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What I Saw and Learned in Southeast Asia and Why I Left Inspired

This originally appeared on the Clinton Foundation Blog

Over last week, I traveled across Southeast Asia, delivering clean water as part of Procter & Gamble’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) commitment in Myanmar, attending the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur and ending my trip in Cambodia, where I saw how the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) is working with the government to fight HIV/AIDS and improve health care delivery at the national level through better supply chain management and at the local level in different hospital and clinic settings.

Chelsea Clinton visits a Clinton Health Access Initiative project. Photo credit: Thu Van Dinh

In Myanmar, I helped Naw Phaw Si Hser and her family turn dirty, unsafe water into clean, drinkable water. Procter & Gamble (P&G) first came to the village a couple of months ago and the families, particularly the mothers, all said their children no longer get sick from the water – and that the water tastes better now too! The liter of water that Naw Phaw Si Hser and her family received marked the six billionth liter of clean water from P&G’s CGI commitment. Through their CGI commitment, P&G aims to save one life every hour, every day, every week, every year by delivering more than two billion liters of clean drinking water every year by 2020, preventing cholera, diarrhea and other water-borne illnesses that still too often bring disease and death around the world.

While I was in Myanmar, P&G announced a new partnership with USAID to improve maternal and child health in Myanmar and provide 200 million more liters of clean drinking water over the next two years, furthering its CGI commitment. It is these types of innovations and partnerships that will continue to save millions of lives and fundamentally change health care in developing countries.

Mission Director for USAID Burma, Chris Milligan, greets children in Burma. Photo credit: Thu Van Dinh

After Myanmar, and a trip to Kuala Lumpur for the Women Deliver conference, where I joined leaders and experts to discuss the health of women and girls, my last stop was in Cambodia – a remarkable country and a model in the fight against HIV/AIDS. CHAI began working in the country in 2005, at a time when only 6,000 patients – including 400 children – were receiving the treatment and care they needed. Today, there is close to universal access for antiretroviral (ARV) treatments for adults and children with HIV/AIDS and I am proud that CHAI has been part of drastically changing the treatment equation in Cambodia. CHAI works in part by helping countries like Cambodia access ARVs at affordable prices, because CHAI and its partners have worked with the pharmaceutical industry to increase supply, and with governments to guarantee demand, which has led to a more than 90 percent drop in ARV prices in the developing world since 2002 when CHAI began. Cambodia is one of the first countries in the world to achieve universal access to ARV treatment for both adults and children and one of the first to meet its Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) targets for maternal and child health – truly a leader.

Now, Cambodia is uniquely placed to be one of the first countries to eliminate new pediatric HIV infections, and through collaborative partnerships, I have no doubt Cambodia will be able to reach its goal. Last Thursday, I joined the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs (NCHADS) where they announced, in partnership with CHAI and the government of Cambodia, the Cambodia Strategy 3.0, which aims to reduce HIV transmission between mothers and children to less than five percent by 2015 and less than two percent by 2020, while simultaneously reducing HIV-related mortality among children. The three ultimate goals of Cambodia Strategy 3.0 are no HIV/AIDS deaths, no new infections, and no stigma. Goals we all can and should get behind.

In Phnom Penh, I met with women and children who have benefited from the country’s Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programs, and saw first-hand how their country’s health system has transformed their lives. I saw the technologies, treatment, and direct impact that CHAI is having in this community and communities across the country. Outside Phnom Penh, I met Basil, a little boy my father first met in 2006 when he was a baby and his body was ravaged by AIDS and tuberculosis. Today, he is healthy, in school and as rambunctious as any child should be. I am grateful and proud that CHAI can play a part in the Cambodian government’s efforts to ensure there will be more children with stories like Basil’s in Cambodia’s future.

From reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS to providing clean drinking water to rural communities, these programs are examples of how, when corporations, NGOs, governments, and people work together, incredible strides can be made to challenges that were once thought intractable. These achievements give me hope that other countries will be able to replicate these models and provide similar health care access to individuals – and that, in my lifetime, we’ll achieve an AIDS-free generation and eliminate mortality caused by unclean water.

U.S. AID Supports Disaster Risk Reduction, Resiliency and Climate Adapation Engagement in Asia Pacific

Originally featured on The Center for A New American Security‘s blog

The Center for A New American Security is currently hosting a working group series ‘Climate and Security in Asia’ the purpose of which is to explore opportunities to advance U.S. security and foreign policy in the Asia Pacific through climate engagement, particularly projects that seek to reduce risks of natural disasters, improve disaster planning and response, and enhance infrastructure resiliency.

USAID is funding the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center’s Disaster Monitoring and Response System (DMRS) through the Pacific Disaster Center to develop a multi-hazard early warning and decision support system. Photo Credit: CNAS

Last month, we were honored to have Greg Beck, deputy assistant administrator for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), visit the group to share details about USAID ‘s on-going  disaster risk reduction  (DRR), resilience, and climate adaptation related-engagement in the Asia Pacific and the related State-USAI Joint Regional Strategy for East Asia and the Pacific.

As Beck shared, USAID recognizes that environmental degradation and resource scarcity can undermine a country’s efforts to achieve economic security and political stability. Like those in the security community, decision makers at USAID acknowledge that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier.’ Beck noted that these emerging conditions and threats are recognized within the State-USAID Joint Regional Strategy for East Asia and the Pacific, which is a part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to rebalance our foreign policy focus to reflect the growing prominence of Asia in the world. The State Department and USAID recognize that addressing climate change is critical to mitigating non-military threats to the U.S. and to reducing regional instability which can undermine democracy and economic stability.

Interestingly, just a week prior to Beck’s visit to CNAS, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and the Australian Department of Defence (A DoD) gathered 85 delegates representing 18 countries at the 2013 Pacific Environmental Security Forum, the goal of which was to build military readiness in response to impacts of extreme weather events on regional peace, security and prosperity. The takeaways from the conference were the need to improve information sharing across countries and to build partner capacity (BPC).

Based on Beck’s summary of what USAID is doing in the region, it is clear that USAID is making great strides in the Asia Pacific Region doing just that –building local capacity to reduce risk to natural disasters and improve disaster planning and response, and promoting collaboration and information sharing among partner nations. In FY2012, USAID provided $481 million for Global Climate Change of which of which $96 million was for the Asia Pacific region.  Below, we highlight some of USAID’s ongoing efforts in the region.

Building Capacity around Disaster Risk Reduction and Resiliency (DRR)

Currently, USAID is funding the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center’s Disaster Monitoring and Response System (DMRS) through the Pacific Disaster Center to develop a multi-hazard early warning and decision support system. The DMRS will compile and transform information from national and international hazard monitoring and disaster warning agencies on events such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and other natural disasters into a regional, event-tracking and decision-support tool that utilizes maps and modeling applications. The Centre is critical because it seeks to coordinate activities with the national disaster management offices of all ASEAN Member States.

USAID provides assistance to 12 Pacific Island nations (Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu), which are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts including more frequent and extreme weather events and sea level rise. To build capacity around disaster risk reduction and resiliency, the USAID is collaborating with two of the South Pacific’s regional organizations: the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP). USAID works with the SPC to strengthen food security among farming communities in Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Specifically, USAID support enabled Fiji, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga to develop GIS data and land-use/vegetation cover maps for to identify food security hot spots, inform stakeholder engagement, and assist in identifying adaptation measures. USAID also supports the SPREP to improve the resilience of water resources in Kiribati’s outer island communities and promote healthy ecosystems in the Solomon Islands.

