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Jakarta Post

Climate adaptation creates conflicts

  • Jonatan A. Lassa

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Tue, August 12, 2014   /  10:23 am

Due to the increase in demand for fresh water as a result of population pressure in several regions in recent years, central and local governments in Indonesia have been examining options for alternative water supply. Amid the changing climate, the search for water for agriculture and household consumption is crucial.

Therefore, governments should ensure a diversified water mix for the next 20-50 years in anticipation of demographic pressure and climate change.

Some semi-arid regions in the world may have already experienced an increase in temperature from 1 to 2o C. It is likely that water loss will increase due to high evaporation rates of existing dams. Water loss due to evapotranspiration from plants and crops may also surge. Plants and crops may face a test that exceeds their biological ability to adapt.

Climate change consequences can be serious. Failure to adapt to climate change may lead to multiple problems, including threats to human security. '€œEco-catastrophists'€ thus predict a dystopian future in which water conflicts proliferate.

But the typical way that water wars are imagined by Hollywood movies and eco-catastrophists is probably not quite right, as they foresee a perfect Armageddon.

In the context of Indonesia, water conflicts vary depending on the local context, from communal tensions where two or more communities strive for access to water to a fight between local governments. In East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) local governments in Kupang regency have been embroiled in a dispute over direct control over water infrastructure.

Unfortunately, vertical conflict between governments and indigenous communities over water resources may also occur.

I would argue that water conflict can be one of the consequences of coercive climate adaptation. Some of the conflicts can be attributed to the engineering culture in the public works bureaucracy, where there is widespread support for the construction of big dams or embung.

Relatively large-scale earth dam development often sparks tensions with the local communities due to conflicts over land acquisition.

There have been at least two conflicts over water in NTT, a province which a few weeks ago was named the most democratic province by the Central Statistics Agency (BPS).

Tensions first flared in 2012-2013, pitting the Kupang city government against the indigenous Helong people. The dispute arose following the city government'€™s plan to build a dam that would serve an additional 55,000 households once the present water supply reached its limit within the next 10 years.

The central government supported the plan by allocating at least Rp 400 billion (about US$34.3 million) from the state budget. Forced displacement schemes were prepared and intimidation tactics intensified for some months.

Local media took sides and were split between those supporting and those denouncing the project. Civil society and student activists fought alongside the indigenous people.

Politicians contesting legislative posts in the House of Representatives were dragged into the conflict. The story finally ended with the budget shifting to another regency.

The second case occurred in the outlying regency of Sabu Island, where media penetration was lacking. The local government evicted the indigenous population to pave the way for a dam through the divide-and-conquer method, whereby certain communities were purportedly arranged to support the project. Those who refused continue to be subjected to intimidation and labeled as subversive.

Those conflicts suggest that adaptation to climate change in water sectors is not politically neutral. It inevitably brings positive and negative consequences to vulnerable populations. Therefore, climate change can precipitate violence as it can trigger both horizontal and vertical conflicts.

Amid weak governance and the state'€™s predatory tendencies, coercive adaptation may arise. Tension between the short-term and long-term adaptation interests of different actors cannot be easily resolved.

State adaptation strategy often favors big investment projects like big dams, which not only require huge funding but are physically visible and able to fulfill the government'€™s ambition. This may or may not bring sustainable benefits, such as ensuring water supply to citizens at large in the future.

Such a vision of adaptation demands successful acquisition of land.  Consequently, local communities and land owners are displaced without adequate compensation. A lack of understanding of social and deliberative processes by local governments has encouraged them to opt for a top-down approach, which foments resistance from civil society.

On the other hand, local communities tend to share a different vision regarding climate adaptation, such as rainwater harvesting, access to land and the use of existing adaptations to climate variability.

International studies recently found that the lucrative embungs in NTT were not sustainable due to high losses from evaporation. This is exacerbated by the fact that maintenance systems are barely in place.

As a result, the production time for the dams is shorter than expected. A focus on in situ water management and rainwater harvesting techniques on small islands and semi-arid areas may prove more effective at closing the water gap by the 2050'€™s. What should be noted, however, is that climate change adaptation is not a power-neutral exercise.

Failure to acknowledge this fact may cause a turn move away from the key moral objective driving these projects: ensuring human security and reducing vulnerability among the most vulnerable groups.


The writer is a research fellow at the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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