In a report released this week during the UN climate change summit in Poland, the UN Environment Programme warned of a widening gap between the cost of adaptation in developing countries – as much as $500 billion annually by 2050 – and what wealthier nations have promised.
But while global leaders negotiate a path forward, communities on the front lines of climate change are already struggling to adjust to the impacts of extreme weather, shifting seasons, and volatile temperatures.
IRIN reporters met with people coping with staggering changes to their ways of life. For some, the shifts have been life-altering: a family forced to flee their land for a city slum; a fisherman trying to farm because the seas are no longer productive; a drought-stricken herder who abandoned his livelihood only to see his new one threatened.
Their stories, presented below, are a snapshot of everyday efforts to cope – and a sign of the enormity of adapting to climate change for those already living with its impacts.
Lower-income countries say previous global commitments of $100 billion a year in climate financing for vulnerable nations are already short of what’s needed, and fail to account for the spiralling costs of disaster-inflicted loss and damages.
“There are limits to the extent to which human and natural systems can adapt,” a bloc of 47 least-developed countries warned. “People are already suffering from the devastation that climate change brings.”
“I have nowhere else to turn”
From land to lake, drought threatens livelihoods in Kenya’s Turkana
Severe drought forced lifelong pastoralist Eperit Naporon to abandon his goat herd to become a fisherman on northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana. But climate change is again threatening his livelihood.
When 200 of his goats died during a drought last year, Naporon decided he had to find another way to feed his family and survive. For decades he had fished the waters of Lake Turkana – the world’s largest desert lake – not as a job, but to supplement the family’s diet. Now, the former herder is a full-time fisherman, supplying his catch to small-scale traders along the shore.
But already, fish in the water have dwindled. “We used to get big and many fish very close to the shores. Now we have to go deeper in conflicted areas with our neighbours as that’s the only way to get a catch,” said the 43-year-old father of nine.
“And what you bring home is much smaller fish compared to what we caught years ago.”
Turkana County has long experienced periods of recurrent drought. However, increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are expected to increase the rates of evaporation at Lake Turkana. Government meteorological data show temperatures in Turkana County increased between two and three degrees Celsius (3.5 and 5.5°F) between 1967 and 2012.
Naporon says the droughts have become longer, more frequent, and more economically damaging: “Nowadays, it dries almost annually. And when it hits, we lose everything... the cows, the goats; it's frustrating.”
Now his second source of hope, the desert lake, is also under threat – not only from high levels of evaporation due to increased temperatures, but also from human interference.
Hydroelectric and irrigation projects constructed along the Omo River will dramatically reduce freshwater input from the river into Lake Turkana, increasing its salinity levels and reducing fish-breeding areas and mature fish populations. The Omo River provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana.
As world leaders deliberate how to implement climate commitments aimed at limiting global temperature rise, the best Naporon can do is hope that the source of his current livelihood holds.
“This is my only hope! I have nowhere else to turn,” he said. “Yes, I still keep a few goats, but with them dying in huge numbers nearly annually, it is no longer possible. So, this lake has to yield.”
“When the river erodes, it takes away everything”
Displaced by erosion, climate migrants cause Bangladesh’s slums to swell
Raima Begum has little idea about global warming, but she’s living proof of the toll climate change is already exacting on the coastal communities of low-lying Bangladesh.
In 2009, the Meghna River swallowed up her entire home and land on Bhola, an island perched near the mouth of the river on the Bay of Bengal. Bhola has gradually been shrinking over decades due to soil erosion exacerbated by rising sea levels and frequent flooding.
“When the river erodes, it takes away everything,” Begum said.
With her land and possessions gone, the 30-year-old mother of two made the lengthy upriver journey here to Kallyanpur Pora Bastee, a slum community on the margins of Bangladesh’s crowded capital, Dhaka. She wasn’t alone: residents say 80 percent of the people here are migrants from Bhola.
Begum’s journey is part of a familiar rural exodus in Bangladesh, where some 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants head to urban centres like Dhaka each year. Reasons for migration are often complex, but wrapped in the economic motivations are environmental pressures – like drought, floods, and disappearing land – that force people like Begum to leave.
Research by the World Bank warns there could be more than 40 million “internal climate migrants” in South Asia by 2050 – one third of them in Bangladesh.
Today, river erosion claims about 10,000 hectares of land each year. Climate change accelerates this damage by increasing the risk and magnitude of extreme disasters such as Bangladesh’s worsening annual floods. A 2013 study on climate change’s impacts suggested that erosion along Bangladesh’s three major rivers could increase by 13 percent by 2050. Researchers say this rising loss of land could swell the ranks of Bangladesh’s climate migrants, like Begum and her family.
The Begums lived off the land back on Bhola. But in the slums of Dhaka, they struggle to make ends meet. Her husband earns less than $100 a month, which is mostly taken up by rent and medicine for her ill son. She blames her family’s problems on the erosion that robbed them of their home, and drove them to the unfamiliar capital.
“Isn’t erosion doing harm to us? Isn’t it our loss?” she said. “We’re now suffering in a foreign land.”
“When there is no rain, you can’t grow anything”
In Madagascar, “no rain” pushes farmers to the city
In a quiet corner of a market in Morondava, a city on Madagascar’s west coast, Alatsoa is tidying her stall: she sells spices and pulses, neatly displayed in their wholesale sacks.
But this wasn’t always her life. Alatsoa, her husband, and their two sons arrived in the city in 2013 after drought in their home region of Androy in southern Madagascar made it impossible to continue working as farmers.
