This year, for the first time in almost a decade-and-a-half, people living in the village of Chak Channamara in southwest Bangladesh have revived their age-old tradition: Their community festival worshipping the goddess Durga.
The ritual was put on hold after large cyclones - Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009 - damaged the 600-metre road that connects the village to the nearby mainland, hampering access to markets, hospitals and schools, and cutting incomes too.
Without the road, the Hindu village would struggle to transport by boat the necessary goods for the 10-day festival - the stage, decorations and materials - and the visitors - artists, sculptor, priest, relatives and the wider community.
So when international funders asked Chak Channamara’s some 3,000 residents what their priority was in addressing the “loss and damage” they had suffered from climate change impacts, they pointed to the road.
Fixed earlier this year, its repair has boosted incomes - and sparked the revival of the lost community festival.
“Think about the young generation who have grown up over this period and didn’t know how we would perform the community worship – what a pity!” said Rahul Mondal, a village elder who said he was happy to see the colourful Hindu celebration return.
As the world debates the design of a “loss and damage” fund for climate-affected communities, one question has been how far communities themselves can lead and make choices about what kind of harms should be addressed first, and how.
In remote Chak Channamara, rebuilding the road was funded with money from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund (CJRF), a global grant-making institution based in Washington.
The organisation has given funds for similar community-led work from Malawi to the Pacific, using a US$1-million grant from the Scottish government - some of the first international government finance committed to tackling loss and damage.
The first clear point is that there should be a community ‘window’ in loss and damage funding that gives out smaller grants and is directly accessible by communities.
Heather McGray, director, Climate Justice Resilience Fund
Ashish Barua, a project manager from independent development organisation Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, which carried out the rebuilding work with local NGOs in support of the community plan, said the repair was a physical improvement but also restored intangible losses, such as the annual festival.
Communities to decide
Many existing climate funds - such as the UN-backed Green Climate Fund - can be challenging to access for communities with little acumen in handling financial bureaucracy and form filling.
This has in part meant communities are often seen as victims waiting for help rather than agents who can guide the redress of harms and help effect positive change.
Heather McGray, director of CJRF, said the Scottish funding has allowed them to test how communities can play a more active role in loss and damage initiatives.
The lessons should help inform the structure of the newly created loss and damage fund as well as other climate funds, she said.
“The first clear point is that there should a community ‘window’ in loss and damage funding that gives out smaller grants and is directly accessible by communities,” McGray said.
Kees van der Geest, who looks at “people-centred” action on climate change for the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), said the communities facing the day-to-day consequences of climate impacts know best what loss and damage looks like and what is key to address.
Putting communities in the driving seat particularly helps address “non-economic loss and damage” - such as social disruption, or the loss of culture or indigenous knowledge, according to a study published in November by the Britain-based think-tank International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Drawing the line
Projects seeking to address loss and damage can often also help communities adapt to looming hazards or bolster their access to the national social protection systems, analysts say.
That raises questions about where to draw the line among various forms of aid to climate-vulnerable people.
In Bangladesh, the development organisation Youth Power in Social Action (YPSA) helps people displaced by disasters and living temporarily on roads or embankments organise into teams to make choices about where to relocate and how to rebuild.
Mohammad Shahjahan, director of YPSA, said many displaced coastal families have been forced from their homes more than once due to cyclones, floods or sea level rise.
A lack of finance and supportive social networks prevents them from moving to safer areas and starting life afresh, he said.
The community teams help select the most vulnerable families to receive support - such as female-headed households - and YPSA helps them build homes in new locations.
Those moved also get help starting new occupations such as goat-rearing as well as aid integrating with their new community and accessing social support from the local government.
“These families need a whole mix of complementary supports - (whether) it is labelled loss and damage, adaptation or social safety net,” Shahjahan said.
The mix of supports communities need is hard to mesh with demands that loss and damage finance be distinct from and “additional” to climate finance already available for addressing carbon emissions and adapting to their impacts.
Finance experts said the “additionality” of loss and damage financing should be looked for at the source of funding, and not in destination communities.
Christopher Bartlett, climate diplomacy manager for the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, said that at the international level it is essential that new, predictable and timely finance for loss and damage is available in addition to adaptation finance.
But at the community level, it is more nuanced, he said.
“Communities don’t think in silos, so often an intervention can simultaneously include adaptation and risk reduction with new technology and methods to reduce disaster impact, combined with loss and damage support when disaster happens,” Bartlett said.
Different needs, different modalities
Even diversity within frontline communities needs to be considered when community-based climate actions are designed and funds are disbursed, analysts said.
“The often-held assumption that communities are harmonious in terms of interest and desires is of course not the case, given different socio-economic status, power relations, and differences among generations and genders,” said Geest from UNU.
A report earlier this year by the Austria-based NGO Ground Truth Solutions found climate aid often does not cater to the most vulnerable families, owing to instances of favouritism and non-transparent decision-making about allocations.
As the Climate Justice Resilience Fund has tested community-led loss and damage initiatives, it has tried to address the specific needs of women, youth, and indigenous people.
“In our work we seek to be open and flexible to address their different needs,” McGray said.
In Vanuatu, a national fund aims to directly provide help to communities whose schools, hospitals and other essential institutions are damaged by disasters.
Vanuatu’s climate diplomacy head Bartlett thinks transparency is part of what is needed as loss and damage finance flows to communities.
One approach governments and donors are testing involves directly transferring cash to individuals through an app, using a blockchain system that allows monitoring of recipients’ spending.
Bartlett said combining community decision-making and local ideas with new technologies and proposals from experts is “the most robust way to bring together the mix of possible solutions”.
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