeholders to select a climate-vulnerable community in which to pilot the project implementation. Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) plays a significant role in building climate-resilient and sustainable urban systems in Yangon with support from the regional and national government. Thirty-one city stakeholders from the YCDC attended, as well as other Yangon Regional Departments and development partners, and 21 online participants from ADB, UCCRTF, Oxfam GB, and ADPC.
Through the consultation process, stakeholders were able to share their experience and expertise, which guided project design and pilot community selection. City stakeholders and government representatives expressed a strong commitment to the project after the workshop.
“Normally we, as government personnel, are only approached after organizations have already decided upon the project areas themselves – without hearing local voices and without getting any ideas from us. This is my very first experience participating in this kind of inclusive and transparent workshop, and having a chance to select the project’s areas with having our ideas,” said Daw Saw Sandar Oo Deputy Director, YCDC Urban Planning Authoritym.
The workshop also enabled city stakeholders to identify people to sit on the Community Stakeholders’ Group (CSG). The CSG will lead the implementation of the project in the pilot community, as well as establish agreed criteria for selecting the implementation actions for a community-led project that will be delivered as part of the project.
Zaw Win Aung Assistant Director, YCDC Water Resources and Water Supply Authority, who was one of the participants, stressed the importance of community-led initiatives for developing capacity and ownership of urban development processes. “Community-led projects have the potential of bringing knowledge and skills to the community,” he said. “This can enable them to become accountable leaders and result in innovative ideas that build the capacities of community stakeholder groups”.
Bringing hope to Dala Township
Dala Township has been selected by city stakeholders for the pilot project after being voted as the most vulnerable township in Yangon. Dala has also been considered the most suitable project site by scoring highest in five of the six selection indicators.
Dala Township is located on the southern bank of Yangon River and is prone to regular flooding and riverbank erosion. In 2008, 83 percent of Dala was inundated by Cyclone Nargis. The community also regularly suffers from water scarcity, lacking in a reliable source of potable and domestic water. The township is also known to have high poverty rate and has several informal settlements.
The people of Dala have been experiencing the impacts of climate change. But these hardships will soon be turned into opportunities after being identified by the government and YDCD as an area for future development. Dala Township is expected to experience positive changes in the coming years as the community, assisted by UCCTRF, will work to build climate resilience and improve the lives of its people.
When Victorian tea-merchant Frederick Horniman was looking to build a new home for his extensive collection of natural and cultural artefacts, his own back garden offered the perfect spot. Situated on one of the highest points in London, Surrey Mount – the Horniman family home – enjoyed commanding views across the city. The surrounding area of Forest Hill was a thriving suburb, and Horniman sought to “bring the world” to this growing community by making his collection accessible to everyone.
Architect Charles Harrison Townsend was commissioned to design the new museum, which opened in 1901. Soon afterwards, Horniman presented the museum and 15 acres of gardens to the London County Council as a gift in perpetuity for the “recreation, instruction and enjoyment” of the people of London.
Like many museums around the world, the Horniman was forced to close temporarily in March 2020 to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The gardens remained open throughout lockdown, taking on a vital role for the local community during this period of forced isolation. The sloping lawn where Surrey Mount once stood became an impromptu gathering place to watch the sun set across the city’s now empty skyscrapers.
It was around this time that the museum was added to a crowd-sourced map of statues, monuments, named buildings and streets to “shine a light on the continued adoration of colonial icons and symbols”. Although known as a philanthropist and social reformer in Britain, Horniman’s wealth, like that of many of the founder’s of Britain’s museums, was acquired through colonial exploitation – in his case, the tea trade.
As the museum’s Chief Executive Nick Merriman noted in an article written in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, tea growing was “labour intensive, poorly compensated and, in many cases, used indentured or forced labour”. Similarly, its collections include objects such as a number of Benin Bronzes, which were obtained through colonial violence.
