13 June 2013 | By Melanie Smith
Visiting vulnerable communities in India who are bearing the brunt of climate change, worsened by global carbon emissions, highlighted an alarming inequality to me that is leaving people in poverty around the world through no fault of their own.
The wealthiest 20% of the world’s population is responsible for 80% of the consumption of global resources, such as gas, oil and coal, with the world currently using 50% more natural resources than the earth can sustain. This is exacerbating the devastating impacts on nature and is affecting how people access food, fresh water, land and energy – things we often take for granted here in the UK.
Meteorological patterns – including cyclones, floods, droughts and erratic rains – have become increasingly volatile, influenced by the world’s wealthiest 20%, which are pushing people and ecosystems across the globe to become more vulnerable in the path of extreme and unpredictable weather.
Carbon dioxide levels
Indeed, a recent US study revealed the concentration of carbon dioxide – which plays the biggest role in global warming – in the atmosphere is set to raise about 400 parts per million for sustained lengths of time. This is the highest it’s been for almost two million years, and the primary cause of this change is our increased global burning of fossil fuels.
In fact, at the end of the Ice Age, it took 7,000 years for carbon dioxide levels to rise by 80 parts per million, but in today’s world, the same increase would take just 55 years. This just can’t go on.
Conversely, the poorest 20% of the population lack resources, including shelter, fuel, water and food, meaning they are even morevulnerable in the face of climate change. This inequality is forcing poor people to use often unsustainable means to light their homes and cook their food, such as kerosene and wood stoves.
Poor communities who are living on the edge of the mangroves, West Bengal – located in the Sundarbans National Park – are unable to call anywhere home, as rising waters force them to relocate every few years as water engulfs the land.
Increased numbers of storms and cyclones mean they are constantly living in fear of disaster, and even when the weather is dry, the salt from the flooding sea water has turned the land rock-solid and unworkable. As a result, they are unable to grow food to eat, often relying on just plain rice and the occasional fish they’re able to catch.
I met such communities, who don’t have access to electricity or coal – even kerosene is too expensive to use – and they rely on wood from the forest to fuel their stoves. Yet, ironically, it is they who feel the climatically damaging effects of the growing thirst for energy, including electricity produced by burning coal – a cheap, conventional and carbon-emitting fuel.
Poverty in India
I visited India to see how a country, a nation with a seemingly booming economy, is still home to more than 360 million people who live in poverty, and where just 67% of the population have access to electricity.
Artist Gerry Judah travelled with me to witness this vast inequality as research for a new exhibition, Tipping Point, at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, for which he produced his new series of work entitled Bengal.
Born in Kolkata, Gerry left India over 50 years ago to live in London. This was the first time he’d been back to visit his homeland since, to see how global overconsumption has affected communities he left behind all those years ago.
What struck him was the resilience of the people we met. He found them gracious, hospitable and industrious, trying hard to not just better their lives under the most adverse conditions, but also staying together as a community.
Adapting to the changing climate
Local organisations, supported by Christian Aid, are helping these communities to adapt to the changing environment by introducing new multi-cropping techniques to ensure they always have an edible crop to rely on, and teaching them about cleaner and more sustainable energy sources such as Biogas made from their cattle’s waste and solar power.
Communities in coastal areas are also now practising disaster risk reduction methods to limit the destruction of storms, cyclones and floods when they hit (successfully put into action as Cyclone Mahasen raced through the Bay of Bengal recently).
Seeing how people have adapted their lives, and how they are coping with this unpredictability and change, was inspirational. We met one woman, Gauri Mondal, whose single rice crop had previously failed due to floods and erratic rainfall.
She beamed with pride as she showed us the rice paddies and her hanging crops of vegetables that thrive in wet environments including gourds and quash, alongside ducks, fish and cattle. These days, her family has enough to eat, and are even able to sell surplus to the local market.
But we can’t be complacent. While the people I met are adapting to their changing environments, their vulnerability isn’t decreasing. What they’re experiencing is a scandal, which we in the West have benefitted from.
We, and our governments, need to stand up and take action to continue to help and support communities like Gauri’s.
Find out more
Read about Gauri Mondal and other families who are adapting to the changing climate in India.
View a photo gallery from Gerry Judah's trip to India on the Guardian Development site.
Melanie's blog also appeared on The Independent.