Riverbank erosion due to climate change and government measures to deal with it are both affecting the Assam community
Climate-induced disasters are leading to massive economic losses worldwide, along with their ecological impact. Many small communities in developing and underdeveloped countries are the worst impacted and need urgent help to recover from their losses.
The European Environmental Agency recently estimated 145 billion euros of economic losses due to extreme climate events in the past decade. Similarly, in 2021, India suffered a loss of $159 billion (Rs 1,314.68 crore) in key economic sectors due to extreme heat.
Such concerns have led to a growing discourse on the term “loss and damage”, with the recent evidence being the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The term widely used in UN Climate Change negotiations broadly refers to the measure of losses and damages due to the negative impacts of the climate crisis.
These impacts primarily refer to extreme weather events and slow onset events like sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinisation, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification.
The damages from climate change are both economic and non-economic. In the case of the former, we can assign a monetary value, whereas the same does not apply to non-economic losses.
Non-economic losses can range from the loss of cultural heritage and societal or cultural identity to the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services and intergenerational trauma due to extreme climate events.
The recently concluded COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt witnessed history in creating the “loss and damages” fund to assist the most vulnerable countries with damages from climate-linked disasters.
While many critical questions regarding the fund’s management and the fair share of contributors are yet to be negotiated, the fund is a significant milestone in the global climate justice movement.
The fund is rooted in the view that poor and developing countries are most vulnerable to extreme weather events such as floods, heatwaves and land erosion, among others.
On the other hand, developed nations are the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. They are highly responsible for the climate crisis and, thus, have obligations to compensate for the climate-induced crisis in vulnerable nations.
The developments at COP27 have been welcomed by India, however, with the condition that only developed countries are obligated for such funding arrangements.
India’s Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change expressed that India will seek funds from the facility, considering it is extremely vulnerable to climate change.
Now the question is — will these recent developments be a glimmer of hope to vulnerable communities such as the potterers of Majuli’s Salmora village?
Salmora village on the river island is known for its traditional livelihood of pottery dating back to six hundred years. The village’s kumars (potterers) are also engaged in watercraft. Their primary livelihood of pottery is crippled today by erratic rainfall and an increasing rate of riverbank erosion.
River bank erosion has led to the inaccessibility of glutinous clay that is extracted for pottery. The potterers dig a 60-70 feet (Around 20 metres) deep pit on the river bank and then extract the ‘kumar mati’ or potters’ earth.
Villagers say that the district administration has put restrictions for more than six years on the extraction to contain soil erosion, thus affecting their traditional community livelihood. This has led to the community’s youth leaving the traditional profession for daily wage labour work.
On top of that, it has been observed that the traditional knowledge system of the community is also slowly fading away.
Such realities indicate that both the central and state governments still fall short of having an efficient climate-change response framework in place. This becomes further evident with the current assessment mechanism “loss and damages”. The current mechanism varies from state to state while the procedure, in general, remains the same.
It involves the role of disaster management authority at the district and state levels with a centralised information system under the National Disaster Information Management System. Each state or Union territory has a disaster relief fund partly financed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
Further, state relief funds are financed based on expenditure, risk exposure and risk index. However, it is worth noting that India’s assessment mechanism is mostly limited to post-disaster relief and extreme climate events.
Often it fails to take into account loss in the outcome of slow-onset events and the non-economic negative impacts of climate change.
The case of Salmora is also an indicator of why the “loss and damage” mechanism should be inclusive of non-economic damages such as climate-induced trauma, loss of traditional community livelihood and indigenous knowledge system.
As developing countries want the developed countries to fund their adaptation and mitigation measures through fund and technology transfers, including through mechanisms like “loss and damage”, the former must ensure transparent governance mechanisms for proper utilisation of the funds.
At present, the developments at Sharm el-Sheikh seem distant for a vulnerable community affected by climate change in the river island of Majuli.
There is hope, provided India creates an improvised mechanism to assess “loss and damage” domestically and also institutes an efficient, effective and transparent means for utilisation of the funds to ensure climate justice.
Abhishek Chakravarty is an assistant professor of law at Sai University, Chennai. His research interest lies in environmental regulations, climate policies and indigenous rights.
Abhinav Sankar Goswami is a postgraduate student at the department of politics and international studies, Pondicherry University. His research interest lies in climate governance, indigenous rights and India’s Northeast.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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