More generally, USAID supports the Coastal Community Adaptation Project which aims to build the resiliency of vulnerable coastal communities in the region to adapt to climate change impacts. The program supports rehabilitating or constructing new, small-scale community infrastructure; building capacity for community engagement for disaster prevention and preparedness; and integrating climate resilient policies and practices into long-term land use plans and building standards.

USAID has played an instrumental role helping the six Coral Triangle (CT) countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste) develop a powerful new platform and model of partnership to address the CT’s transboundary environmental resource management and economic security concerns. In 2009, the six nations formed the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF) and launched a ten year regional plan of action.  Viewed as one of the most innovative ocean governance initiatives, these nations are working collaboratively to prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.
More recently, in the wake of Burma’s political opening, USAID’S Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) is working closely with the country’s coastal communities on issues of disaster risk reduction. In FY2012, USAID/OFDA initiated a program that is supporting the creation of village disaster and contingency plans, establishment of village disaster preparedness committees and associated training, and rehabilitation of mangroves, which can serve to mitigate natural disasters by greatly reducing the strength of tsunamis or cyclone waves.

Finally, as part of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), which was created in response to the July 23, 2009 meeting between then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Foreign Ministers of the Lower Mekong Countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), USAID supports several disaster risk reduction and infrastructure resiliency projects. In particular, USAID’s is collaborating with LMI partner countries to advance innovations and international standards in infrastructure development to mitigate environmental and social impacts of major investments in hydropower, oil and gas sectors, and transportation systems.  Central to all of these projects is the emphasis on facilitating knowledge sharing among countries and improving the management of national and transboundary natural resources.

USAID’s focus on disaster risk reduction and preparedness programs makes good business sense. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) released its Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction report last week, which reported that “direct losses from disasters are in the range of $2.5 trillion” in this century alone. The total average loss from earthquakes and wind damage from tropical cyclones is estimated to be more than $180 billion per year. Clearly, investing up front to help countries prevent and prepare for disasters
and inject more resiliency into their infrastructure systems is a good business decision.  However, as a recent Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report notes, historically, only a small percentage of total foreign assistance has been directed to disaster prevention and preparedness. According to ODI, over the past two decades, the international community has pledged more than $3 trillion in aid; of that, $93.2 billion was spent on disaster relief and reconstruction while $13.5
billion was devoted to prevention and preparedness.

Climate related projects can advance U.S. security interests, particularly when the investments and technical assistance help countries reduce risks of natural disasters, improve disaster planning and response, and enhance infrastructure resiliency. The projects that Greg Beck and others at USAID are shepherding serve those ends and will be instrumental in helping U.S. successfully meet the ambitious goals of its Joint Regional Strategy for East Asia and the Pacific.

Connecting Parliament to the People in Timor-Leste

It was a bright morning on April 19 in Maliana town as participants gathered for an unusual meeting. The meeting brought members of Timor-Leste‘s Parliament to the capital of Bobonaro District, southwest of the capital Dili, to hear from members of the public. The public forum was part of USAID’s Fostering Meaningful and Responsive Representation project, implemented by the International Republican Institute (IRI). The project’s activities include support to political parties as they find effective ways to interact with constituents.

Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest democracies, gaining its independence in 2002. Over the past 11 years, voters have participated in seven free and fair elections, most recently in 2012, when they elected a new president and new Parliament.

Citizens from Bobonaro District, southeast of the capital Dili, voice their opinions and concerns to members of the Timor-Leste Parliament at a USAID-supported public forum in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

Seats in Timor-Leste’s Parliament are party-based, and on election day voters choose a party rather than an individual candidate. Members of Parliament are drawn from the party lists based on what percentage of the popular vote each party received. This means that parliamentarians don’t have specific geographic constituencies.

In every democracy, it’s crucial that parliamentarians meet their constituents regularly to explain how they are serving communities as their elected representatives and listen to the views of citizens to incorporate them into legislation and public policies.