In many ways this is a familiar story. The emergence of the public museum in the 18th and 19th centuries cannot be disentangled from painful histories of colonial subjugation and exploitation. While Horniman’s desire to bring the world to south London may have been enacted in a spirit of education and social “improvement”, the very idea of building a museum to collect, order and display the world speaks to a broader mindset of western dominion over other cultures – and nature.
This attitude has been challenged repeatedly as part of anti-racist, anti-colonial and pro-environmental institutional reform. Now, in the shadow of a climate and ecological emergency that is impacting on all areas of social, political and economic life, the very purpose of museums is again being called into question.
While the Horniman may be an archetypal museum in many respects, it also contains a few surprises. Alongside galleries dedicated to natural history, anthropology and musical instruments, visitors can explore a butterfly house, a small animal park, and an aquarium that is home to an innovative research project exploring coral reef reproduction.
This unusual combination of natural and cultural collections, outdoor spaces and zoological research was highlighted in the museum’s climate and ecology manifesto, published in January 2020. As well as plans to minimise waste, reduce pollution and invest in environmental research, the manifesto calls for a suite of changes related to the collections, the site and the organisation. It makes clear that while museums may be “institutions of the long term”, they have a “moral and ethical imperative to act now” in the fight against global warming.
From Anchorage to Sydney, this call to action has resonated across the sector in recent years. While the scale and urgency of climate change can often seem overwhelming, museums are beginning to recognise that they have a crucial role to play in shaping and supporting society’s response to this crisis. Just as the Horniman gardens became a restorative meeting space during lockdown, the purpose of museums more broadly is ripe for reimagining in the era of climate change.
But what might this look like? Earlier in 2020 we launched an international design and ideas competition to gather responses to this question. Over 250 submissions were received from 48 countries, with proposals from architects, designers, activists, artists, student groups, academics, indigenous communities and those already working in museums globally.
The brief was purposefully expansive: against the backdrop of a rapidly changing environment, what would it mean for museums to actively shape a more just and sustainable future for all?
Practical solutions and speculative concepts were equally welcome. While some responded with proposals to create more sustainable museum buildings, or develop new exhibitions on climate change, others sought to redefine the very foundations of museological thinking and practice. The eight finalists are currently developing their ideas for an exhibition at Glasgow Science Centre ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference COP26, which will take place in Glasgow in November 2021.
A historical reckoning
For some museums, looking to the future in this way will mean confronting their own complicity in many of the forces that have brought the planet to the brink of ecological collapse.
The term museum now embraces a dizzying variety of buildings, projects, ideas and experiences. But their roots can be traced to the princely palaces and cabinets of curiosity of the 17th century – spaces in which powerful individuals assembled and displayed their most notable possessions.
In Britain, Sir Hans Sloane’s collection – one of the largest in the country when he died in 1753 – included “curiosities” and natural specimens from North and South America, the East Indies and the West Indies. Sloane – who was born in Ireland in 1660 and found fame as a physician to the aristocracy – acquired the wealth to build his collection from enslaved labour on Jamaican sugar plantations. Sloane’s collection provided the foundation for the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, a legacy that both institutions are now beginning to grapple with.
Most recently, in August 2020, the British Museum announced that it had moved a bust of Sloane to a new display case, where it could be reinterpreted alongside artefacts related to the British empire. While many museums are increasingly willing to acknowledge the many ways in which their own histories are bound up with ongoing debates around race and inequality, drawing threads between these injustices and the problem of climate change has yet to become common. Instead, it regularly falls to outside voices to make these connections clear.
The work of activist group BP or Not BP? is a case in point here. Known for their highly theatrical protests, BP or Not BP? occupied the British Museum for three days in February, taking over galleries and creating a new sculptural artwork in the museum’s Great Court, partially supported by staff and at least one member of the museum’s board. They sought to shine a spotlight on the impact of BP around the world, drawing attention to the different ways in which “the museum’s own history and that of its sponsor were born out of colonialism and empire”.
Moving statues and reinterpreting collections can only go so far in this respect. As BP or Not BP? argue, reimagining what a “truly enlightened, responsible and engaged British Museum could look like” will require radical, systemic change.
