Report from COP28: Finding collaborative solutions for climate impacts in Asian Mega-Deltas

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9 December 2023 (DUBAI, UAE) – The CGIAR Initiative on Asian Mega-Deltas (AMD) and Wageningen University & Research (WUR) co-hosted a side event at COP28 titled “Climate Impacts in Asian Mega-Deltas: Finding Collaborative Solutions” bringing together a panel of experts from multi-level sectors to present key information and insights on loss and damage from climate change in the Ganges and Mekong Deltas and how countries and other international organizations are addressing them.

The event took place at the Vietnam Pavilion of the 28th annual climate change Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai, and it brought together a multistakeholder perspective on strategies that may be effectively implemented and established a shared understanding of the immense impact of climate change in the deltas. They also highlighted the dire need for funding not just to mitigate and adapt but to cope with the loss and damages. The participants call for a solution that is based on systems thinking, long-term planning, and listening to local experiences.

Climate impacts in the deltas

In the session introduction, Mr. Pham Quang Huy, Deputy Director of the International Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development shared that “Asian Mega-Deltas, such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh and India, Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar, and Mekong Delta in Vietnam and Cambodia, are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to their low-lying geography, high population density, and reliance on agriculture.” The climate risks that people experience in the deltas are the increasing incidence of floods, sea level rise, salinization in soil and freshwater, drought, and severe cyclones. Mr. Huy added that it is projected that more than 50% of the Mekong Delta will be submerged by 2100 and 18 million people will be affected. This will disrupt the food production and food security of around 200 million people.

Mr. Huy emphasized that the losses and damages in the agriculture sector from drought, flood, salinity intrusion, soil erosion, crop failure, and destruction of irrigation systems due to climate-related events, comprises an average of 23% of the total effects of disasters across all sectors. Dr. Katherine Nelson, the session moderator, and AMD Work Package lead, added that “the direct and indirect effect of climate change in the region threatens food and nutrition security and can cause an annual loss of 6% of GDP in Southeast Asia.”

According to Ms. Judit Snethlage, researcher at WUR’s Environmental Research, salinity is affecting 1.4 billion hectares of land and 1 billion more hectares of land is potentially at risk globally. It is a global issue, but the impact is local. In Bangladesh, 30 million people are affected and farmers reported that their food production, health, and livestock are bearing the brunt. “Salinity is a complex problem with many different facets. Solutions must therefore use an integral approach that addresses the environmental and economic side,” said Ms. Snethlage.

To illustrate the complexity of climate impacts in the delta, Dr. Petra Hellegers, Professor and Chair of the Water Resources Management Group at WUR, raised the issue of competition of different crops for water. Addressing the problem is a balancing act and a matter of priority for countries. For example, while rice is considered a low-value crop it is projected that production demand will rise from 34 metric tons per year to 60 MT/yr. If production is reduced, it will have an implication not just in the country but on the global scale affecting food security in poor nations.

Government initiatives

Several high profile government representatives provided insights on the current progress of loss and damage funds, and their in-country initiatives to generate their own funds and other sustainable finance sources. Developed nations agreed to establish the loss and damage funds last COP27 to help vulnerable, less-emitting countries deal with the impacts of climate change. On the first day of COP28, several countries have pledged money to the fund, including the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and the United States. Dr. Tran Dai Nghia, Head of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Economics Research of Vietnam’s Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development, discussed that “the mechanics of distributing loss and damage funds have not been finalized yet, but the mechanism needs to be clear in its dedication to developing countries so that we know how the money is distributed in a way that is transparent.”

In Vietnam, as of August 2021, the government’s loss and damage funds came from both voluntary and compulsory sources. The fund is managed at national and subnational levels and by May 2023, the fund collected is 220 million US dollars. However, it is only one-fifth of what the country needs. He stressed that transboundary collaboration on water governance is crucial for long-term development and it is important to think collectively as a region.

Her Excellency Dr. Chan Phaloeun, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Cambodia, mentioned that the people of Cambodia experience drought and flood damage every year which is becoming increasingly more severe. Cambodia also faces cross-boundary damage of flooding from Thailand and changes in water flows from upstream dam infrastructure. Their priority is to enhance agricultural productivity and resilience, diversify, and make their output competitive in the market.

Mr. Timmo Gaasbeek, a senior policy officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized the importance of long-term planning and long-term solutions. He also raised the point of environmental tipping points, such as situations where the maintenance of embankments to prevent damages is no longer feasible. “The situation could be completely different in the coming years so how do we prepare for that? We need to look beyond what we see now,” said Mr. Gaasbeek. He underscored that research initiatives like AMD are very important for evidence-based development planning and strategic coordination.

Ms. Snethlage raised a similar point about the extent to which we are willing to take measures to prevent losses or to adapt to an entirely different system. Given the high vulnerability of rice to salinity, Ms. Snethlage raised the question “Are we going to focus our efforts on preventing it from losses, or are we going to adapt towards new saline-tolerant rice varieties and other saline agriculture products?”

Dr. Hellegers saw solutions in the whole value chain, not just in production. She believed that there’s a lot that can be done such as changing diets and reducing food waste from the consumer’s end.

Dr. Nghia also brought up Vietnam’s one million hectares rice program with its commitment to low-emission, high-quality rice production. He proudly shared that the program’s focus “is not only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also on increasing the quality of and ability for adaptation of resilient climate change because the costs of converting to these is cheaper than the cost of loss and damage.”

Mr. Gaasbeek emphasized the importance of involving local communities and farmers in addressing the challenges within the deltaic region. He stressed that “it’s very important to involve farmers and communities from the very start. If there’s anyone who knows the situation, it is the people who live there, and they can tell us so much about what has already changed and what they see as gaps.” He also added that to solve a problem in the Delta, “you need to work outside the Delta.” Ms. Judith supported this by saying that academic knowledge is different from local knowledge which is why listening to farmers’ experience is needed.

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