That kind of interaction is often difficult in Timor-Leste, where the population of just over 1 million people is spread across the island in a dozen district capitals, many small towns and scattered rural communities. Roads to the capital are in bad condition and transportation costs are high. It’s often impossible for citizens to make their way to Dili to gain attention for their views and concerns.

With significant transportation challenges and a nationwide constituency, it’s not easy to reach out to citizens to get their input. So the USAID responsive representation project is finding effective ways to increase parliamentarians’ interaction with the public.

One way of facilitating more interaction between parliamentarians and citizens is through a public forum, like the Bobonaro meeting. This was the second in the project’s series of constituency outreach activities focused on “Listening to the People’s Voice.” The series itself is a first for this Parliament.

Parliamentarian Mateus de Jesus (CNRT) shows notes received from constituents during the “Listen to the People’s Voice” forum in Maliana, Timor-Leste, in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

This forum enables members of parliament to meet and interact with citizens outside Dili. They can explain their party’s stance on major issues of public interest and, more importantly, listen to constituents’ viewpoints.  In particular, parliamentarians said that they are eager to hear feedback and local concerns because they were just elected in July 2012.

Four parties won seats in Parliament in the 2012 election. Three form the governing coalition: the National Congress of Timor-Leste Reconstruction (CNRT), the Democratic Party (PD), and the National Reconstruction Front of Timor-Leste (Frenti-Mudanca). The Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN) is now the opposition party, having governed Timor-Leste from 2002 to 2007. Three of the four parties sent parliamentarians to the public forum.

The 100 participants in Maliana represented a typical cross section of Timorese society – students, teachers, community leaders, representatives from NGOs, women and youth organizations, local offices of political parties, and district offices of government ministries. Participants raised many concerns, including poor rural road conditions, poor quality of small infrastructure projects, a lack of medical supplies at the district hospital, and the need for ambulances. Students highlighted a lack of books in their schools and limited access to scholarships for rural students. Others talked about their concerns related to government social programs, such as pension payments for veterans and the elderly people that do not always reach their recipients. Many voiced their concerns about the government’s plan to adopt and implement a new decentralization policy.

Parliamentarians said that they shared most of the participants’ concerns, and promised to channel those concerns to the relevant government ministries. They also said they would urge the government to address those concerns appropriately.

At the end of the forum, both parliamentarians and participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to better communicate with each other. After the forum, Mateus de Jesus said this USAID-supported outreach activity was the first such opportunity for the current legislature, helping parliamentarians improve their outreach activities and connecting parliamentarian with their constituents. ” This forum was very important so that we can hear directly from the people living in the districts,” de Jesus said.  “As parliamentarians, we’re aware that most of the issues raised during the forum relate to government capacity.  However, as representatives of the people, we can channel these concerns to the relevant ministries or departments and demand accountability.”

Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians are demonstrating their commitment to reach out to constituents, helping to fulfill their role of overseeing the executive branch. As one of the participants said, “It’s good that today we have the chance to meet the parliamentarians in the district and convey our concern directly to them, but we hope that parliamentarians will conduct such forums regularly in the future as part of their own agendas, and that they must will their authority to ensure that our concerns are addressed.”

Based on this success, USAID’s representation project will help expand these opportunities to other districts in the next few months.

I hope that Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and party benches will continue to schedule more frequent outreach forums themselves and develop their own best strategies for meeting constituents, listening to their feedback, and ensuring that their concerns are addressed appropriately.

As parliamentarians begin to strengthen these kinds of mechanisms, and development partners like USAID continue to assist, I think that it would not be a far-fetched hope that in the future the relationship between Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and citizens will be as bright as the morning sun that day in Maliana.

Earth Matters Workshop Helps Nepali Journalists Link Environment to Socio-Political Dialogue

Given Nepal’s high vulnerability to climate change, one might expect reporters like Mangal Man Shakya, a veteran investigative journalist and chairman of Nepal’s Wildlife Watch Group, to find great demand for his environmental stories. Unfortunately, that isn’t the always the case.