Architect John Zhang’s proposal for our competition – titled The British Museum of Decolonized Nature – offers one vision of what such change might look like. With the museum emptied of its colonial artefacts, Zhang imagines nature taking over. This is not a dystopian wasteland, but a purposefully programmed set of experiences where “we may see our relationship with nature anew”.
Taking up the challenge of what it would mean to transform existing museums into spaces of social and climate justice, Zhang proposes turning the British Museum’s Great Court into an open forum for public debate on climate action. While such ideas may seem fantastical, BP or Not BP?’s intervention shows how this work is, in many senses, already underway.
Collecting worlds, making futures
While not all museums are burdened by the same colonial roots as the British Museum, the central premise of amassing natural and cultural objects to tell a particular story has shaped the way societies globally now understand their place in the world. In many instances, this has meant supporting, justifying and perpetuating certain ways of living that may have disastrous consequences for the environment.
In the early 20th century, the American Museum of Natural History sponsored a number of excursions to Africa to capture and kill animals for a series of new dioramas. The creatures – including lions, giraffes, elephants and gorillas – were stuffed and mounted to encourage their preservation “in the wild”. This led to the establishment of one of the first protected areas in Africa, Albert National Park in the eastern Congo, named after the King of Belgium. The park, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was renamed Virunga in 1969.
As recent studies have shown, such protected areas can create an unhelpful divide between local communities and the lands they inhabit. Indigenous voices and alternative systems of land management are often marginalised in this approach, which extends the frozen world of the museum diorama to living ecosystems. Both are symptomatic of a modern attitude towards the environment that represents a significant obstacle to meaningful climate action.
In their response to the competition brief, experimental spatial practice Design Earth concocted a playful yet provocative antidote to this situation – a magical realist story accompanied by speculative design drawings.
“Elephant in the Room” asks what would happen if one of the creatures shot by celebrated “conservationist” Teddy Roosevelt and subsequently mounted in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History came to life and demanded justice. As the elephant rampages through the museum and out into the streets of New York, its belly “echoes with resonant demands to decolonise the museum” and “divest from carbon industries”. The museum itself becomes an architectural taxidermy, with only its facade remaining.
This striking image upends the familiar hierarchies of the museum. Stasis and order give way to chaos – but of a regenerative kind – with the elephant standing in for the Earth itself. The idea that humans exercise any kind of “mastery” over nature was always an illusion. Museums – “those symbols of elitism and staid immobility” as anthropologist James Clifford once put it – have helped to reinforce this view of the world for too long.
Reimagining museums as pillars in the fight against climate change means more than just paying lip service to issues of sustainability, recycling and carbon emissions (important as these are). It means a historical reckoning with the role museums have played in supporting the main drivers of climate breakdown – not least colonialism, capitalism (at least as we currently know it), and industrial modernity.
Climate action typically refers to a suite of activities that either look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or enhance the way societies globally can adapt to the worst effects of climate change.
The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to ensure global average temperatures do not rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Current policies put the world on track for warming of around 3°C. As the journalist David Wallace-Wells writes in his searing book The Uninhabitable Earth, such a catastrophic rise would no doubt “shape everything we do on the planet, from agriculture to human migration to business and mental health”.
While museums around the world have implemented programmes of climate change education and pushed for more environmentally friendly practices, far less attention has been paid to building resilience or adapting to a rapidly changing climate. This echoes broader work across the heritage sector. As a recent report on climate action from the International Council on Monuments and Sites highlights, questions of adaptation and resilience in heritage tend to focus on learning from the past to guide contemporary planning.
The profound challenge of the climate emergency forces us to think more radically about what museums could and should be. What would a museum dedicated to meaningful climate action look like? How would it operate? Who would it serve, and what stories would it tell?
Despite a general claim to be working in the interests of “future generations”, museums and the heritage sector more broadly rarely consider the future in specific terms. Instead, present conditions and attitudes are simply projected into the future, as if change is something to be fought against rather than embraced. As a recent research project led by one of us concluded, there is an urgent need for more speculative and creative thinking in the field to confront the inevitable social and environmental transformations climate change will bring.
