In the past few weeks, two new reports from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Oxfam have been published that discuss local government’s influence on the resiliency of a community in the face of climate change issues. “The Role of Local Institutions in Adaptive Processes to Climate Variability” and “Voices from the Source: Struggles with Local Water Security in Ethiopia” are the most recent in a long line of papers examining local government. Their releases come as groups prepare for the discussions on the post-2015 UN Development goals. Since setting the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2000, a number of papers and reports have been written describing the importance of local government in achieving the MDGs. The two aforementioned reports focus on the impacts of local development on not only the MDGs, but its specific role in the four aspects of goal number seven, environmental sustainability.
The Future We Want Outcome document, published after the 2012 Rio +20 meeting, reaffirmed the United Nations’ commitment to environmental issues, especially those brought on by climate change. The document acknowledges that “climate change is a cross-cutting and persistent crisis… Therefore we underscore that combating climate change requires urgent and ambitious action.” Both the Oxfam and ODI reports examine the importance of local actors and institutions in helping to craft cross-cutting programs within changing ecosystems and environments. While both reports offer an in depth look at Ethiopia, the Oxfam Report examines multiple climate stresses and the ODI report focuses strictly on water.
Local government has been shown to improve access to water, a cross-cutting issue within the MDGs. The ODI report examines water security in pastoral and agricultural areas of Ethiopia, a country dealing with a range of water security concerns ranging from trans-boundary disputes with Egypt and Sudan to food production to sanitation and hygiene. Water storage and transportation, issues in which local governments often play a key role, repeatedly emerge as important, as do local institutions enabling access to water. However, the report suggests social institutions have limits.
Similarly, the Oxfam report found that local institutions played an important role in adapting to climate change, as adaptation is an inherently place-and-practice based process. Therefore, local institutions are instrumental to mediating the articulations between rural producers and external actors. Unfortunately, due to the escalating effects of climate change, local actors will not be able to combat its long-term effects alone. The Oxfam report calls for support from national and international institutions involved in policy, research, and development to improve the adaptive capacity of local institutions and also advocates for the empowerment of local governments on a larger scale.
Important to remember, local governments’ reaction to climate change has the potential to be both harmful as well as helpful. As the 2002 World Bank paper on Poverty Reduction and Integrated Water Resource Management described, decentralization has the ability to discriminate against the poor and prove inefficient unless projects carried out by the local governments are “introduced in an enlightened, efficient, and equitable manner.” Therefore, further research is necessary to explore effective implementation strategies for local democracy driven climate programs.