“It has been a long time since I saw an investigative environmental report in the Nepali media,” Shakya said as he spoke at a recent “Earth Matters Workshop” for journalists in Kathmandu. Although many Nepali leaders recognize the need to take action on environmental issues, the preeminence of political and economic stories often means reporting on climate change and conservation gets buried on page 6. The environmental stories that do get published are typically limited in scope, rather than in-depth and linked to broader political, economic, or health issues.

Recognizing the media’s critical role in raising public awareness and influencing public policy, USAID, in partnership with WWF Nepal, organized a media Earth Day workshop called “Earth Matters,” designed to help journalists understand how environmental issues can be linked to broader socio-political issues in Nepal and produce content with more in-depth analysis. The workshop, organized through the USAID-funded Hariyo Ban (Green Forests) Program, invited Nepali journalists to engage with some of the nation’s top conservation experts, high-ranking policy makers, veteran media professionals, and an award-winning journalist from the United States, in sessions that often took on a press conference format.

Former Parliamentarian and Politician Gagan Thapa joined the “Earth Matters Workshop” to discuss the environmental issues and challenges in the Constituent Assembly and reiterated the important role media plays in raising public awareness and influencing policy discourse and action. Photo credit: Fungma Fudong, USAID Nepal

The 12 participants, selected from a large pool of applicants, shared the common challenges they face not only in accessing resources to pursue environmental reporting, but also in getting buy-in from newsrooms that do not care for, or do not understand, the country’s environmental issues. Such challenges make it even more important for journalists to link environmental stories to political and economic issues, which tend to receive greater coverage.

Speaking at the workshop, former Member of Parliament’s Natural Resources and Means Committee Gagan Thapa reiterated the influence that good reporting can have on policy: “Often, it was the media that brought many issues to our attention,” he said, discussing the relationship between reporters and the Parliament and Constituent Assembly. He added that, with Nepal’s current lack of a Parliament, it is all the more important for environmental reporters to be bold and vigilant.

“Environment issues are at the heart of Nepal’s socio-economic present and future problems and solutions, and it is high time Nepali politics recognizes this,” Kashish Das Shrestha, well-known environmental writer and moderator of the workshop, said. “An informed and responsible media is critical in helping to shape the political discourse accordingly.”

By the end of the workshop, one of the 12 participants had produced a radio show on the devastating effects of mining and deforestation in Nepal’s mid hills for Image FM 97.9, one of Nepal’s largest stations, and also published an article on the story. Another participant had produced a radio report for the Community Information Network, which includes more than 100 community radio stations throughout Nepal. These reports are just few of the bright sparks lit by the workshop.

In the second phase of the workshop, participants will head to the field to conduct research in the areas where Hariyo Ban operates. This interaction with those most affected by environmental issues is expected to inform and expand environmental media coverage. The workshop culminates on World Environment Day, June 5, when all participants—Hariyo Ban Champions—will share the work they have produced based on the workshop and field research.

USAID’s Hariyo Ban program has, since 2011, helped Nepalis prepare for and adapt to climate stresses. Hariyo Ban is a cornerstone of President Obama’s Global Climate Change Initiative in Nepal and is implemented by a consortium led by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Other consortium members include: CARE, the Federation of Community Forestry Users in Nepal, and the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

Netbooks Empower Community Health Workers to Improve Health in Bangladesh’s Poorest Communities

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

With a population of 150 million, Bangladesh is a bustling country filled with vibrant people. On a recent trip to Dhaka and Chittagong we experienced first-hand the kindness and welcoming spirit of the country. The goal of our trip was to meet with various USAID implementing partners, and several units within the Ministry of Family Health and Welfareto find out more about their behavior change communication work. Developing high quality, evidence-based communication campaigns that promote healthy behaviors is quite a challenge for Bangladesh with their large population, numerous rural communities, and with so many health issues that need to be addressed. These health areas range from improved antenatal and postnatal care, family planning, nutrition, and child health. USAID implementing partners and the Ministry of Family Health and Welfare are now streamlining their health communications work, making sure their messages are in agreement, effective, and accessible to a range of people of all ages and educational backgrounds.

