When it comes to climate change, Assam must rank among the early-impacted regions of the world.
In the past few years, people around the world have been alarmed by headlines of impending consequences like floods, erosion, displaced people, and conflicts, but in Assam, we have lived through decades of these impacts.
In the past, not many would associate these as manifestations of anthropogenic warming of the planet, but our understanding of the climate crisis has evolved. We now have the ability to analyze the progression of warming across spheres and the ensuing socioeconomic influences.
My understanding is that any conversation about climate justice should include Assam where development aspirations of the populace have for long been undermined by these interlinked crises.
Assam has consistently appeared on the top of states listed as most affected or vulnerable to climate change in India. Last year, Assam was listed among the 8 most vulnerable states by the ‘Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India Using a Common Framework.’
The national climate vulnerability assessment report from the Department of Science and Technology placed 60 percent of districts in Assam under the highly vulnerable category.
Another recent study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water revealed that six of India’s eight most flood-prone districts during the last decade are located in Assam- Barpeta, Darrang, Dhemaji, Goalpara, Golaghat, Sivasagar. These are the latest in a series of reports that justify adequate representation for the state in global conversations around climate justice.
During the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year, G77 nations along with China had demanded a “Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility” through which historical emitters would pay poor countries to remedy the loss and damage from climate disaster. Countries have agreed in principle to support affected and vulnerable communities with the resources for a just transition, including finances for losses from climatic disasters.
The term “loss and damage” refers to financial aid to vulnerable communities suffering from unavoidable impacts of climate change like floods and droughts demanded by developing countries.
Even in 2018, Assam was found to be most vulnerable by the “Climate Vulnerability Assessment for the Indian Himalayan Region Using a Common Framework” prepared by the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, Indian Institute of Technology Mandi and the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, under the project ‘Capacity Building on Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment in the States of Indian Himalayan Region’.
Based on these findings, Assam and Mizoram were named as the most vulnerable to climate change during a presentation by the Indian delegation at the 24th UN Climate Change Conference (COP24).
Other studies have pointed to future water scarcity; In September 2018, researchers created a data-based index of ‘hydro-political’ issues in areas with a history of ‘transboundary water resources,’ where conflicts are likely to be exacerbated by climate change and population growth. The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin was among the five global hotspots where ‘water wars’ are likely to happen in the future.
This scenario may seem incredulous for a water abundant region prone to flooding, but other reports have validated these findings with dire projections.
The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report published in 2019 corroborated the projections of the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report regarding glacial loss in the Himalayas, besides providing fresh insights into impacts in the Eastern Himalayan region.
The forecasted loss of over a third of glaciers in the Eastern Himalayas by 2100 even if warming is contained to 1.5 C degrees is compounded by the fact that average temperatures across the Hindu Kush Himalayas have already increased by 1.3 degrees Celsius. Scientists believe that 40 percent of the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau could disappear by 2050 with implications on the overall water, energy, and food security of the northeast region.
The prevailing worldview is that the global biodiversity and climate crises are interlinked with the role of indigenous people in conservation of the remaining natural places on earth being finally acknowledged. A recent study shows that indigenous communities are at higher risk of hardship from impacts like flooding because of pre-existing socioeconomic vulnerability.
Despite insignificant contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, indigenous people are among the first to face the direct impacts of warming. At the same time, indigenous people and local communities have the knowledge and values oriented towards nature that steward over 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.
At COP26, for the first time in the history of the UNFCCC, twenty-eight indigenous peoples were nominated from each of the seven UN indigenous socio-cultural regions, to engage directly as knowledge holders and share experiences as indigenous experts with governments. Governments recognized the important role of indigenous peoples in addressing and responding to climate change.
Assam is blessed with natural largesse, and a plethora of indigenous traditions and knowledge systems that could contribute to resilience and capacity enhancement, making the state indispensable to the evolution of global climate justice.
The Glasgow Climate Pact last year called for developed nations to “at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation” from 2019 levels by 2025. The deliberations over “loss and damage,” considered as the third pillar of international climate policy along with mitigation and adaptation since the Paris Agreement, remained inconclusive but will be the focus of COP27 in Egypt.
During the two weeks of negotiations at Glasgow, indigenous people’s organizations were among the most prominent of the UNFCCC recognized civil society groups. Dressed in traditional finery, indigenous elders and youth leaders were informed, passionate and articulate. Conspicuously absent were indigenous representatives from India, which has the largest population of indigenous communities outside of Africa.
Assam and the northeast were not represented despite being at the frontlines of climate change. It is imperative for the political leadership to ensure that community representatives are empowered to negotiate on global forums for the allocation of climate funds for Assam.
The deliverance of climate justice is tied to climate finance and Assam must find its rightful place at the center of these negotiations.
[Images from different sources; headline image from Nature’s Beckon]
[Writer Rituraj Phukan is the Founder, Indigenous People’s Climate Justice Forum; National Coordinator for Biodiversity, The Climate Reality Project India ; National Coordinator, Citizens Climate International; COO, Walk For Water; Secretary General, Green Guard Nature Organization ; Ambassador, European Climate Pact; Member, IUCN Wilderness Specialist Group; Commission Member – IUCN WCPA Climate Change, IUCN WCPA Connectivity Conservation, IUCN WCPA Indigenous People and Protected Areas Specialist Groups, IUCN WCPA South Asia Region and IUCN WCPA-SSC Invasive Alien Species Task Force; Assam Coordinator, Kids For Tigers, the Sanctuary Tiger Programme; Associate Editor, Igniting Minds; Member, International Antarctic Expedition 2013; Climate Force Arctic 2019 ; Ambassador, Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary]
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