Warming to the dollar

Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, September 11, 2008

The national climate action plan presented in London at a high-level conference on Bangladesh lacks rigour and falls short of comprehensively addressing climate change impact. The hurriedly prepared document is seemingly being used to ensure substantial and continued flow of funds, with the government, non-governmental organisations, multilateral lending agencies and certain civil society actors vying for a sizeable share.

THE national climate change action plan, styled ‘Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2008’, was never really made public, as had been indicated by relevant authorities, and as was generally expected. There are also questions about its preparation, deliberations and recommendations. However, the first question one needs to ask is: Does a military-controlled interim government have the mandate to draw up a 10-year plan, which virtually decides the fate of a nation of 150 million people—of whom almost a fifth could become refugees due to global warming. That the incumbents, almost all of whose self-assigned tasks thus far have ended in resounding failures, have taken upon themselves to draw up the action plan and proceeded with it despite misgivings and reservations of a significant number of experts seem to suggest they do not fully appreciate the value and significance of the document they themselves call the national climate strategy.

According to estimates, higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, coupled with increased flooding, rising salinity in the coastal belt and droughts, are likely to reduce crop yields and crop production. By 2050, rice production in Bangladesh could decline by 8 per cent and wheat by 32 per cent compared to 1990 levels. Increasingly saline drinking water may also result in health hazards, especially for pregnant women. Increased riverbank erosion and saline water intrusion in coastal areas are likely to displace hundreds of thousands of people who will be forced to migrate, often to slums in Dhaka and other big cities. It is also estimated that about six to eight million people will have become climate refugees by 2050 and would have to be resettled.

This national action plan thanks the UK’s Department for International Development for its technical assistance in preparing the report. People close to the preparation process of the document are learnt to have admitted that a consultant from this development agency was one of the main authors of the report. Among others who have significantly contributed to the formulation of this document include people who have been previously affiliated with international lending agencies. (One of the main contributors has even worked as a consultant for a mining company bidding to set up an open-pit coalmine in northern Bangladesh.)

It is not that Bangladesh has a dearth of experts on climate change. In fact, at least four authors of the reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the highest global body dealing with climate change under the United Nations framework, were from Bangladesh. None of them was involved in the formulation of the national climate change action plan. Curiously, the name of the PDF format of the final national document is ‘IUCN_BCCSAP_2008’, a clear indication of the influence of foreign quarters on the formulation of the document. Previous involvement with a lending agency or foreign nationality should not necessarily disqualify an individual as an author of the national action plan but such matters quite naturally give rise to apprehensions that deliberations of the document and its preparation process only reinforce.

The preface to the action plan, by the environment and forests secretary, claims that the document ‘has been prepared through a fully consultative process involving government, civil society and development partners’. What this seems to mean in practical terms is that there may have been a token meeting with a few non-governmental organisations. (In fact, there was one such meeting where a number of experts actually blasted the report as having no substance; understandably, their comments were not incorporated.) Also, there may have been a few meetings with a few other closely-linked ministry officials. Surely, the ‘development partners’, meaning the lending and aid agencies like the World Bank and the Department for International Development, were given the opportunity to express their views about the action plan and, in effect, plan the nation’s future as far as climate change is concerned. However, there is no mention of the people on the ground who would be affected and those who are already on the verge of becoming climate refugees having lost their livelihoods and homes. The stories of people who have built their homes ten or fifteen times are not unheard of. But this document appears to have been prepared without any meaningful or even token consultations with these vulnerable groups.

This action plan estimates a requirement of $5 billion for climate proofing and mitigation of the adverse effects of global warming over the next 10 years. This estimation, it must be pointed, is just estimation and has no credible basis. More importantly, however, there are serious concerns over the management and disbursement of these funds. Lending agencies such as the World Bank would naturally be interested in being the custodian of these funds since this would provide them with another opportunity to impose perhaps even stronger and harsher conditionalities with the release of every tranche of these climate change funds.

