Climate change risks and rights of people

Linking climate change risks and rights of mountain peoples in the Mekong

Xu Jianchu, Rajesh Daniel

Book chapter in: Lazarus K., Resurreccion B., Dao N., and Badenoch N. (Eds.) 2011. Rites of Access: Seeking Justice in Managing Mekong Region Waters. Earthscan, London. Vol 3 of the M-POWER book series.

Introduction

A changed climate is already here as the world faces threats of disaster from more frequent and intense cyclones, heavy rainfall events, sea-level rise, and warmer temperatures with adverse effects on crops, ecosystems and human health (IPCC 2007a, 2007b).  Much of the climate burdens are falling on the poor and marginalized peoples in developing countries bringing to light attention as much on the disasters and impacts they face as on issues of rights and justice with respect to the allocation of resources as well as burdens and risks (Kates 2000; Thomas and Twyman 2005).  This chapter draws on the context of the uplands of the Mekong region to highlight the interconnected dimensions of climatic risks and the rights of those affected by climate change and development, in particular social and political rights[i] as enshrined in the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The uplands of the Mekong region within Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA)[ii] comprise steep slopes and tectonic activities where natural hazards and risks are omnipresent. As a result of the seasonal shifts in monsoon weather patterns, a large part of upland Asia is exposed to increased annual floods and droughts (Bates et al, 2008). Climate change multiplies these risks. Available evidence shows that extreme fluctuations of climate such as rapid or sudden shifts in rainfall can result in either too much water causing loss of lives and property from flashfloods or too little water leading to drought, loss of crops and death of livestock (Xu et al, 2009).

Climate impacts are often socially constructed (Ribot, 2009). Apart from climate-induced risks, various government development policies, institutional settings and expansion of regional, national and international markets have also placed upland peoples in a position of greater vulnerability. The rapid pace of regional economic integration has meant that previously subsistence-oriented livelihoods are quickly shifting towards a market-orientation, often at the encouragement of the government. New cash crops are accompanied by new forms of financial management for local people, and debt has become a major concern across the uplands. In this period of transition, the risk of natural disaster has compounded economic implications for local livelihoods.

Response to climate change in terms of mitigation and adaptation can multiply risks as well. Structured measures for climate change adaptation such as embankments might redistribute flood risks (Lebel et al, 2007a) while hydropower development poses threats to river ecosystems and local livelihoods such as fisheries. Tree plantation projects, for instance, to earn carbon credits are taking away common lands and secondary forests used by upland communities (Adger et al, 2007; O’Brien et al, 2007).

Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) define risk as a joint product of knowledge about the future and consent about the most desired prospects. Living with multiple risks, poor and marginalized groups must manage the costs and benefits of overlapping natural, social, political and economic hazards (Xu and Rana, 2005; Ribot, 2009).   The rural poor have successfully faced threats linked to climate variability in the past in forms of mobility, storage and communal pooling of water and other natural resources, diversification, architecture and market exchange in rural settings as the basic mechanisms through which households address risks in securing livelihoods (Agrawal, 2009).

The diversity of the Mekong uplands includes multiple livelihoods (from shifting cultivation in the humid tropics to nomadic herding on the high Tibetan plateau, from rice terraces to tea gardens), multiple ethnic cultures (more than fifty officially recognized ethnic nationalities and hundreds of linguistic groups), as well as numerous vulnerabilities (see Box 10.1).

While the upland peoples in the Mekong region experience both threats and opportunities from climate change or development actions, many people, in particular the economically poorer, face disproportionate vulnerabilities in terms of loss of livelihoods and assets in the face of climate variability and global change (Sen, 1981).  This situation is exacerbated by the fact that upland peoples are frequently blamed for environmental risks in downstream and coastal areas, despite the complex and still poorly understood causal linkages between change in the mountains and change in lowland areas. As will be discussed further below, policies to halt perceived environmental degradation in the uplands has often resulted in increased vulnerability for upland people, while the risks to lowland society remain unmitigated.

