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OPINION: A triple whammy – avoiding a bleak future for semi-arid regions


A certain degree of global warming is inevitable, due to more than a hundred years of fossil fuel driven industrialisation. Greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere will continue to alter our climate for decades to come.

Semi-arid regions are among the areas that have been identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as being particularly exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Home to over 2.5billion people, highly variable arid and semi-arid systems are already affected by climate change, and will increasingly struggle to support the people who depend on them unless we can find ways to harness the resilience that is inherent to many of these systems.

Major challenges and factors the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals must consider

Semi-arid lands in developing countries tend to face slow growth rates, poor infrastructure, narrow economic activities and poor access to markets. This often results in high levels of extreme poverty. If the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) want to leave no one behind, they must pay special attention to people living in these difficult places – those blighted with the triple whammy of climate change impacts, slow growth and high poverty levels.

Development progress in these hotspots will require a long-term focus on resilient economic growth, a story that is underrepresented in existing post-2015 development debates.

Pathways to Resilience in Semi-Arid Economies (PRISE) is a new five-year research project focused on tackling this challenge – how can semi-arid regions grow in a way that is quick, inclusive and resilient? Supported by the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), PRISE considers barriers to growth, and the type of growth needed to generate greater resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Three strands have emerged from the early stages of PRISE research:

Enabling environments that promote resilience and inclusive development

Some of the main challenges poorer countries face when combating poverty are a lack of basic economic, financial and transport infrastructure. This can be compounded by fragile or weak institutions, which do not provide secure property rights, basic public services, and fail to foster inclusive markets – as well as incentives that might encourage innovation and investment.

The Government of Tanzania, one of the PRISE focus countries, has implemented a programme to formalise property rights. This has helped more poor/rural households to access credit and farmers to use their land as collateral. Farmers can buy seeds or fertilisers with loans to increase productivity, while also working to adapt to climate change. Identifying key reforms such as this can spur economic growth.

The role of the private sector in strengthening resilience to climate change

In many African countries, the private sector generates 80% of GDP and 90% of jobs, and can play a key role in building economic resilience in semi-arid lands. Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the Laikipia District of north-east Kenya, is one example which has been successful in combining business, conservation and community development.

The conservancy runs a successful wildlife tourism operation and a commercially viable livestock production business on the same land. This provides a vital market for local pastoralist communities, as well as generating community development revenue. This dual model has demonstrated financial viability and social impact, and has the potential to be expanded and replicated.

The role of migration and finance flows

Money transfers from migrants working abroad also play a key role in supporting households in semi-arid areas. Tajikistan is one of the most remittance dependent countries in the world, with overseas transfers accounting for almost half of the country’s GDP. Large numbers of working-age men migrate from Tajikistan to Russia in search of alternative employment, often returning after extended periods, or not at all. Money sent back is undoubtedly of critical value to the people left at home, with positive impacts on income generation and quality of life.

During crises such as floods or droughts, families are dependent on this money. Tajikistan suffered one of its worst droughts on record in 2008 on the back of one of its coldest winters in 44 years. Farmers experienced widespread crop loss and grain harvest totals were down between 30-40 per cent compared to the previous year: ‘The economic loss from compound crisis exceeded 250 million USD, or 7% of Tajikistan’s GDP. Climate shocks such as this are expected to be grow in intensity and frequency. Policies should ensure remittance flows are used to support long-term coping strategies for a climate-resilient future rather than supporting families on an ad-hoc basis.

Building a climate-resilient future  

Current international efforts tend to miss out these ‘triple whammy’ climate, poverty and growth hotspots. International policy solutions do not go far enough to put in place a long-term resilient growth vision for such areas. And too often the tools and policies that work in less arid, agricultural zones are not adapted for the unique characteristics of semi-arid systems and the ecological, social and economic dynamics that define them.

Given the outlook on climate change, governments would do well to recognise and harness the economic potential of semi-arid lands. Concretely, special attention in terms of international finance should be given to these areas, as well as support to strengthen local capacities to adapt to climate change and long-term international support for institutions to deliver local programmes.

This blog is by Helen Mountfort, Consortium Co-ordinator for PRISE, and first appeared on the PRISE website.

Occasionally, CDKN invites guest bloggers from around the world to contribute their views on climate compatible development to cdkn.org. The views expressed do not necesarily reflect those of CDKN or its alliance members.

Photo credit: Olive Thiong (CCAFS)

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