Climate Change Danger to South Asia’s Economy

By Tandin Wangchuk

The effects of climate change are on the increase and no part of the world is immune.

Newly released data suggests that South Asia, including Bhutan and Nepal, could be particularly badly hit if the world continues on its current fossil-fuel intensive path.

Climate change impacts stand to slash up to 9% off the South Asian economy every year by the end of this century, and the human and financial toll could be even higher if the damage from floods, droughts and other extreme weather events is included.

The figures are contained in a groundbreaking report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) entitled ‘Assessing the Costs of Climate Change and Adaptation in South Asia’. The report predicts that by 2050, the collective economy of six countriesβ€”Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka – will lose an average 1.8% of its annual gross domestic product, rising to 8.8% by 2100.

It states the impact and cost of climate change in South Asia will depend largely on how the global community tackles the issue, according to the report.

If countries around the world act together to keep the rise in global temperatures below an average 2Β°C, then South Asia’s economy would only be reduced by 1.3% annually by 2050 and 2.5% by 2100, and the cost of protecting itself from the worst of the impacts would be nearly halved. The report is a clear call for action to governments as they prepare to reach a new, universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015.

There is growing awareness of the need for countries to prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change. Adaptation is a very important element of the UN climate change negotiations and many important steps have been taken in the development of the adaptation regime under the UNFCCC. These include three key milestones: the Least Developed Countries Work Programme, the Nairobi Work Programme and the Cancun Adaptation Framework.

The Maldives, among the six countries cited in the ADB report, is one of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels. The Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States taking place from 1-4 September 2014 in Apia, Samoa, will address these dangers and the means to address them. Some interesting examples of adaptation action in SIDS can be found here.

Further examples of adaptation action in South Asia are highlighted by the UNFCCC secretariat’s Momentum for Change initiative. Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction in Bangladesh, for example, is a women-centered initiative that helps communities in Bangladesh adapt to climate change by addressing extreme weather conditions. The initiative, implemented by ActionAid Bangladesh, brings together groups of women who lead vulnerability assessments of climate risks, then identify and implement action plans.

A Major Threat to Food Security

A new report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that the increasing frequency and  intensity of extreme weather disasters such as floods, droughts and megafires as a result of climate change is having a devastating effect on food security and livelihoods.

The report highlights the need for stronger disaster risk reduction policies and intensified efforts to build resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change to ensure agriculture’s crucial role in achieving a sustainable future.

According to the report, the annual occurrence of disasters is now more than three times that of the 1970s and 1980s as a result of our warming climate. Relative to agriculture, industry, commerce and tourism taken as a whole, on its own agriculture absorbs the disproportionate share of 63% of impact from disasters, with the least developed countries (LDCs) and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) bearing the major brunt of these scourges.

Thus, between 2008 and 2018, the impacts of natural disasters cost the agricultural sectors of developing country economies over USD 108 billion in damaged or lost crop and livestock production. Such damage can be particularly detrimental to livelihoods of smallholder and subsistence farmers, pastoralists, and fishers.

Over the analyzed period, Asia was the most hard-hit region, with overall economic losses adding up to a staggering USD 49 billion, followed by Africa at USD 30 billion, and Latin America and Caribbean at USD 29 billion.

“The upheaval set in motion by COVID-19 may push even more families and communities into deeper distress,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu in the foreword to the report. “Disaster impact is pervasive and requires immediate efforts to better assess and understand its dynamics, so that it may be reduced and managed in integrated and innovative ways. The urgency and importance of doing so have never been greater”.

The report identifies drought as the single greatest culprit of agricultural production loss, followed by floods, storms, pests and diseases, and wildfires. Over 34% of crop and livestock production loss in LDCs and LMICs is traced to drought, costing the sector USD 37 billion overall. Drought impacts agriculture almost exclusively. The sector sustains 82% of all drought impact, compared to 18% in all other sectors.

Crop and livestock pests, diseases and infestations have also become an important stressor for the sector. Such biological disasters caused nine percent of all crop and livestock production loss in the period from 2008 to 2018. The potential threat of disasters of this category was rendered evident in 2020 when huge swarms of desert locusts ravaged across the Greater Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Southwest Asia, destroying crops and jeopardising food security.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is placing an additional burden on agri-food systems exacerbating existing, systemic risks with cascading effects on lives, livelihoods, and economies worldwide.

Disasters extend beyond the economic realm having deleterious consequences for food security and nutrition. For the first time ever, this edition of the FAO report converts economic losses into caloric and nutrition equivalents.

Investing in resilience and disaster risk reduction, especially data gathering and analysis for evidence-informed action, is of paramount importance to ensure agriculture’s crucial role in achieving a sustainable future, FAO’s report argues.

Holistic responses and cross-sectoral collaboration are key in the disaster response. Countries must adopt a multi-hazard and multi-sectoral systemic risk management approach to anticipate, prevent, prepare for and respond to disaster risk in agriculture. Strategies need to integrate not only natural hazards, but also anthropogenic and biological threats, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and must be based on an understanding of the systemic nature and interdependencies of risks.

Innovations such as remote sensing, geospatial information gathering, drones and disaster robotics, and machine learning are powerful new assessment and data gathering tools that have much to offer in the quest to reduce disaster risks in agriculture.

In addition to efficient governance, it is crucial to promote public-private partnerships to address the urgent need for investment in reducing agriculture’s susceptibility to disasters and climate change.

FAO’s recurring report The Impact of Disasters and Crises on Agriculture and Food Security presents the most recent trends in agricultural production loss attributed to disasters across all agricultural sectors. The 2021 edition covers 457 disasters in 109 countries across all regions and income categories, including for the first time upper-middle- and high-income countries (UMICs and HICs).

Of the 109 countries to register disaster-related agriculture loss, 94 are in the LDC and LMIC categories, where 389 disasters hampered agricultural production.

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