Climate change and deep adaptation in Myanmar

The futures being sketched out for the Myanmar people pay too little attention to climate change, for which adaption strategies need to go beyond “sustainability”.

By ASHLEY SOUTH | FRONTIER

THE IMPACT of climate change in Myanmar is likely to be immense and will play out in multi-dimensional ways. Beyond that, though, it is difficult to predict. In remote, upland areas of the country that are controlled or influenced by ethnic armed groups, political, economic and social trajectories are likely to diverge from the rest of Myanmar.

Already, in some parts of the country, the monsoon – which provides most of the rainfall for agriculture on which about 70 percent of the population depends – is up to 30 days shorter, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Upland areas are projected to experience particularly steep rises in average temperatures, with devastating impacts on harvests, livelihoods and possibly the bare sustainability of human life. However, upland areas will be less severely affected by the rising sea levels that could destroy coastal areas.

Myanmar is among the countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Low-lying farmland, such as in the Ayeyarwady delta, is at risk of flooding and salination, as well as being exposed to extreme weather, such as the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Neighbouring Bangladesh faces the same dangers, and in the not too distant future millions of Bangladeshis may become climate change refugees. Many of them may have little choice but to head east to Myanmar, as well as north and west to India. Combined with the domestic impacts of climate change, this would be highly destabilising, and could even undermine the viability of the state.

Although not much discussed in the mainstream media, the possibility of climate change severely disrupting the basic parameters of modern social and economic life cannot be discounted. In this context, Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups may receive a new lease of life.

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In Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War, the viability of armed struggle by insurgent groups to achieve political goals has been in decline. Only in Myanmar and the Philippines do significant non-state armed groups remain active. Amid a failing peace process, and despite their political legitimacy among many conflict-affected communities, ethnic armed groups in Myanmar are struggling to demonstrate continued political relevance. However, they may experience a revival in fortunes if the state in Myanmar is severely weakened by the impact of climate change.

In remote areas that have been “frontiers” since before colonial times, many of the country’s ethnic armed groups continue to control territory and small populations. Will these enclaves be viable under conditions of extreme climate stress? How well equipped are ethnic nationality communities in the borderlands, and related civil society and armed organisations, to deal with the impacts of climate change?

Presumably, under conditions of crisis, having guns and jungle survival skills, combined with control of natural resources and upland territory, will be at least as useful as solar panels and batteries. This raises questions of how to engage with non-state authorities, including armed groups, to ensure a viable future, hopefully with governing authority exercised, at least in part, in the interests of local communities (rather than just warlords).

Work on climate change adaptation in Myanmar and elsewhere has so far been mostly piecemeal, especially in relation to future modes of political governance. There is a reluctance to challenge globally and locally dominant political and economic models. However, the continued growth of late capitalist economies under current conditions is not viable. Dominant and destructive paradigms of growth-orientated resource consumption are not sustainable. Despite this, in many developing countries such as Myanmar, donors and aid agencies continue to promote “sustainability” as a development paradigm, including in relation to climate change adaptation.

The sustainability of present economic and political systems is a delusion – or an illusion – mostly serving vested interests. If sustainability is not viable, adaptation to the massive coming changes needs to be radical in premise. What can be salvaged, what do we need to give up, and who will choose and how?

More viable than the myth of sustainability is the notion of “resilience” – the ability to cope with crisis. The notion may lead us to consider which aspects of societies are best equipped to adapt to catastrophe. Many of these elements are likely to be found in the social, economic and political systems of upland Myanmar, which till now have often been disparaged by national and global elites as being “backwards”.

In the not too distant future, Myanmar’s upland communities and local ethnic political authorities may be relatively more viable than those in the lowlands. A key common challenge, however, will be having enough to eat.

Changing weather patterns, including shorter and more intense monsoons and rising temperatures, are already impacting harvests. In June, Karen farmers in Tanintharyi told me that their “swidden” rice is doing less well than last year, when the harvest was already poor by comparison with the past. In this context, upland communities and their leaders need to think about new forms of livelihood, including crops better adapted to the changing climate. This may be the key challenge to their long-term survival.

Is there any role here for Western aid actors? It’s likely that relative global collapse induced by climate change, and the accompanying retrenchment of major economies, will strip aid agency budgets – especially for countries such as Myanmar that are not strategically important for most Western donors. Already, populists in supposedly democratic and wealthy countries are demanding a redirection of dwindling resources towards client groups back home.

While there is time, it is important to work with local actors (including faith-based networks and groups based on ethno-linguistic identity) and support their capacity for resilience, while deferring to the wisdom of local farmers. Approaches to “deep adaptation” in Myanmar should start with the most vulnerable communities and give serious consideration to the implications of future massive upheavals caused by climate change. Among the most urgent areas where help can be provided is working with upland communities to develop livelihoods and crops that are more resilient, and which are deeply adaptive to change.

By Ashley South

By Ashley South

Dr Ashley South is Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University and has worked for 20 years on ethnic armed conflict, peace building, and humanitarian and development aid in Myanmar. Publications listed at www.AshleySouth.co.uk.
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