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The Costs of Climate Change: Aggravating Caste-Based Discrimination

4 Mar









By Spogmay Ahmed, PISA Staff Assistant

To many, climate change is simply another story in the news, a phenomenon left for the experts to solve. Rather, it is a harsh reality that exploits the already existing social and political discrepancies that mark everyday affairs. In South Asian countries like India, Nepal, and Pakistan, parts of society are organized according to a caste system. This form of social order permits little mobility and subjugates those individuals comprising the lower ranks of society. To add to the institutionalized inequality that low-caste communities face every day, climate change only exacerbates their vulnerability. When natural disasters strike, these people are left homeless, defenseless, and are even exploited for their labor. With the unpredictability of climate change threatening all populations, low-caste communities are left neglected and in dire need of political attention.

The “Equality in Aid” report recently released by the International Dalit Solidarity Network analyzes the pernicious impact of caste-based discrimination on Dalits, or ‘untouchables’ at the undermost level of the caste system in South Asian countries. For example, though untouchability was outlawed in India’s 1950 constitution, discrimination against lower-class individuals persists. Without proper accountability mechanisms in place, the government cannot be sure that laws are being effectively implemented at the local level. Therefore, structural inequality leads to the marginalization of these communities. Dalits are typically landless, and the few assets they own are often not formally recognized. During times of crisis, Dalits are disposed to lose everything they have, and their untouchable status leaves them at a loss for receiving emergency aid. To add to this maltreatment, Dalits are even taken advantage of with complete disregard for the trauma they may have experienced themselves. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, for example, Dalits in India were forced to remove corpses and debris with little or no compensation received. Dalits have been denied fundamental resources, such as health care, shelter, and access to clean water. Additionally, their lack of documentation leaves them ineligible to claim their land and property rights. Priority is offered to higher-class people, while discrimination against Dalits often goes without retribution. The structural repression Dalits face as a product of their low social status is only aggravated by administrative ignorance and governmental limitations.

The report lists a number of recommendations to address the problems caused by caste-based discrimination. First, humanitarian actors must ensure that the issue is publicly recognized. To promote disaster prevention and response, they must engage directly with low-caste communities to advance their needs. Second, humanitarian actors must agree to a common approach that fosters consensus and encourages stronger response mechanisms. Last, they must support laws and policies at all administrative levels that recognize the situation of marginalized groups, advance accountability, and adequately address the effects of caste-based discrimination. These steps are fundamental to effectively tackling the social barriers low-caste communities regularly face.

Climate change has been attracting increasing attention around the world, but some of its effects have been utterly overlooked. As environmental concerns make their way onto the international stage, regional concerns need not be neglected. Inevitably, climate change impacts both developed and developing countries. It is important that these countries do not fall along dividing lines, but recognize the realities that are really at stake. Among these realities is the pending exploitation of regional, low-caste populations. Since natural disasters can strike unexpectedly, it is crucial that preparedness and response be carried out in an effective, equitable fashion.


Making the Case for Climate Wise Development in Burma

15 Mar

Photo courtesy of Sandi Moynihan

This is the first training on climate change for our ministries in Myanmar”

                                                – MLICC Delegate, Ministry of Health

By Suzanne Kelly-Lyall

Partnerships for International Strategies in Asia (PISA), Yangon-based NGO ALARM, Heinrich Böll Stiftung (Bangkok/Yangon), and The Chino Cienega Foundation joined forces to offer a week-long Myanmar Climate Change Leadership Institute (MLICC).  Forty-five mid-level government officials recruited from Myanmar’s line ministries with direct responsibility for natural resource management, environmental conservation, agriculture and health, took part in a specialized program to introduce the concept of Climate Wise Development (CWD).

Photo Courtesy of Sandi Moynihan

The collaborative effort included a session on “green finance mechanisms” led by Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s North America Office Associate Director Liane Schalatek, professors drawn from The George Washington University, as well as experts from across the region.  Under PISA’s leadership, principles of CWD were introduced using active learning methods that included analytical, problem-solving exercises rooted in the real-world challenges that Myanmar faces today.  From assessing large-scale development projects such as the proposed Dawei port and how it might impact communities, to considering renewable energy sources and how to leverage natural resources for the common good, the MLICC challenged policy-makers to consider an alternative path to development. 


Photo courtesy of Sandi Moyniha

Photo courtesy Sandi MoynihanImage

PISA uses the urgent and shared issue of global climate change to illustrate the need for environmental governance and sustainable development. In so doing, we introduce the necessity of participatory decision- making and information sharing with sensitivity to existing political norms. During this easily reversible period of transition, together with ALARM and Heinrich Böll Stiftung, PISA successfully conducted a program that will build confidence over time and gradually bridge existing gaps between officials and civil society by unveiling points of mutual concern.  Working within the climate change “frame” enabled discussion of sensitive political and economic matters, from increasing transparency in natural resource management to the ways in which groups are understood to be vulnerable and marginalized.  The MLICC sought to build on the momentum toward adoption of a climate-wise development approach, namely one that is both more sustainable and equitable, which civil society organizations and reform-minded officials alike have sought to launch.  Many of the delegates possessed technical expertise in functional areas such as hydrology, forestry, or public health.  However, few have had the opportunity to share their knowledge across ministries. Consequently, at the beginning of the MLICC, analysis and problem-solving strategies often reflected narrow concerns.  By the end of week, teams had grown comfortable with working collaboratively across ministries, areas of expertise, gender, and seniority.  Teams often succeeded in developing detailed plans of action, showed a capacity for thought leadership and creative approaches to addressing the complex challenges and trade offs that development against a background of uncertainty presents.