Community health workers receive training on the new netbooks. Photo credit: Bangladesh Knowledge Management Initiative

A key part in this new effort was the launch of a three-month eHealth pilot program, developed by Johns Hopkins University – Center for Communication Programs in partner with Eminence, the Bangladesh Center for Communication Programs, and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, with funding from USAID. The pilot will take place in Sylhet and Chittagong where 300 community health workers have received a netbook computer loaded with several eToolkits that contain a digital library of communication materials in maternal and child health, family planning and nutrition, and eight eLearning courses. The eToolkit includes 116 materials and tools which were selected by a team after a detailed assessment and review. The eToolkit will improve the quality and effectiveness of counseling visits that the community health workers have with their clients, while replacing the heavy materials they previously carried from house to house. The eight eLearning courses on the netbooks are meant to supplement the training that community health workers currently receive. Each course also includes an assessment designed to measure changes in the knowledge and skills of community health workers.

Puspa Rani Paramdar, a community health worker, said she felt empowered with information and knowledge after she received the netbook. Photo credit: Bangladesh Knowledge Management Initiative

The eHealth pilot is one of the first large steps towards achieving a Digital Bangladesh by 2021. The use of digital resources will help extend the reach of key messages for health, population, and nutrition. In early April, colorful balloons and banners welcomed guests to the launch event for the pilot program in Chittagong. Here we witnessed the ceremonially hand-off of ten netbooks to community health workers before an audience of more than100 guests who were excited and engaged, asking interesting technical questions and offering suggestions for future iterations of the project.

On April 20-21, the first 30 community health workers attended an orientation, learned to use the netbook, and navigate the eToolkit and eLearning courses. Facilitators led an interactive orientation to ensure the community health workers felt comfortable operating the netbooks. There was much enthusiasm for the eHealth pilot program from the field workers during the orientation, who shared they felt empowered, informed, and energized to continue their important work.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

Pounds of Prevention – Focus on Money & Microfinance

What does having access to savings and credit have to do with disaster risk reduction? What does having access to savings and credit have to do with disaster risk reduction?In this next installment of the USAID Pounds of Prevention series (PDF), we discuss the important role that financial services play in reducing vulnerability to disasters and facilitating post-disaster recovery. We travel to Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean where USAID supports a number of efforts that increase people’s access to finance and also strengthens the preparedness capacity of the providers themselves. Photo by USAID.

Working to Preserve the Coral Triangle

During Earth Week, we’re exploring the connections between climate change and the environment we depend on to sustain us. 

Stretching across almost 6 million square kilometers of ocean and coastal waters in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, the Coral Triangle is considered the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. It is nearly half the size of the United States and home to over 500 species of reef-building corals and 3,000 species of fish and threatened marine species such as sea turtles. It is also home to some 363 million people, a third of whom depend directly on coastal and marine resources for their livelihoods.

These rich natural resources support livelihoods in the six countries of the Coral Triangle area—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Yet they are increasingly under threat. Scientists warn that, by the year 2030, virtually all coral reefs in the Coral Triangle Region will be threatened by a combination of ocean warming and acidification as well as human activities. More than 80 percent of reefs will face high, very high, or critical threat levels, according to the Reefs at Risk Revisited report (PDF), by the World Resources Institute.

Communities in the Coral Triangle learn how to assess their vulnerability to sea level rise caused by climate change at a workshop organized by USAID’s US CTI Support Program. Photo credit: USAID

To grapple with this challenge, the six countries of the Coral Triangle area formed the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI). They committed to work together to stem the decline of the region’s marine resources and increase the social and economic resilience of coastal communities to climate change. With USAID support, they adopted the CTI Region-wide Early Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation for Near-shore Marine and Coastal Environment and Small Island Ecosystems in 2011. Under this action plan, the six countries are developing tools for communities on the front lines.