This was very much in the back of our minds when we were developing the competition. Alongside new initiatives such as the New York City based Climate Museum and Climate Museum UK, which aim to address the climate crisis directly, we hoped the brief might encourage applicants to consider climate resilience and adaptation in broader terms, or ask how a changing climate might prompt new ways of living with the Earth. In short, we invited submissions that might consider not only how we survive, but how we might thrive in the climate change era.
Living well in a warming world
Several of the proposals did just that. Weathering With Us, submitted by Singapore-based architects Isabella Ong and Tan Wen Jun, imagines a new kind of contemplative museum space where climate action is materialised in the very structure and experience of the building.
Their dreamlike concept – a huge floating barge situated where the equator intersects with the prime meridian at 0’ latitude and 0’ longitude – takes the form of a mandala sand sculpture made of olivine, a material which naturally pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and redeposits it as carbon in the skeletons of marine creatures and shells in the ocean.
Our collective understanding of climate change is often represented by a doomsday clock. The museum put forward by Weathering With Us asks what would happen if “we have a shared emblem that functions not as a harbinger of doom, but of healing?”
If the monumental scale of Weathering With Us shows how the design of new museum buildings might rise to the challenge of climate action, other proposals gestured towards the practical work that museums perform in the world. In particular, a key theme running through many submissions was the possibility for museums to support new ways of living with and relating to the Earth.
Estimates on the number of museums in the world range from 55,000 to 95,000. The sheer diversity of the field is a reminder both of the malleability of the term “museum”, and of the globalised reach of an idea that has its roots in European colonialism and capitalist exploitation.
Existances – a project developed by a group of Brazilian academics and museum workers – simultaneously challenges these roots and asks “how we might live well” in the Anthropocene. Highlighting the power of collective knowledge in the fight against climate change, Existances (a neologism produced by bringing together the words “existence” and “resistance”) imagines a network of micro-museums embedded in and responding to the diverse cosmologies of Afro-Brasilian, Amerindian and rural communities. While acknowledging the severity of the climate emergency for such communities, this is a project of hope – one that challenges us to think and act together to imagine alternative ways of being in the world.
Without denying the scale of this task, a few key themes emerged in response to the competition that suggest what shape this reorientation might take.
The first relates to breaking down boundaries and moving away from authoritarian values of order and control. In an inevitably transforming future world, museums must accept and embrace the creative possibilities of uncertainty and change rather than work against these forces.
This will also mean reimagining the familiar structure of museums. Instead of centralised spaces and buildings, many of the proposals submitted to the competition called for non-hierarchical “networks” enabling a decentralised approach to collecting, education and research.
This would require a fundamental rethink of the way museums are typically governed – the third and perhaps most important theme to emerge across the competition entries. Certain crises demand new forms of decision making where experts and lay people can come together to imagine new futures.
It’s clear that 2020 has been a tumultuous year for museums. The pandemic has forced many around the world to close, and each week brings news of further staff redundancies. In the UK, museums have been drawn into a manufactured culture war with threats from the government that those institutions which remove statues or other contested objects from display risk losing their public funding. On top of all this, a battle has raged within the international museums sector over what the term “museum” even means. To say this is a sector in flux would be an understatement.
Museums will not solve the complex problem of climate change, but they might set a powerful example for how this work can unfold across society over the coming years. The ideas generated in response to our competition show how vibrant, collective and transformative museums could be. The climate crisis brings with it a sense of inevitable change, of things unravelling, but how society responds to this change is far from certain. An expanded notion of climate action is required, one that focuses on environmental justice, racial, social and economic inequalities and – perhaps most radically – new forms of living with the Earth.
As the Horniman proves, in dealing with complex legacies and ongoing injustices, museums have already become testing grounds for localised action on a broad range of social, political and economic issues. The position they take with regards to climate action could resonate far beyond the field.
Battered by storms and droughts during a tough 2019, Africa’s resistance to the climate crisis left no room for passivity.
