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Introducing “vulnerability” to vulnerable people

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In this 2010 file photo, residents fill their containers with drinking water from a water tanker provided by the state government at Jaipur in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma

Can those most at risk from climate change adequately prepare if they don’t understand their risks

July 20, 2016 — “We need a cemetery,” came the united voice of residents of Nayi ki Thari, a slum in India’s city of Jaipur, when they were questioned about their top priority needs in meeting climate threats. 

The message came as a shock for me, an environment practitioner working on climate change and seeking to extract information on how communities were coping with negative changes in the climate.

While climate change and its associated problems are gaining wider attention globally, the concept of vulnerability remains alien to those most at risk: the communities themselves. The most critical challenge is to transfer the science of climate vagaries to those whose resilience is at risk, particularly with limited access to climate information and information about potential risks.

What the community in Jaipur perceived to be the greatest climate challenge was not the recent floods in the area – the result of increasingly unpredictable rainfall – but the difficulties in carrying dead bodies to a cremation ground located 15 kilometers away, along unpaved and uneven roads that are ever worse when water-logged.

A large drain situated in the marshy soil of the slum often backed up and flooded, submerging the entire locality. Shockingly, children were even drowned during the last monsoon.

A number of communities said in focus group discussions they had observed significant changes in the weather patterns over time. However, 90 percent perceived these changes to be “due to grace of God” and had no clue how much human activity had contributed to the problem.

While most of the communities recognised that climatic changes would have an impact, none sensed that the problem would impact them, their livelihoods, and their lives the most, even as their contribution to the problem was the least.

Change starts with awareness. Working with communities to build adaptation to climate change, in isolation, is inappropriate if the lack of knowledge about climate change and its effects is not addressed alongside.

Now that we realize the low awareness levels of communities about climate-induced vulnerability, the need of the hour is to start initiating discussions and to equip them with the knowledge they need.

Without that, vulnerability could intensify, with the poor becoming poorer due to increased climate pressures, which the World Bank last year warned could push more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030.

The need to provide civic amenities and access to facilities is always a top priority when talking about the urban poor. But we must recognise that informal settlements are already exposed to multiple stresses and barriers. Before addressing climate challenges in the community, communities need to first have a comprehensive understanding of climate risks, before adaptation efforts get started.

Designing awareness tools and participatory risk assessment exercises in the form of creative games and shows can be an emphatic way to trigger in communities an awareness of their vulnerability to climate perils.

Emergence of this perception among communities has the potential to be a milestone in enabling individuals to cope with climate stresses or shocks and to plan for long-term resilience building.

As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, rightly says , “Conversation often leads to transformations”. Getting communities talking about vulnerability would certainly transform the way they perceive their future challenges – and help them plan for adaptation.


by Srishti Singh | Thomson Reuters Foundation