How climate change will further impede meeting the MDGs
Source: Third World Network Features

March 2005
By Hannah Reid & Mozaharul Alam

Whilst meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) poses enormous challenges, climate change will make the task even more difficult.

In 2000, leaders of 189 nations, along with almost every major international body, agreed on the Millennium Declaration, which outlined eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Four years on, however, it is widely acknowledged that many of these goals are far from being met. For example, the promise made on cutting child mortality by two-thirds in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015, now looks more likely to materialise in 2165.

On 16 February 2004, Gordon Brown, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Jim Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank, acknowledged in the Guardian newspaper (UK) that ‘Either resources are made available now to tackle poverty, or targets set in a fanfare of publicity will once again be missed and the world’s poor left further behind.’

Whilst it is increasingly recognised that meeting the MDGs poses enormous challenges, and in many cases looks unlikely, few have factored in the additional challenges that climate change will pose in this context.

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger (Goal 1)

Poor people are generally the most vulnerable to climate change. This is because they live in areas more prone to flooding, cyclones, droughts, etc., and because they have little capacity to adapt to such shocks. They are also more dependent on ecosystem services and products for their livelihoods.

A poor family often relies on multiple livelihood activities to gain an income and meet its basic needs. Exploiting natural resources such as fish, grazing land or forests can provide income, food, medicine, tools, fuel, fodder, construction materials, etc. Any effect that climate change has on natural systems therefore threatens the livelihoods, food intake and health of poor people.

Climate change means that many semi-arid regions will become hotter and drier, with less predictable rainfall. Climate-induced changes to crop yields, ecosystem boundaries and species’ ranges will dramatically affect many poor people’s livelihoods. Regional food security, particularly in Africa, is expected to worse.

Climate change-induced changes in infrastructure and labour productivity are also expected to alter the paths and rate of economic growth. This will increase poverty through reduced income opportunities. For example, a 1-metre sea level rise would displace 600,000 people in Guyana (80% of the population) and cost US$4 billion (equivalent to 1,000% of the Gross National Product).

Poor people are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which are increasing. During 2001, 170 million people internationally were affected by disasters, 97% of which were climate-related. For example, floods in Mozambique in February 2000 destroyed a third of the country’s crops, wiped out roads, railway lines and entire villages. Hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless, and the Government of Mozambique estimated that £65.5 million would be needed for reconstruction. Years of development work were simply washed away.

Achieve universal primary education (Goal 2)

Loss of employment and other assets may reduce opportunities for education in several ways. Natural disasters and drought may require children to help more with household tasks, leaving less time for schooling. Malnourishment and disease also impair learning. Weather-related disasters threaten school buildings in many poor countries. For example, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch destroyed one-quarter of all Honduras’s schools.

Education becomes a low priority following the loss of a home or the need to migrate following a flood, storm or drought. More frequent and more severe weather-related disasters will increase the numbers of environmental refugees. Climate change-related disasters already displace more people than war and persecution, and according to Norman Myers of Oxford University, by 2050 up to 150 million people may be displaced by the impacts of global warming.

Promote gender equality and empower women (Goal 3)

Climate change is expected to exacerbate current gender inequalities. Women are usually responsible for fetching water, fodder, firewood and sometimes food in poor households. They therefore bear disproportionate hardship when provision of these vital necessities becomes difficult. In times of extreme stress, men often migrate leaving women and girls behind to cope with increased domestic and work burdens. With more work and more chores to undertake, additional stresses are placed on women’s health, and time available to participate in decision-making processes and other income-generating activities is reduced.

Health-related issues (Goals 4, 5 & 6)

Direct climate change effects include increases in mortality and illness associated with heat waves, particularly amongst the elderly and the urban poor. For example, during the 1982-1983 El Nino, infant mortality rose by 103% in Peru. In some regions heat stress may be balanced by fewer cold-related deaths in winter. Extreme weather events will also cause more death and injury. Over 96% of disaster-related deaths in recent years have taken place in developing countries.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. For example, when the 1991 cyclone hit Bangladesh, 90% of victims were women and children. This was due to their lower survival capabilities (e.g. swimming), and socio-cultural beliefs that prevented women with their children from congregating in public cyclone shelters.

The indirect effects of climate change on health are more significant. Climate change may increase the prevalence and distribution of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Indeed, project climate changes could lead to an increase in the number of people at risk of malaria in the order of tens of millions annually.

Vulnerability to water, food, or person-to-person borne diseases (such as cholera and dysentery) is also likely to increase. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to vector- and water-borne diseases. For example, anaemia (resulting from malaria) is responsible for a quarter of maternal mortality.

Climate change will probably cause a decline in the quantity and quality of drinking water, which is a prerequisite for good health. Malnutrition, an important source of ill health among children, could also be exacerbated due to declining natural resource productivity and food insecurity, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ensure environmental sustainability (Goal 7)

Global warming is likely to shift ecosystem boundaries. This may mean that some protected areas no longer protect species they were designed to conserve. Extinction rates may increase, and for many species, climate change poses a greater survival threat than the destruction of their natural habitat. Shifts in reproductive cycles and growing seasons could also occur. For example, higher temperatures have led to an increase in the number of eggs laid by the spruce budworm, already a serious pest in North America’s boreal forests.

The most rapid changes in climate are expected in the far north and south of the planet, and in mountainous regions where species often have no alternative habitats to which they can migrate in order to survive. Other vulnerable ecosystems and species include small populations or those restricted to small areas. Coral reefs have already shown devastating losses as a result of increased water temperatures, and replacement of coral reef communities by non-reef systems is well advanced in the Caribbean region, where climate change has probably exacerbated existing stresses.

Degradation of biodiversity will reduce the availability of many traditional medicines. This will affect poor and rural people who depend more on natural resources for medicine as well as income and food.

Water supplies are expected to drastically decrease in many arid and semi-arid regions. In West and Central Africa, 20 million people in six countries rely on Lake Chad for water, but the lake has shrunk by 95% in the last 38 years.

Slum dwellers will be particularly vulnerable to climate change. For example, during a recent heat wave in Delhi, gastroenteritis cases soared by 25% as slum dwellers resorted to drinking contaminated water. Many slums are also located in areas at risk from floods, landslides or sea-level rise.

Global partnerships (Goal 8)

Climate change-related disasters could be costing the world US$300,000 billion within a few decades. The benefits of investment in development could be entirely absorbed by dealing with the costs of weather-related disasters.

Many poor countries depend on tourism, but climate change could destroy the beaches, reefs and coastal infrastructure on which this depends. Climate change will also severely impact the agricultural sector. All these factors will affect the Gross Domestic Product, level of indebtedness, state of public finances, and investment in development in poor countries. – Third World Network Features


About the writers: Hannah Reid is a Research Associate at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Mozaharul Alam is a Research Fellow who works at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS).

The above is an extract from an article that appeared in Tiempo (Issue 54, January 2005, ‘Millennium Development Goals’).

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