Different quarters have strongly spoken in favour of a national climate change board that includes and accommodates the voice and effective representation of minorities and excluded groups. It is the geographically remote and economically vulnerable groups of people that will understandably suffer the most from climatic changes. This national board, including all sections of the citizenry, government, politicians, non-governmental organisations and lending agencies, would have full authority over the management and disbursement of climate change funds.

Since adaptation funds have also been a much-hyped issue at the last UN climate change convention in Bali, the developing countries’ group of 77 and the least developed countries along with other groups have a rather clear idea of the mechanism of funding and management of climate funds. By and large it broadly stipulates that any climate change fund must be over and beyond the amount that have already been pledged to the poor countries by way of the UN Millennium Declaration or the G8 or any such mechanism. These funds must not be in the form of loans and should be paid by countries that have caused the most pollution, meaning the developed and industrialised North, based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

But the action plan leaves it open for the lending agencies and countries to donate funds as they see fit and through any mechanism. This document’s overwhelming bias towards infrastructure development validates the reservations that quarters close to the formulation process have already expressed. It is difficult to not trace the resemblance with the World Bank-driven Flood Action Plan, the outcome of which, according to different quarters, has been disastrous.

Although there has already been substantial discussion regarding climate migration and climate refugees that would be an inevitable fallout of climate change, due to increased frequency and intensity of floods and cyclones and loss of land due to sea-level rise, the national action plan does not mention this. It refrains from suggesting possible means to remove barriers on international migration of climate refugees to the industrialised countries taking cue from the same ‘polluters pay’ principle. It is understandably awkward and sensitive for the industrialised countries, which are already pushing for removal of barriers to the international trade of environmental goods and services, as was seen at the climate change conference in Bali.

This national action plan is being presented as Bangladesh’s strategy to address climate change at a joint conference organised by the governments of Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. The government delegation is led by Mirza Azizul Islam, the finance adviser to the military-controlled interim government, who has already indicated his preference for the World Bank to manage Bangladesh’s climate change funds. This delegation also includes several notable figures of Bangladesh’s so-called civil society some of whom are also involved in environmental advocacy and activism. That these quarters have agreed to join the government and, according to the individuals close to the proceedings in London, will have to refrain from challenging this national action plan, only suggests that the presence of these civil society actors will only lend credence and validity to a document that would have been otherwise unacceptable.

What has transpired before and during the hasty formulation process of the national action plan, spanning over a period of two months and a half, was a behind-the-scenes tug of war for climate change funds, likely to be in the billion dollar figure. Different quarters and government divisions and ministries, as they got whiff of the possibility of securing such a high amount of funds, especially with Bangladesh being identified as one of the most vulnerable countries, became involved in the process. While a government division was willing to accept these funds in the form of loans, the more relevant department held out. The different quarters vying for a chunk of the pie have not only pitted government departments against each other, but also non-governmental organisations and multilateral lending agencies trying to secure and consolidate their control over these funds.

The presence of certain civil society actors in London on behalf of the government, who have thus far been critical of its mandate, the presence of the lending agencies and the consequent hoopla around it only indicates that the meet is more about securing a share of climate change funds rather than genuine development of the millions of people who would be affected in the years to come or even those who must resettle as the receding waters result in increasing river erosion in Bangladesh.

Climate change impact would not be restricted to a certain group of people or certain vocations. Global warming will affect the lives and livelihoods of millions across vocations, livelihoods, ethnicities and geographical regions. A certain ministry, a group of non-governmental organisations or the lending agencies would be unlikely to be able to address climate change without genuine people’s ownership of the programmes. There should be push for a national body that duly accommodates the voices of all stakeholders including such excluded groups as women, ethnic minorities and peasants, government, citizens besides non-governmental organisations and lending agencies.

To conclude, it is unacceptable that a 10-year plan has thus far by and large excluded and ignored the political parties, and thus has not brought on board the very people who would presumably be running the affairs of the state as soon as national polls take place that are, for the time being, scheduled for December. The approval and input of political parties and political ownership of this national climate change action plan in order to ensure consistency and continuity is essential. Unfortunately, however, the exercise thus far has merely been a bid for funds and different quarters justifying their rightful share over the others.

*Contact Tanim Ahmed: tanimahmed@gmail.com


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