Riverine communities in South Asia face increasing levels of climate-induced vulnerabilities. Photo: Oxfam

Regional cooperation on resilience through SAARC

December 08th marks the SAARC Charter Day. The day marks the signing of the SAARC Charter in 1985 by the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the first SAARC Summit held in Dhaka. Afghanistan has been a SAARC member since 2007. 

The South Asia region is witnessing unprecedented climate change impacts, including more frequent and intense disasters like floods and tropical cyclones, and increasing vulnerabilities. Many of these climate-induced vulnerabilities and their impacts on communities and economies of the region are further exacerbated by pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities and other political factors such as limited regional collaboration and cooperation on climate change and resilience-building measures. The Covid 19 pandemic and resulting economic distress the region is encountering, particularly those in the informal sector and dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods such as agriculture and fisheries, clearly demonstrate the complex and multi-level interactions resulting in cascading risks of climate-induced natural hazards, including extreme events, and such global pandemic and the far-reaching multiplier impacts across political boundaries. 

While the region as a whole is grappling with the double exposure of climate change impacts and pandemic, its time to look at and capitalize on, the unique opportunities which SAARC, as one of the first inter-governmental organizations in the region, offer. 

While agreeing to establish SAARC in 1985, the Heads of State were convinced that regional cooperation was mutually beneficial to the region. Over the last three decades, the overall environment for regional cooperation has not been conducive due to the region’s geopolitics, asymmetric power balance, lack of consensus on critical issues such as security threats. The last SAARC Summit, which is a biennial high-level meeting of the Heads of State, was held in 2014. In the meantime, countries in the region have come together to establish sub-regional cooperation initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and project-based partnerships such as the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Program, both of which connect South and South East Asia.  

Despite these challenges and setbacks, SAARC member states and the Heads of State have demonstrated their willingness and commitment to collaborate and cooperate on common regional challenges and opportunities. The SAARC Covid 19 Emergency Fund, set up through a unanimous agreement in early March 2020, reflects this existing collective and political commitment. Despite many such efforts, the region is likely to experience the worst economic slump in 40 years. The unfolding economic stress and vulnerabilities are exacerbated by pre-existing vulnerabilities, including vulnerabilities linked to climate change impacts and disasters like floods, droughts and cyclones. The unprecedented South Asia floods and landslides in July and August 2020 affected more than 9.6 million people in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. This was preceded by a Super Cyclone Amphan (May 2020) which ravaged many parts of coastal India and Bangladesh. Economic loss in India alone was around USD 13 billion. According to the latest World Disaster Report (2020) estimates, South Asia is one of the most at-risk regions to climate-induced hazards and resulting disasters. Among the many socio-economic and livelihood risks associated with these changes, disaster-induced displacement risks, particularly those linked with transboundary hazards are quite high in South Asia. 

Revisit some of the earlier political commitments such as the SAARC Environment Ministers’ Dhaka Declaration on Climate Change (2008), the following SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change and the Thimpu Declaration on Climate Change, signed during the Sixteenth SAARC Summit (April 2010) and build on the progress made through these such as the establishment of different Regional Centers of Excellence and their work. The SAARC Disaster Management Center (SDMC), which was re-established in November 2016 for the expanded role by merging four erstwhile SAARC Centres, could play a critical role as a bridging organization by convening regional multi-stakeholder dialogues on climate and disaster resilience and supporting regional level actions. Through a more strategic partnership with other inter-governmental research institutes like the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the recently established Global Center on Adaption (GCA) South Asia Regional Centre at Dhaka, Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) and the New Delhi-based international Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), to name a few. SDMC could further facilitate more concerted regional level initiatives on climate and disaster resilience by facilitating learning, innovation and collaboration across these institutions. As this recent analysis from the Arab region shows, such cross-institutional collaboration is key to policy coordination and agenda-setting from a regional perspective.  

Build on the larger momentum within the SAARC region on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are on-going efforts to support regional collaboration on SDGs such as the South Asia Forum on the SDGs (SASF), which is a subregional preparatory for the larger Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD). At the recent Fourth SASF (2-3 Dec 2020), member countries reiterated their commitment to deepen regional cooperation for sustainable and resilient recovery from Covid-19. The recent Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) Call to Action (October 2020), signed by environment ministers of the eight HKH countries, including six SAARC member countries, builds on the robust scientific evidence base of the HKH Assessment and outlines six urgent actions.

Promote more engagement and learning through civil society-led initiatives. In addition to these commitments through inter-governmental processes, many development partner-funded and civil society-led initiatives could contribute to more participatory and inclusive processes of resilience building which will ensure no one is left behind. Such examples include the World Bank-funded Climate Adaptation and Resilience for South Asia (CARE) Project, the Government of Sweden-supported and Oxfam-managed Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project and the Rockefeller Foundation-supported Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN). Such initiatives could also support more engagement and leadership of women and youth through multi-country and regional level networks, collaboration and learning platforms. One such example is the Mahila Housing Trust (MHT)-led Women’s Action Towards Climate Resilience for Urban Poor in South Asia project which is facilitating women empowerment in low-income households in Bangladesh, India and Nepal to increase their resilience to impacts of climate change. As this new CUTS International-managed M-Connect project shows, regional trade and connectively is another entry point to foster cooperation on inclusive and resilient infrastructure and value chains. 

Experts have underscored the need to revitalize SAARC to tackle climate change and related security risks in South Asia. The on-going post-pandemic recovery and other climate change and disaster impacts the region has been experiencing are unique windows of opportunities to further improve regional cooperation on resilience through SAARC and other regional institutions.

Jyotiraj Patra manages Oxfam's TROSA programme. Views expressed are solely those of the author.