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Published on 22 July 2019
Written by Nadia Saraci

Last week, the UN High-Level Political Forum reviewed progress on Sustainable Development Goals 10 and 13, on inequality and climate change. The interdependencies between SDG goals and targets is a key principle of Agenda 2030.

During the same week, monsoon floods hit much of South Asia, with catastrophic impacts on the homes of marginalised communities including in Assam and Bihar and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The floods bring home the real-life connection between climate change and inequality.

In international forums, the Christian Aid policy team has been vocal in arguing that climate change disproportionately affects people living in poverty. But we know that the ways economic and social inequalities combine to increase vulnerability warrants more attention. What can we learn from our programme and humanitarian work in South Asia that tells us more?

South Asia: marginalisation and work

In much of South Asia, caste and ethnicity  shape economic opportunity. Most marginalised groups work in fishing, agricultural labour, pastoralism and gathering forest produce: some of the livelihoods most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

People face many barriers in breaking out of these ‘traditional’ jobs – including discrimination – but being unable to find alternatives leaves them vulnerable to destitution and debt. This contributes to the vicious cycles of bonded labour and trafficking already common among marginalised groups.  

Women face additional challenges as their limited opportunities for paid work are further restricted by a heavier burden of unpaid household responsibilities, when essentials such as fuelwood, fodder and water become scarce.

Marginalisation in early warning and post-disaster services

Discrimination also prevents people getting help or recovering after shocks. I asked Christian Aid’s Emergencies Programme Officer, Shivani Rana, about her experiences of this.

Shivani explained how Dalits (the most subordinated caste groups) and indigenous peoples usually live in isolated settlements with limited infrastructure or services, and are very exposed to climate hazards. She described these settlements as “last mile” communities, neglected in provision of shelters, and rarely reached by early warning systems.

She highlighted a study co-funded by Christian Aid and Oxfam, in which National Dalit Watch and Swadhikar evaluated the inclusion of Dalit and Tribal families in the response to the 2018 floods in Kerala. This study found that 98.9% of a sample of 1585 people from these communities did not receive proper early warning before floods; as Shivani said, “communication channels got hit by the heavy downpour and lost all coordination during rescue operation.”

“In Puri District of Odisha State, after Cyclone Fani”, she continued, “we saw that people belonging to the most marginalised Dalit community were not given space in cyclone shelters. About 40 families were excluded from shelters and forced to take refuge only under a tarpaulin put over a tree bent by the cyclone. In the scorching heat of summer, they relied on a pond filled with dirty water for drinking, cooking, household chores and even bathing. Some of the women excluded from shelters where people of more privileged castes were living told me of the fear they felt, sleeping outside.”

Unsurprisingly, marginalised communities also take longer to recover after a disaster. This often affects children, whose education and development shouldn’t have to wait.  Shivani told me about a young boy from Harijan Sai of Sanapatna village in Krushnaprasad block whom she met during a distribution in his village. “He worried about not being able to study for an upcoming exam as there is no electricity in his village, which is always neglected and excluded from support coming through government. He felt sure, from many years of experience, that relief assistance would not reach his village.”

A political and technical challenge

Christian Aid’s experience in South Asia has been that socially excluded communities are frequently excluded from sources of assistance – both governmental, and delivered by the international humanitarian system – and often invisible in or underserved by national disaster management plans. They are excluded from the places and spaces of decision-making, meaning they never get to voice their needs or influence responses.

Their lack of representation means that addressing climate vulnerability and building resilience for those who need it most is as much a political challenge as it is a technical one.  Meeting it means and challenging entrenched, unequal social behaviours, as well as pushing for change in the policies and practices of national and local governments and other humanitarian actors. 

When it comes to progressing the SDGs, particularly building resilience to climate change, we must prioritise inclusion by ensuring people from marginalised communities are part of assessment teams and decision-making for relief and rehabilitation efforts.

Further, building inclusive resilience to climate change must be based on policies and practices informed by transparent data, disaggregated by caste, sex, age, disability and other forms of marginalisation. This would both reveal the inequalities that need tackling, and show progress in closing the gaps. It would make a substantial contribution towards the inclusive, fair and just implementation of the SDGs.

For more on descent and work-based discrimination, see our report and briefing on Caste-based Discrimination and the SDGs