It is the poorest people, whose lives have the smallest impact on the planet, who are suffering the most.
Rizvan Kurbanoc stands at the edge of the cliff at the bottom of his garden in the village of Potskhveriana in Georgia. Walk ten metres from the corner of his house, past some bee hives and an apple tree, and there it is. The edge of a terrifying, thirty metre drop that is being eroded back every year by the river below. “It is only a question of time,” he admits, “one day in the rainy season we will lose everything.”
Rizvan remembers wandering through fields, an orchard and down neat steps cut into the hillside down to the river when he was a child more than forty years ago. It has all been swallowed up by erosion as the river is turned into a raging torrent by heavy rains and mountain snow-melt every spring. In the past few years he has witnessed sudden fluctuations in temperature and increased rainfall that speeds up the whole erosion process .
Rizvan is not alone. As I travelled through Georgia documenting people suffering first-hand from climate change, for the international development charity Mercy Corps, I realised that stories like Rizvan’s are common place rather than exceptional. Worst of all is that it is the poorest people, whose lives have the smallest impact on the planet, who are suffering the most.
Take for example Marika Morbedadze and her five year old daughter Katie. We visited them at home in the village of Alaverdi, shortly after they had been struck by the worst flash flood in living memory. The flood waters swept through the lower storey of Marika’s house with no warning. She barely had time to pull her father in law out of his bedroom and upstairs to safety, but lost all her stocks for the winter as well as the family’s crops and livestock.
With no help from the local municipal government and the winter fast descending Marika was desperate for help. She showed me the sea of mud, together with ruined fruit, vegetables and grains in her storeroom and told me: “We have nothing, I desperately need food and clothes and books for my daughter Katie.” Katie was in a state of stunned shock. It was all too much for her to understand.
It is hard to prove that individual events like the flash flood in Alaverdi are part of a wider pattern. However the farmers I met who work with the seasons year in and year out agreed that the climate is changing fast in the South Caucuses. They all complained of their crops being damaged by sudden downpours in the spring and autumn and drought in the summer.
Arable farmer Revaz Algughishvili in the southern plains told me how increasingly high winds are flattening his crops and literally blowing away the fertile topsoil on his land. It’s an old problem in this part of the world, only made worse by the fact that natural wind brakes of trees planted in Soviet times have been cut down for firewood.
But Revaz, who farms 48,000 hectares of arable land, is convinced that this process of desertification is being exacerbated by a marked change in the climate over the past twenty years. The wind is getting stronger and stronger, posing a real challenge to the people who live in this area, he told me. I lost my entire harvest in 2002 and my total volume of agricultural production has been down by 50% ever since.
Mercy Corps is working with rural communities in Georgia to help them adapt to the huge challenge of a fast changing climate. I visited trails to re-plant windbreaks in the open plains and irrigate land more efficiently with sprinkler systems at night. In the high mountains they are running a pilot project to cover crops with nets to stop them being damaged by falling hail stones that are so big they are even damaging people’s roofs. On the policy front Mercy Corps is pressing municipal governments in the most vulnerable regions to budget more for both emergency relief and climate change adaptation plans in order to build longer term resilience for farming lands to withstand future shocks.
The day before I flew out of the capital Tbilisi it started to rain mud. All the cars were covered with a fine dust from the heavens, most likely soil whipped up by high winds in some other part of the Caucuses. It has only started to happen in the last couple of years and to me was a chilling reminder that we reap what we sow. The world is smaller than we imagine and there is no escaping the fall out from 150 years of burning fossil fuels.
Commissioned by development charity Mercy Corps