“We grew maize and yam and sold it in local markets,” she said. “But when there is no rain, you can’t grow anything.”
“No rain” has become an increasingly common concern in Androy as a result of climate change. The region has been in the grips of unprecedented drought since 2013, accentuated by an El Niño phenomenon that brought prolonged rain shortages. This has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with more than a million people now facing food shortages and malnutrition.
This may be a sign of worse to come: forecasts agree that temperatures in the southernmost region will increase, drought will become more common, and rainfall more variable. With farming dependent almost entirely on rainfall, and very little in the way of formal irrigation or modern farming practices in Androy, drought has a disproportionate impact on this poor, underdeveloped region.
“There is famine there, there is no water. Our future would have been very bleak if we had stayed,” said Alatsoa. “We would have managed to survive, but not live.”
Climate change exacerbates internal migration flows in Madagascar, according to the UN. This trend is clear in Morondava’s market, where dozens of traders from Androy sell produce including bananas, mangoes, and poultry.
Accompanying Alatsoa at the market, her youngest child Riantsoa, who was born in Morondava, is now three and looks small for her age. But she is likely in better health than many children back in Androy: the World Food Programme estimates that nearly half the children under the age of five in Madagascar suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting, and the south is the worst-affected region.
“Life here is good,” Alatsoa said. “We eat well and we are healthy. That’s the most important thing.”
But she hopes that one day things will improve enough for the family to return to Androy. “When you’re old, you must go back to your homeland,” she said.
“It’s all gone”
Rising sea levels uproot coastal communities in Liberia
Before the sea removed a large chunk of his home in August, 30-year-old Lawrence Saweh sold dry goods at the market.
“The sea damaged what I used to do for work,” he said. “I’m not doing anything now. It’s all gone.”
Over the space of a weekend, his five-room house in the Funday quarter of Monrovia’s New Kru Town district was reduced to two. The sea tore through the concrete structure, demolishing the external walls and claiming what was inside, including his stock of goods to sell and his mother’s bed.
Anything spared by the water was taken by looters who arrived once the sea had receded. “They even stole the zinc roofing,” he said, looking up at the sunlight streaming in from large holes through the remains of his home.
In this coastal suburb, which sits on Bushrod Island, a portion of the capital that lies between the Saint Paul River and the Atlantic Ocean, many homes consist of a hotchpotch of corrugated iron sheets stuck into the sand.
But Saweh’s home wasn’t always a beachside district.
Since the 1970s, coastal erosion has reduced the size of Monrovia’s beachside communities by between two and seven metres annually and the densely populated New Kru Town, which is situated less than a metre above sea level, is among the worst-hit areas. Today, fishing boats nudge against the exposed foundations of Saweh’s home; 30 years ago, the neighbourhood extended more than 200 metres further out.
Rising sea levels caused by climate change are expected to continue causing destruction to Monrovia’s coastal communities. A defence barrier is being built nearby, but this comes as small consolation to Saweh, whose home remains vulnerable and unprotected. “The sea is still finding a way,” he said, watching the saltwater washing into a channel behind his house.
Saweh’s options are limited in the likely event of further destruction. “Where will I go?” he asked. “There’s nowhere to go; no money. That’s why we’re still here.”
“I can’t predict it anymore”
Warming oceans, erratic storms disrupt Indonesian fishing villages
Tuna fisherman Salsabila Makatika no longer trusts the ocean that has sustained his community for generations.
Salsabila depends on tuna to support his family of 11 in Asilulu village, a small fishing community on Ambon Island near Indonesia’s eastern edges. But fish that used to be plentiful at the start of the traditional fishing season in early March now appear weeks later. And the storm season that once set in toward the end of the year begins weeks earlier, effectively shrinking his window to make a living.
“I can’t predict it anymore,” said Salsabila, 51. “With the sudden wind changes, I can’t operate. I’ve gone many times out to the ocean but come back with nothing.”
Climate researchers say ocean warming – one consequence of climate change – has already had a “profound” effect on global fisheries, shrinking fish catches in some regions and increasing them elsewhere. Climate change is expected to drive tuna stock here in the western Pacific further eastward and to higher latitudes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that Indonesia will be among the hardest hit in Asia by this ongoing “redistribution” of fisheries.
The volatility is already having an impact here in northern Ambon, where 90 percent of the families depend on fisheries. The tuna is sold to Indonesian companies, who ship it around the country and further abroad.
Salsabila said he used to regularly return with seven large tuna in his boat’s icebox; these days, he catches two at most.
This new reality has pushed some fishing families here to try and diversify their income: catching other types of fish, or balancing their fishing with farming. But other varieties of fish fetch far lower prices, and the amount of land suitable for farming on Ambon is relatively small, said Subair Abdullah, a professor at Ambon Islamic State University who has researched how Asilulu fishers are adapting to climate change.
Subair believes the changing climate is putting the fishing community here at risk of a “food crisis” for which they are not prepared.
“The fishermen impacted aren’t yet aware that what they’re experiencing is climate change,” Subair said. “It makes it hard to adapt.”
This story was reported by Sophie Mbugua in Kenya, AZM Anas in Bangladesh, Emilie Filou in Madagascar, Lucinda Rouse in Liberia, and Ian Morse in Indonesia.
(TOP PHOTO: Fishermen in Madagascar, threatened by the effects of global warming. CREDIT: Marco Longari/AFP)