Who will suf­fer the most from cli­mate change?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

A few years ago, Melinda and I vis­ited with a group of rice farm­ers in Bi­har, In­dia, one of the most flood-prone re­gions of the coun­try. All of them were ex­tremely poor and de­pended on the rice they grew to feed and sup­port their fam­i­lies. When the mon­soon rains ar­rived each year, the rivers would swell, threat­en­ing to flood their farms and ruin their crops. Still, they were will­ing to bet ev­ery­thing on the chance that their farm would be spared. It was a gam­ble they of­ten lost. Their crops ru­ined, they would flee to the cities in search of odd jobs to feed their fam­i­lies. By the next year, how­ever, they would re­turn – of­ten poorer than when they left – ready to plant again.

Our visit was a pow­er­ful re­minder that for the world’s poor­est farm­ers, life is a high­wire act – with­out safety nets. They don’t have ac­cess to im­proved seeds, fer­tiliser, ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems, and other ben­e­fi­cial tech­nolo­gies, as farm­ers in rich coun­tries do – and no crop in­sur­ance, ei­ther, to pro­tect them­selves against losses. Just one stroke of bad for­tune – a drought, a flood, or an ill­ness – is enough for them to tum­ble deeper into poverty and hunger.

Now, cli­mate change is set to add a fresh layer of risk to their lives. Ris­ing tem­per­a­tures in the decades ahead will lead to ma­jor dis­rup­tions in agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in trop­i­cal zones. Crops won’t grow be­cause of too lit­tle rain or too much rain. Pests will thrive in the warmer cli­mate and de­stroy crops.

Farm­ers in wealth­ier coun­tries will ex­pe­ri­ence changes, too. But they have the tools and sup­ports to man­age these risks. The world’s poor­est farm­ers show up for work each day for the most part emp­ty­handed. That’s why of all the peo­ple who will suf­fer from cli­mate change, they are likely to suf­fer the most.

Poor farm­ers will feel the sting of these changes at the same time the world needs their help to feed a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. By 2050, global food de­mand is ex­pected to in­crease by 60%. De­clin­ing har­vests would strain the global food sys­tem, in­creas­ing hunger and erod­ing the tremen­dous progress the world has made against poverty over the last half-cen­tury.

I’m op­ti­mistic that we can avoid the worst im­pacts of cli­mate change and feed the world – if we act now. There’s an ur­gent need for gov­ern­ments to in­vest in new clean-energy in­no­va­tions that will dra­mat­i­cally re­duce green­house-gas emis­sions and halt ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. At the same time, we need to recog­nise that it’s al­ready too late to stop all of the im­pacts of hot­ter tem­per­a­tures. Even if the world dis­cov­ered a cheap, clean energy source next week, it would take time for it to kick its fos­sil fuel-pow­ered habits and shift to a car­bon-free fu­ture. That’s why it’s crit­i­cal for the world to in­vest in ef­forts to help the poor­est adapt.

Many of the tools they’ll need are quite ba­sic – things that they need any­way to grow more food and earn more in­come: ac­cess to fi­nanc­ing, bet­ter seeds, fer­tiliser, train­ing, and mar­kets where they can sell what they grow.

Other tools are new and tai­lored to the de­mands of a chang­ing cli­mate. The Gates Foun­da­tion and its part­ners have worked to­gether to de­velop new va­ri­eties of seeds that grow even dur­ing times of drought or flood­ing. The rice farm­ers I met in Bi­har, for in­stance, are now grow­ing a new va­ri­ety of flood-tol­er­ant rice – nick­named “scuba” rice – that can sur­vive two weeks un­der­wa­ter. They are al­ready pre­pared if shifts in the weather pat­tern bring more flood­ing to their re­gion. Other rice va­ri­eties are be­ing de­vel­oped that can with­stand drought, heat, cold, and soil prob­lems like high salt con­tam­i­na­tion.

All of these ef­forts have the power to trans­form lives. It’s quite com­mon to see these farm­ers dou­ble or triple their har­vests and their in­comes when they have ac­cess to the ad­vances farm­ers in the rich world take for granted. This new pros­per­ity al­lows them to im­prove their di­ets, in­vest in their farms, and send their chil­dren to school. It also pulls their lives back from the ra­zor’s edge, giv­ing them a sense of se­cu­rity even if they have a bad harvest.

There will also be threats from cli­mate change that we can’t fore­see. To be pre­pared, the world needs to ac­cel­er­ate re­search into seeds and sup­ports for small­holder farm­ers. One of the most ex­cit­ing in­no­va­tions to help farm­ers is satel­lite tech­nol­ogy. In Africa, re­searchers are us­ing satel­lite im­ages to cre­ate de­tailed soil maps, which can in­form farm­ers about what va­ri­eties will thrive on their land.

Still, a bet­ter seed or a new tech­nol­ogy can’t trans­form the lives of farm­ing fam­i­lies un­til it’s in their hands. A num­ber of or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing a non-profit group called One Acre Fund, are find­ing ways to en­sure that farm­ers take ad­van­tage of these so­lu­tions. One Acre Fund works closely with more than 200,000 African farm­ers, pro­vid­ing ac­cess to fi­nanc­ing, tools, and train­ing. By 2020, they aim to reach one mil­lion farm­ers.

In this year’s An­nual Let­ter, Melinda and I made a bet that Africa will be able to feed it­self in the next 15 years. Even with the risks of cli­mate change, that’s a bet I stand by.

Yes, poor farm­ers have it tough. Their lives are puzzles with so many pieces to get right – from plant­ing the right seeds and us­ing the cor­rect fer­tiliser to get­ting train­ing and hav­ing a place to sell their harvest. If just one piece falls out of place, their lives can fall apart.

I know the world has what it takes to help put those pieces in place for both the chal­lenges they face to­day and the ones they’ll face to­mor­row. Most im­por­tantly, I know the farm­ers do, too.

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