Tuesday, October 13, 2020

South Asia’s handling of Covid-19 crisis portends a dire situation for the region’s response to climate change crisis

 South Asia’s handling of Covid-19 crisis reveals a dysfunctional regional cooperation mechanism to deal with the trans-boundary crisis implying a need for a revitalized regional cooperation to deal with the climate crisis, according to the experts in a virtual meeting organised by South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) in association with Biruni Institute, Afghanistan; Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh; Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), India; Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Pakistan; and Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS).

They also emphasised that Covid-19 has diverted efforts away from climate action, which, if not corrected, will have devastating consequences for the region that remains highly vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of climate change.

On the occasion, former member of the National Planning Commission (NPC) Dr Prabhu Budhathoki highlighted that the current pandemic has made it crystal clear that the regional cooperation mechanism in South Asia does not function well at the time of crisis and hence our governance mechanism has to change, if we are to wage an effective fight against the climate change.

Likewise, deputy director general at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu Dr Eklabya Sharma, delivering the keynote speech, emphasised that South Asia, primarily given the significant presence of mountain regions, is one of the most vulnerable regions when it comes to climate change. “Higher population density and the presence of large number of impoverished populations exacerbate the vulnerabilities in the region,” Dr Sharma said, adding that the dire effects of climate change are already visible in the region in the forms of increased occurrence of floods, glacial lake outbursts, landslides, heat waves, and a general degradation of the ecosystem. He also warned that a sole focus on Covid-19 at the expense of climate issues is the biggest challenge confronting the region.

Citing Pakistan’s experience in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and lessons learnt through it, chair of SDPI in Islamabad and former deputy executive director at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Dr Shafqat Kakakhel highlighted four key elements – resilience to deal with disasters; institutional arrangement for domestic, regional, and international coordination; identification of the most vulnerable communities and rapid dispatch of support to them; and effective use of information technology and social media to inform people – that South Asia has to strengthen to deal with climate change. Referring to the past regional mechanisms like South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP), Delhi Statement on Cooperation in Environment 2009, and Thimphu Statement on Climate Change, Dr Kakakhel mentioned that SAARC has had many initiatives to foster regional cooperation on climate change issues but poor implementation has rendered them inefficacious.

Research Fellow and head of Environment Economic Policy Research, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka Dr Athula Senaratne warned that Covid-19 impacts could crowd out the climate finance for several years and hence slow the developments that had gradually been building up in South Asia. He also pointed out that climate action is currently a peripheral issue in the region and until it becomes a mainstream issue we will not see effective collective responses to deal with the climate crisis.

“The current pandemic has highlighted the interconnected nature of global systemic risk and it has exposed significant vulnerabilities, including in food systems,” mentioned research fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience of Coventry University in UK Dr Lopa Saxena. “To deal with the global crisis engendered by climate change, equitable, sustainable, healthy, and resilient food systems have to be developed, he said, adding that regional cooperation in local food production systems is vital for bringing about that change.

Discussing Bhutan’s successful response in containing the Covid-19 infections and managing socio-economic repercussions, dean of Academic Affairs, College of Natural Resource, Royal University of Bhutan Dr Tulsi Gurung emphasised the importance of leadership and governance in dealing with the crisis. “Addressing climate change would also require leadership that can unite citizens within the country and wage effective collaboration at the regional and global level,” he added.

SAWTEE – in association with other prominent think-tanks in the region – has been hosting a series of webinars from September 22 to October 16 to deliberate on various socio-economic aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, how they relate to South Asia and what should be the future course of action for South Asian countries.

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