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Chasing the Rain in Zimbabwe

How the West can (and must) help developing countries adapt to extreme weather.
Ipaishe Masvingise

Ipaishe Masvingise, surveying her fields in Zimbabwe. (Photo: Oxfam International)

Recently the Earth hasn’t been that kind to Ipaishe Masvingise, a 51-year-old farmer living in southeastern Zimbabwe's Masvingo Province. After her husband died of complications from AIDS in 1997, Ipaishe returned home alone to her family's farm. She and her husband had been poor, and things on the maize farm weren't much better. Ipaishe's family lives in a very dry part of Zimbabwe, and, at the time, they were utterly dependent on what fell out of the sky.

An analysis of climate data in Masvingo Province measures the tolls of climate change, which include an "increasing frequency of droughts, dry spells, and the shifts of the rainfall season," according to research published in the Journal of Earth Science and Climate Change. This volatile weather, in turn, has resulted in a marked decline in crop production. When rainfall became increasingly erratic in the early 2000s, it was more than a mere inconvenience for Ipaishe's family—it was a threat to their livelihood. "The crops would wilt while still in flowering stages," Ipaishe recalls, and for several years, they lived in fear of famine.

In 2009, however, things began to look up. Ipaishe was selected to participate in an irrigation scheme as part of a larger project run by local government in conjunction with Oxfam International. It's unusual for a woman to own her own land in Zimbabwe, but equipping women was a centerpiece of Oxfam's project; and Ipaishe was among the first to be given ownership of a quarter of a hectare of irrigated farmland. The results, she says, were life-changing. "We were employed and empowered," she says, "so much that we can now also employ other people within our field."

Ipaishe is one of millions of people worldwide affected by climate change whose interests will be debated as part of upcoming United Nations climate talks in Paris. Though most of the summit's headlines revolve around cuts to global energy emissions beyond 2020, a second track of negotiations around finance for developing countries to mitigate and cope with climate change is shaping up to be even more fraught. While any deal is expected to have some provisions for financing projects in poorer countries, the question is what form they will take and how robust they will be.

What's the emissions benefit of helping poor farmers in Africa irrigate their land? There isn't one, really. The argument is humanitarian.

Industrialized countries have already committed to providing $100 billion in aid to poorer countries annually by the year 2020, but commitments beyond then remain vague. Poorer countries rightly feel that richer countries like the United States, which already got rich creating the very emissions problem the world is now trying to combat, have a responsibility to help them transition to clean energy. Why should they be held to a standard now that the U.S. was not held to during the Industrial Revolution?

But even as there's growing consensus that richer countries must shoulder much of the cost of renewable energy development abroad, what that will actually look like remains a difficult question. There are distinctions in aid between "mitigation aid," which focuses on helping countries curb their emissions, and "adaptation aid," which centers around helping affected communities abroad prepare for and adapt to the consequences of climate change, like the increasingly erratic rainfall in Masvingo Province.

Some forms of aid are easier to pitch among negotiators than others.

Assisting India in its move to expand the use of solar and wind power, for instance, or helping Mexico to make its economy less energy intensive, have clear global benefits in terms of emissions reductions. There are also straightforward economic arguments for these mitigation efforts: You can achieve the same emissions reductions in India for less money than they would cost in the U.S. As longtime climate advocate and former House Representative Henry Waxman put it recently: "Why should we be paying top dollar around these reductions [in the U.S. and Europe] when we could be paying a fraction of that in the developing world?”

But economic and environment-driven solutions won't save communities like Ipaishe's that simply need to adapt to changing conditions. What's the economic benefit to donor nations of relocating people from disappearing islands? What's the emissions benefit of helping poor farmers in Africa irrigate their land? There isn't one, really. The argument is humanitarian. It's about justice and common decency. And that means it's about government money in the purest sense.

zimbabwe farm climate change

A woman checks the maize crop on a small farm in Zimbabwe, 2011. (Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Solar panels in India can be financed by private corporations or public/private partnerships because there's a return on investment. Humanitarian aid is different—it's a call for public money that is more difficult for richer countries to follow through on. "This is a particularly hard part of the process for the United States," says World Wildlife Fund's Lou Leonard, a longtime conference attendee, "because this is an area where Congress has authority."

One argument for adaptation aid that might find sympathy in conservative circles is national security. And climate advocates are aware of this arrow in their quiver. "We should do it out of the goodness of our hearts and we should do it because it is in our national security interest," says Keya Chatterjee, executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network. "Take a country like Bangladesh—millions of people are internally displaced already, pushed into urban centers that are now bursting at the seams, next to a nuclear-armed India. That's not in our interest."

Now try telling that to the lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

While President Obama has successfully used his executive authority to avoid resistance on emissions cuts from Congress, he may not be able to work around them on questions of the purse. And Republicans who deny the reality of man-made global warming, to say nothing of spending public money on helping foreign nations adapt to it, are unlikely to be swayed—even by arguments about national security.

Then there's the question of how allocated money will actually be divided up. Which countries will get how much and what projects will they go to? What transparency measures will be put in place to ensure the money is well spent? Such questions are of utmost importance to people like Ipaishe. But some quietly worry that if climate talks are made to encompass foreign aid projects as broad as improving irrigation in places like Zimbabwe, which has long stood to benefit from such projects, climate talks could be hamstrung by a host of tangentially related issues.

Jeffrey Herbst, who has studied Zimbabwe's economy for the last 30 years and is now the president of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., isn't convinced such projects are the best use of climate-directed resources, adding that he has "no confidence" that Zimbabwe's current government would use external resources productively on a larger scale.

"The overall macro-economy has been badly mismanaged, and government policies are having a much greater effect on people of Zimbabwe than climate change," he says. "One of the questions as climate change has a greater effect is how resilient economies are going to be in the face of it, and Zimbabwe's government has almost guaranteed that Zimbabwe's not going to be resilient because of its mismanagement of the economy."

Meanwhile, Oxfam's Heather Coleman objects to the idea that climate negotiations are being asked to take on more than they ought.

"We're not saying that the climate negotiations are solely responsible for increasingly the overall pot of support that's available to developing countries. We're saying that developed countries need to do a better job overall of increasing federal aid for a variety of stresses that countries are facing," she says. "There is an additional burden that we need to understand as a result of climate and there are important finance conversations that need to happen in that context.... I'm not saying that climate negotiations should carry the burden of every single stress that countries face."

The fate of projects like Ipaishe's will be on the table at negotiations in Paris next week, and she will be watching closely. She hopes to fly to Paris with the help of Oxfam to tell her story about the importance of building dams and irrigation systems in areas with water shortages like her own, though her trip has not yet been finalized. "I just want to go and learn new things from other governments and institutes," she says, "and also, to go and give my views about climate change."


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.