The MLICC was strengthened by wedding the resources of three diverse organizations together; each making a distinctive contribution.  Next steps include additional in-country short courses that target important ministries for climate change policy, as well implementing the longer-term goal of providing scholarships to promising, emerging leaders to attend PISA’s Summer Leadership Institute on Climate Change, a three-week intensive program to be held on the campus of The George Washington University.

The Power of Persuasion – Fast and Furious vs. the Quiet Diplomacy of Aung San Suu Kyi

20 Sep

ImageIn a week marked by violence and unrest that culminated in the tragic loss of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens , Aung San Suu Kyi’s message of peaceful reform couldn’t be more welcome.  Two snapshots – one of angry crowds scaling the walls at Embassies across the Middle East, the other a petite, soft-spoken woman addressing overflow crowds in Washington, DC.  At first glance, these two images seem unrelated but a closer examination reveals two expressions of the need for dramatic change.

ImageThe raucous crowds ostensibly expressing rage over a blasphemous film were also venting over disappointment at the pace of change in the wake of the Arab Spring and decades of failed US Middle East policies, in contrast, the “Lady” as she is known by her supporters, persuades with logic, facts, and conviction.  After decades under house arrest, loss of family members, and political isolation Aung San Suu Kyii emerged from isolation stronger and more politically adept. During this week’s address at a USIP/Asia Society sponsored event in Washington, DC, Suu Kyi artfully reminded those who would cast Burma’s engagement with the US as an attempt to “counterbalance China”, that the good of the region requires her country to promote normal and productive relations with China as well as with the US and India.  Rather than point an accusatory finger at her former captors,  Suu Kyi underscores the centrality of rule of law to counter violence as an expression of discontent.

Her message of justice over retribution, reason over disorder, is powerful and needed not only in Burma butImage everywhere: be it the Middle East where the fragility of peace is tested daily or in the US where volatile, confrontational political discourse often threatens to divide rather than unite us.

Asia Leading in Climate Adaptation…

17 Apr

Amidst the record flooding in Bangkok last fall, the Asia Pacific Climate Adaptation Forum was cancelled. Now, only five months later, no sign of the flooding was present and UNEP’s Second Annual Asia Pacific Climate Adaptation Forum was in full swing. The irony of having to cancel the regions most important gathering on climate change adaptation was not lost on anyone at the Forum. The themes of climate adaptation, urban resilience, and disaster risk management featured heavily in panel presentations.

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Community Based Adaptation In Vietnam

24 Jul

How are Women Adapting to Climate Change in Giao Luc, Vietnam?

Working with our partner organization, CGFED: and, PISA visited Giao Luc Commune in Nam Dinh Province to find out first hand how communities are adapting to climate change  We learned that the women of Giao Lac have three main adaption strategies:

  • Migration to the city to find employment;
  • Seeking alternative livelihoods such as embroidery and sewing to supplement their incomes;
  • Using traditional desalination methods to address saltwater incursion into the paddy fields.

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A Look at Community Based Adaptation in Vietnam

21 Jul

How are Women Adapting to Climate Change in Giao Luc, Vietnam?

Working with our partner organization, CGFED:, and, PISA visited Giao Luc Commune in Nam Dinh Province to find out first hand how communities are adapting to climate change: We learned that the women of Giao Lac have three main adaption strategies:

  • Migration to the city to find employment;
  • Seeking alternative livelihoods such as embroidery and sewing to supplement their incomes;
  • Using traditional desalination methods to address saltwater incursion into the paddy fields.

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The New Security Mosaic in Asia and Why Climate Change Demands a Regional Response:

2 Jun

Southeast Asia Climate Impacts

To some observers, Asia, with its geographic, economic, ethnic, religious, and historical diversity, and home of two of the world’s fastest growing economies, China and India, offers a volatile, messy, and worrisome stew that inevitably will produce instability.

This gloomy outlook, often articulated by Western pundits, is countered by an opposing but equally unbalanced optimism, that pits economic dynamism (double digit growth in China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore) against the historical record that time and again illustrates that profound economic disparity between countries coupled with external threats  (such as unchecked climate change) and weak security mechanisms spell instability.  The sunnier outlook assumes economic growth will trump any potential conflict. However, it fuels nationalist tendencies that favor short-term economic priorities over longer-term stability.

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