Attempting to come to any general conclusions on the state of a vast, varied and complex continent may be a tricky business, but Africa’s resistance to the climate crisis shows it rejects any idea of settling for victimhood.
It reaches some grim conclusions. Increased temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, rising sea levels and more extreme weather are threatening human health and safety across the continent, says the report.
“Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources”, says Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general.
“In recent months we have seen devastating floods, an invasion of desert locusts and now face the looming spectre of drought because of a La Niña event”, he says. “The human and economic toll has been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The trend, says the report, is for continuing increases in temperature: 2019 was among the three warmest years ever recorded in Africa. The WMO predicts that rainfall is likely to decrease over northern and southern regions but increase over the Sahel.
There are also likely to be more weather-related extreme events. In March 2019 Cyclone Idai hit the coast of Mozambique and went on to devastate large areas of Malawi, Zimbabwe and surrounding countries.
Described as the most destructive cyclone ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, Idai killed hundreds of people and displaced several hundred thousand.
“Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest”
Sea levels are rising well above the global average in many parts of Africa, the report says. Coastal degradation and erosion is a major challenge, particularly in West Africa. More than 50% of the coastlines in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Togo are eroding – a trend likely to continue in future years.
The knock-on effects of these changes in climate are considerable. Approximately 60% of the total population of Africa is dependent on agriculture for a living.
Heat and drought, plus flood damage in some areas, are likely to reduce crop productivity. Changes in climate are also leading to pest outbreaks.
In what it describes as the worst case climate change scenario, the report says crop yields could drop by 13% by mid-century across West and Central Africa, 11% in North Africa and 8% in the eastern and southern regions of the continent. Rice and wheat crops would be particularly badly affected.
Combatting the crisis
Increased heat and continually changing rainfall patterns are also likely to lead to the spread of disease – and a fall-off in economic production in many countries.
But the report does point to some positive changes, showing Africa’s resistance to the crisis. Though the continent is responsible for only a small percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, many countries in Africa are taking measures aimed at tackling climate change.
COVID-19 cases have been rapidly increasing in Pakistani cities in recent weeks. The rate of infection became so high that, on June 13th, Prime Minister, Imran Khan, announced that a “smart lockdown” strategy would be imposed on certain hot spots across the country.
Khan emphasized that the country’s precarious economic situation, meant that a nationwide lockdown was impossible. The smart lockdown strategy aims to curb the spread of the coronavirus and helps to balance the lives of citizens with their livelihoods. The strategy is designed to contain the disease in high risk areas which are reporting large numbers of coronavirus cases negating the need for countrywide restrictions.
The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) undertook a comprehensive review of potential COVID-19 clusters and, on June 15, identified 20 cities in the country that were “high risk areas”, which are reporting large numbers of COVID-19 cases. These areas were then targeted for limited locality-based. The cities that were identified as having a “likely increase in speed of infection” required restrictive measures for containment of COVID-19. A testing, tracing and quarantining (TTQ) strategy is also being employed as part of the containment strategy.
Starting from June 16, smart lockdowns were implemented through provincially issued orders and regulations. The province of Punjab has announced that it has decided to impose a lockdown in areas with potential COVID-19 hotspots in seven cities of the province namely, the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Multan, Gujranwala, the UCCRTF city of Sialkot.
The following day, 904 further lockdowns were imposed in Punjab; 26 in Sindh; 572 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; 29 in Azad Kashmir; 10 in Islamabad; and 5 in Gilgit-Baltistan. Around the country, authorities are attempting to ensure compliance with health guidelines, particularly in workplaces and in industrial sector and transport markets and shops.
Although the absolute impact of the improved strategy is not known, there are early signs of improvement in some parts of the country. For instance, in Islamabad 771 cases of coronavirus were reported on June 1st, a number that has since fallen to 25 cases as of the 5th of September 2020. After reporting its first cases on February 26, Pakistan has so far officially registered nearly 213,470 confirmed cases and 4,395 deaths. Of those infected, more than 100,802 have recovered.