Are Asian social protection systems ready to face the shock of climate change?

Asia and the Pacific is the most disaster-prone region in the world. It also happens to be the most populated, making it disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In fact, of the 10 countries most affected by climate change over the past 20 years, six are in Asia.

While poor communities in Asia have contributed the least to global warming, they are now bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. On average, more than 40,000 people in the region are killed each year by storms, floods and other natural disasters. Women and girls bear the heaviest burden, being 14 times more likely to die in climate-related disasters than men.

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In Bangladesh alone, almost 18 million people living in coastal areas will lose their homes if the sea level rises only one meter. The combination of densely populated urban and coastal areas, lowlands and many small islands means that developing countries in Asia will continue to be seriously threatened by climate change. Indeed, all aspects of life, from health and nutrition to security and income, will be affected.

So what does all this mean for social protection?

Social protection measures are a necessary tool to build resilience and protect the most vulnerable following climate, health and socio-economic shocks. They can also play an important role in mitigating climate change, particularly through vocational training and public works that promote the sustainable use of natural resources. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, for example, employs more than 8 million people in a labor-intensive public works program that rehabilitates land and natural resources. The program increased tree cover by 3.8% between 2005 and 2019, plausibly contributing to reducing global warming.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of having strong social protection systems. As of January 2022, a total of 900 social protection measures (led by cash transfers) were planned or implemented by 44 developing economies in Asia and the Pacific. These measures have not only mitigated income and job losses, but have also helped avert millions of COVID-19 cases and associated deaths. Countries like Pakistan, Cambodia, the Philippines and Mongolia have scaled up social assistance in unprecedented ways and used innovative digital tools to deliver timely assistance to households.

However, as we emerge from the immediate crisis period, building adaptive and shock-responsive social protection systems has become more important than ever.

Shock-responsive social protection systems anticipate, mobilize and expand rapidly in the event of a shock or crisis to provide vital household income support. Adaptive social protection takes shock responsiveness even further by building the long-term resilience of communities to a range of shocks and underlying vulnerabilities, including natural disasters, slow-onset hazards intensified by climate change , economic crises, pandemics, conflicts and natural disasters. shift.

It does this by investing in the ability of vulnerable households to “prepare for, cope with and adapt to shocks”, ensuring that they are not trapped in a cycle of poverty.

By integrating social protection tools, such as social assistance and cash transfers, with disaster risk management, climate change and humanitarian response measures, adaptive social protection systems can build resilience to change. climatic.

The following five steps can help Asian countries strengthen the role of social protection in climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Build universal delivery systems that enable automatic and effective extension of social protection to vulnerable populations. This includes universal coverage of digital ID systems and social registries; strengthen on-demand check-in options for vulnerable groups; improve the integration and interoperability of large-scale databases, including early warning systems to forecast needs and promote early action; and establish robust payment mechanisms. The expansion of electronic payment systems, including bank accounts and mobile wallets, has the added benefit of improving financial inclusion and savings, which is necessary to build resilience.

Extend social protection coverage to the most vulnerable, including children, women, the elderly, people with disabilities and people in the informal sector. These groups are the hardest hit by shocks and are often excluded from any form of adequate social protection. Although expanding coverage involves trade-offs and fiscal considerations, there is ample evidence documenting the positive multiplier effects of social transfers on the economy. The cost-effectiveness of these programs, particularly when they enable the poor to recover quickly from shocks or avoid adverse coping behaviors, can be substantial.

Undertake poverty, risk and vulnerability assessments to inform beneficiary selection. Improving household capacity to absorb shocks requires adjusting targeting approaches and understanding household needs beyond just limited income. This means integrating household and community exposure to climate shocks and risks as well as other vulnerabilities into eligibility criteria. In addition to routine vulnerability assessments of sectors, geographic areas and population groups at risk, an accurate forecast of climate change can help identify the timing and intensity of climate hazards. Together, these tools will better position governments to deploy the necessary human and financial resources before and after shocks.

Design “climate-smart” social protection systems to support climate change adaptation and mitigation. These include insurance schemes indexed to shocks and weather conditions, economic inclusion (graduation) programs that help diversify livelihoods, and temporary social assistance linked to vocational training for workers. vulnerable. In the Philippines, an AfDB-supported pilot of the graduation approach has strengthened household resilience to the pandemic across a range of dimensions, including financial security, food security and mental health. Environmentally sound public works programs that provide payments to communities for ecosystem services such as reforestation also hold great promise as a tool for environmental conservation, climate mitigation and pollution reduction. poverty. In Burkina Faso, participants in a cash-for-work program planted and maintained native trees on degraded land and benefited from increased food consumption and reduced food insecurity.

Strengthen policy coherence, coordination and collaboration among social protection, climate change, disaster risk management and humanitarian response actors. Mechanisms such as multi-sectoral technical working groups, national coordination frameworks and standardized guidelines can help define the roles and responsibilities of different actors, monitor progress and move the social protection agenda forward. Finally, countries must invest in the human and financial capacities needed to make social protection systems more adaptive.

Social protection programs recently demonstrated their crucial importance during one of the most unprecedented crises in history. It is time to expand their use to address the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable in society.

The author is a social sector specialist in the Southeast Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank.

Joel C. Hicks