December 10, 2007—Will enough rain fall for crops to grow? What will happen to heavily populated low-lying areas when glaciers melt? Can island peoples keep their way of life if coral reefs no longer attract enough fish for them to eat?
These are some of the questions being asked in developing countries already suffering the consequences of climate change, and captured in a World Bank-sponsored video, “Life Out of Balance: Climate Change in the Developing World,” shown at the UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia.
Developing countries and particularly the world’s poorest people are the most vulnerable to changes in climate and extreme weather such as floods, droughts, heat waves, and rising sea levels.
The World Bank is among the leaders in addressing adaptation to climate risk through technical analysis of risk management and by pioneering insurance work in the Caribbean, Latin America and South Asia. The challenge now is to replicate these lessons more widely, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Islands.
To this end, the Bank plans to fully integrate climate change into operations financed by its concessional lending arm, the International Development Association (IDA), which provides zero-interest loans and grants to the world’s poorest countries.
That means mainstreaming climate change in core development projects, such as those dealing with energy, agriculture, and land use, and finding innovative ways to finance measures to reduce the impact of climate change.
And the needs are great. While estimates vary, most observers agree that tens of billions of dollars would be needed annually to implement adaptation strategies in developing countries.
Rakia gazes at the seemingly healthy millet stalks she planted during this year’s short rainy season. A closer look at the millet heads reveals the crop did not mature, and the shells are empty of grain.
“The rains betrayed us. They came and then they stopped,” says Rakia, 35, a mother and millet farmer in a semi-arid Sahel region of Niger.
The desert has been creeping into West Africa’s Sahel for the last 30 years. Declining rainfall and overuse has taxed the land and brought drought and famine.
“Our cattle are thin because the grass didn’t grow. We used to get five or six months of rain, but now the rainy season is much shorter. In the past there was water in the watering hole for six or seven months, but now the watering hole is not enough. Our watering hole is drying up.”
Like most people in her village of Feteye, Rakia depends on agriculture for a living, and to feed her children.
But the sun beats down every day, and there are no trees to shield the soil. “The wind has taken away all of our fertile soil. The earth is so hard that even if you plant seeds, the crops won’t grow well. The land is dry. It is impossible!”
Sometimes, the family goes three or four nights without eating, she says.
“We go to sleep hungry. Will my family survive? If rain doesn’t come, then we cannot work the land. If rain doesn’t fall, is life worth living?”
Worldwide, desertification renders 12 million hectares useless for farming each year, threatening the livelihoods of 1.2 billion people. It is estimated global warming will cause the area of desert climates to increase 17 percent over coming years.
Samysuddin remembers when fish were so plentiful in the Indonesia’s Spermonde Archipelago he would only set out to catch his dinner when his wife began to cook the rice.
“In less than an hour, I could catch many fish with my spear-gun. And sometimes I would come back with my fish before the rice was even cooked!”
But things have changed in the waters off Kapoposang Island in south Sulawesi. The coral reefs where fish used to frolic are turning white and are covered in algae.
Now, it often takes hours before he spears a single fish. “Sometimes I don’t catch any fish and we’ll go a whole day without eating any,” he says.
“These days, my wife doesn’t prepare meals like before. Now I catch the fish first.”
But he fears greater lifestyle changes still lie in wait for him and his fellow Bugis.
“The Bugis, who live on these islands, are the furthest from the mainland. We don’t have any jobs other than fishing. We don’t work desk jobs. We just know the life of the sea.”
“If the reefs continue to degrade, then there won’t be any fish here. If there aren’t any fish playing on the coral reefs, you won’t be able to catch any fish with a line, or with a spear-gun. So you won’t catch any fish. What will we do here in Kapoposang if this happens? There won’t be anything left for us to do.”
Up to 18 percent of the world’s coral reefs could be lost as a result of climate change. In Asian coastal waters, the loss could be 30 percent, leading to a further reduction in already depleted fisheries.
In Pucarumi, a small community in the foothills of the snow-capped Peruvian Andes, Felipe mulls the fate of the life-giving Ausangate glacier. Year after year, the great white glacier of his boyhood has receded and slowly turned black.
“We are feeling the effects of climate change,” says Felipe, an alpaca herder whose animals graze on pastures irrigated by Ausangate’s waters. “This loss of snow means we receive less water. This climatic factor is causing us great danger.”
Less water has meant less pasture and more difficulty raising livestock. Animals such as alpaca and sheep aren’t eating enough, “so their wool doesn’t grow as well,” forcing people to turn to synthetic wool to weave hats, sweaters, and scarves.
Crops, too, are suffering, and Felipe can no longer grow indigenous potatoes in lower fields, because there isn’t enough water, “so we plant potatoes higher up. But with every passing year we are running out of land in the highlands as well. In coming years, we won’t have anywhere left to plant these potatoes.”
Farmers must now use chemical fertilizers to grow “improved” potatoes. “We need money to buy these fertilizers, but before it wasn’t like this. We could use manure from the corral.
“The whole community is worried. They don’t know what to do or what to say about this chaos.”
Felipe is especially concerned about his children once Ausangate disappears for good.
“Once the snow is gone, I don’t know what we’ll do. Only God knows our fate, once the water and snow are gone.”
Worldwide, glaciers are melting so fast some will disappear within 15 or 25 years. In the Andes, this will threaten water supplies to major South American cities and put populations and food supplies at risk.