South Asia has lot to do in challenges of trade, food security and climate change

* Politicians continue allowing other blocs to violate sovereignty
* Lanka could lose 5% of GDP to 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase
*Considerable opportunities for private sector as Lanka needs Rs. 48bn to adopt climate change policy


Trade and food security had been in the South Asian agenda for many years and since of late climate change has come into the regional agenda. There was much to be done to face the challenges of trade, food security and climate change, irrespective of how long they had been in the regional agenda, Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Executive Director Dr. Saman Kelegama said, addressing a recent seminar on ‘Emerging Issues on Trade, Climate Change and Food Security: Way Forward for South Asia’.

"As in most of other developing regions, food security is a serious issue in South Asia. Food security has many facets and therefore is complicated. It is not about producing food but also making sure of the availability, access and proper consumption of food," he said.

"We have witnessed a relatively low growth rate in the agriculture sector in South Asia over the last two decades, although the food consumption rate has been on the rise, mainly due to population growth and improvement of living standards. Agricultural sectors of the countries in South Asia are facing an array of issues in terms of production and distribution.

"Declining productivity levels and resultant decrease in yield levels have become a serious problem. They have led to increase food prices which pose adverse impacts on vulnerable groups," Dr. Kelegama said.

The two day regional seminar was held in Colombo and was organized by the IPS and SAWTEE (South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment) Nepal in collaboration with Oxfam Novib," the IPS Executive Director said.

"There have been a variety of national level initiatives in individual South Asian countries to face the current problems related to food security such as improving agricultural food production, marketing, strengthen the safety net programmes, and so on.

"At the regional level, it is trade policies that play a pivotal role in ensuring the food security. The formulation of the SAFTA or South Asia Free Trade Agreement in 2006 and the initiative to drive trade in services via SATIS or the

South Asia Trade in Services in 2008 are positive steps in this direction.

"Although trade is considered to be an important tool for finding solutions to the food security problem at the regional level, trade has not been effectively used in certain instances. For instance, during the food crisis of 2008 most of the countries in the region adopted protectionist policies instead of facilitating trade, which led to increase in food prices in the other countries.

"Of course, at the regional level trade policies have to be complemented by supporting institutional policies. In this context, the establishment of the SAARC Food Bank is an important milestone. The Food Bank was aimed to serve as regional food security reserve for the member countries during the periods of food shortages and emergencies. It was also aimed to support national level efforts to ensure food security and create partnerships among the countries on food security.

"Another institutional initiative at the regional level is the establishment of the SAARC Seed Bank, which can play an important role in enhancing agriculture productivity in the region. Sri Lanka is hosting this institution which will act as a regional seed security reserves for the SAARC countries. It also aims to support national level "seed security" efforts in ensuring food security.

"Coming to climate change, although the South Asian region has very little historical contribution to global climate change, the region has been the victims of its impacts. As per the available scientific evidence, South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change impacts in the world. The region has already started to witness changes in the rainfall pattern, increased droughts and other natural hazards and disasters which pose enormous challenges to development.

"In addition, outburst of glacial lakes in Nepal, glacier melts in Bhutan, coastal erosion in Sri Lanka, and rise in the sea level impacting Maldives are just a few indications of climate change. Therefore, in the midst of a number of long-discussed issues, the region will have to consider climate change also in its development discourse.

"Now how is global climate change linked to food security and trade? As per the evidence, climate change is going to pose considerable challenges to agriculture sector and thereby food security. In particular, changes in the rainfall pattern in terms of frequency and intensity will have significant adverse impacts on food production in the region. In addition, increasing temperature is expected pose implications on the yield. Sea level rise and associated problems can cause some coastal areas unsuitable for agriculture. Accordingly, climate change would bring additional challenges to food security if appropriate actions are not taken at all levels. Moreover, climate change will have an impact on the comparative advantage of countries and accordingly have an impact on trade.

"National actions alone would not be sufficient to find solutions for climate change and its associated problems. The region should work together to face the impacts of global climate change. Thus national action should be combined with regional efforts to obtain maximum impact of policy action.

"In this context, South Asia’s effort to have a joint declaration on climate change in the 16th SAARC summit cannot be underestimated. The declaration was called ‘Towards a Green and Happy South Asia’. In addition, the SAARC leaders agreed to establish an inter-governmental expert group on climate change to monitor regional policy implementations. It is an important landmark that the SAARC member countries have shown their political will and collaboration in order to have an effective voice at international climate change negotiations," Dr. Kelegama said.

Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA) Board Member Ranga Pallewala told the seminar that a 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase would result in permanent GDP reductions of 5 percent for South Asia.

"Sri Lanka’s growth rate is around 8 percent, imagine the impact of a 5 percent reduction," he asked.

South Asia has contributed least to climate change but is one of the regions severely impacted by it.

Climate change negotiations are on going and developing economies are still waiting for the promised technological transfers and financing.

"We cannot have expectations and there is a very long process. Since the region is most affected by climate change are we going to wait or take every possible action," IPS Research Officer Ms. Kanchana Wickremasinghe said.

"Developing countries can gain the ‘late comer advantage’ and undertake economic development away from the conventional wisdom of ‘grow first then clean-up later’; but capacity is required. Adaptive capacity limited, resources are scare, and so is the technological knowhow. The region has other burning priorities such as human development and poverty alleviation so climate change is an additional problem," she said.

The South Asia region has low levels of emission so policy formulation would have to focus mainly on adaptation. Sri Lanka has a national policy covering the period 2011-2016 where Rs. 48 billion in incremental additional financing would be required. "The region needs an enormous amount of funds," Ms. Wickremasinghe said.

"We have to focus on national level policy and the private sector can play a pivotal rule. There are considerable business opportunities, greening their activities will provide them with advantages," she said.

South Asia continues to be fragmented at the global climate change debate, but a seasoned Climate Negotiator for the Maldives at the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Amjad Abdulla says the region must learn to trust itself.

"The biggest mistake we have made is to partner with other blocs, interest groups and experts and this has not resulted in the best of results for our people. We need to trust our neighbours first," he said.

He also charged politicians in the region were indirectly assisting developed economies and not their own economies at complex climate change negotiations by playing into influential blocs.

"Our politicians have been building capacity for our partners without considering the needs of our own people, which has lead to serious violations of sovereignty," Abdulla said.

While many partners had pledged financing for the region, they had merely rearranged accounts with no new financing being generated.

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