Climate-related risks will have direct and indirect human rights impacts [iii].  Climate change is already undermining the realization of a broad range of internationally protected human rights: right to health and even life; right to food, water, shelter and property including access to natural resources; rights associated with livelihoods and culture; with migration and resettlement; and with personal security in the event of conflict (UNHCHR, 2009). Multiple climate and economic development-related risks impact on a range of rights including participation in decision-making (Molle et al, 2009).

Climate impact analyses that links to human rights can prove useful in formulating detailed policy and research agendas to inform overarching climate change policy options (ICHRP, 2008), including strategies for mitigation and adaptation, and for particular ecological settings such as the uplands in the Mekong region.

Adaptive management to global climate change can often lie beyond the capabilities of upland and indigenous people even though many communities are dealing with climate risks using their traditional and/or ecological knowledge systems. While recognizing that some groups are more resilient than others, the capabilities of local people and groups can be strengthened when appropriately assisted through partnerships with government and non-government organizations to ensure equitable access to resources and benefits.  Yet low ‘capacity’ for adaptive management is often a product of constraints within the governance system of a country or region. Traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices are deeply rooted in local natural and cultural landscapes, but as upland areas are increasingly integrated into lowland social, economic and political systems, the pressures on indigenous and local knowledge increase. However, representation of upland people in national political processes is often constrained to varying degrees across the region. This means that what is perceived as a problem of many may actually be a problem of empowerment; thus the argument for inclusion of rights as a central component in considering risks from climate change.

Our analysis of the climate risks in the Mekong uplands through a rights-based approach tries to address the climate-related vulnerabilities including both natural and human-induced hazards for the upland peoples, in particular for the poorest, in the Mekong region. The chapter’s intent is to bring together three threads that in the authors’ view are not adequately addressed in the climate change discourse: viz. uplands, poor/marginalized people and their disproportionate risks, and the human rights dimension.

The risks-rights framework helps to better understand and address climate related risks and impacts in the uplands of the Mekong region and improve policies related to upland governance and climate change to benefit the poorer and marginalized peoples of the upland populations. Mapping geophysical hazards and socio-political constructed risks provides an entry point for concerted pro-poor climate change adaptation efforts.

The chapter includes the following sections: The risks analysis of geophysical hazards and climate change in the Mekong uplands; Accelerated risks and socially constructed vulnerabilities; The value and challenges in a rights-based approach; The risks-rights nexus towards integrating rights for living with risks; Potential strategies and means to cope with, as well as rebound after, climate risks and disasters; Discussion and conclusions about improving and incorporating local rights as well as addressing the adaptive capacity of upland peoples to climate change.


[ii] The Mekong uplands, lying within the larger context of Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA), as defined in this chapter is a large, eco-region comprising about half of the land area of Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and China’s Yunnan Province. The headwaters of the Yangtze, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Red, Chao Phraya and Pearl Rivers are located within the MMSEA region that drain an area of nearly 4 million km2 and have impacts on the lives of more than 696 million people (Xu and Thomas, 2010). The MMSEA region can be further divided into an alpine zone (above 3,000 masl), a high mountain zone (between 1000~3,000 masl), and a low mountain zone (between 300~1000 masl). The term “uplands” is used here to describe areas in the montane and alpine zones (Thomas et al, 2008). Our definition centers on areas that are between 300 to 3,000 metres above sea level (masl) in elevation, and located within and across several river basins. The alpine zone, which is dominated by the high altitude Tibetan Plateau, is referred to as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ (Xu et al, 2008), while the montane zone has been called the ‘Roof of Southeast Asia’ (Thomas et al, 2008).

[iii] Climate change will have implications for the enjoyment of human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Council recognized this in its “http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/docs/Resolution_7_23.pdf” \t “_blank” resolution 7/23 “Human rights and climate change” (28 March 2008), expressing concern that climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the word” and requesting the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner to prepare a http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/study.htm study on the relationship between climate change and human rights (“http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/index.htm” http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/index.htm, accessed 14 June 2010).

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