Among these tools is the Local Early Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation Toolkit, a comprehensive set of cutting-edge scientific and social instruments that local governments and communities can use to conduct climate outreach to their constituents. It can be used to develop qualitative climate change vulnerability assessments and site-specific adaptation plans.

The toolkit provides critical information in a practical format. And it is catching on. By the end of 2012, at least 137 participants from six communities and government and academic institutions in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines were replicating the  Coral Triangle Initiative trainings and developing their own vulnerability assessments and climate change adaptation plans.

Many come from areas that are key marine biodiversity sites like Kimbe Bay, Milne Bay and Manus in Papua New Guinea and similar spots in the Western and Choiseul Provinces of Solomon Islands.

In Manus, Jenny Songan has started a Women in Conservation group to cultivate and plant mangrove seedlings and take other steps to mitigate against climate change. Residents of Ndilou Island in Manus have built seawalls and planted mangroves to reclaim beaches lost to erosion caused by climate change.

In the meantime, the governments of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands (PDF), recognizing the critical need for these tools, agreed to create a national network of training teams to roll out the training—a critical need.

Local government officials believe the practical training is key to helping build resilient ecosystems and communities across the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity. “We have learned valuable tools and lessons which I know will further our work in country,” said Agnetha Vave-Karamui, Chief Conservation Officer for the Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology. “We look forward to putting into use what we have learned.”

Follow @USAIDEnviro on Twitter to learn more about our work in the environment and global climate change.

Kazakhstan: Preserving Asia’s Bread Basket

During Earth Week, we’re exploring the connections between climate change and the environment we depend on to sustain us. We start in Kazakhstan, the breadbasket of Central Asia and Afghanistan.

“Ас атасы – нан” – Bread is the head of all foods, Kazakh Proverb

Bread is the lifeblood of the Central Asian diet, so changes in the price and availability of wheat can have significant impacts on food security in the five Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, for example, more than 50% of daily caloric intake comes from bread. While all the countries grow at least a little wheat, it is Kazakhstan—the world’s 7th largest wheat exporter—that occupies the central role in providing this critical staple crop to the entire region.

Bread is the centerpiece of the Central Asian diet. Photo credit: USAID

Yet, climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the wheat growing regions, increase extreme temperature events, and change seasonal precipitation patterns. These changes could significantly threaten Kazakhstan’s ability to serve as the region’s breadbasket. Climate change is expected to exacerbate challenges to food security by reducing water availability – critical for agriculture – and increasing natural disasters like droughts and floods. Harvests during drought years in Kazakhstan can be as much as six times smaller than harvests during normal years!

Despite these known trends, there is very little local awareness or concern about climate change in the region. While the Government of Kazakhstan has taken a progressive stance reducing the emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, adaptation to climate change is still a relatively new concept.

USAID is partnering with UNDP and a host of international experts and organizations to improve the climate resiliency of Kazakhstan wheat and Central Asian food security. The goal of our project is to catalyze the process of adaptation in Kazakhstan’s wheat sector, while also opening a regional dialogue around the challenges of climate change to Central Asian food security.

Flour has been a staple of food assistance to Kyrgyzstan, where over 700,000 people have been provided with humanitarian assistance from USAID since 2006. Photo credit: USAID

As the weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme in Kazakhstan’s wheat regions, climate information services that enable farmers, processors, and policymakers to take proactive measures are essential to lessening the harm of this increasing variability. USAID’s program is focusing on improving the understanding of expected climate impacts on wheat in Kazakhstan and developing the capability to provide critical information to key audiences. Our program is also working with the government, the private sector and the research community to mainstream resilience to climate change into their decision making processes, so the growth of the wheat sector in Kazakhstan happens in a way that withstands the changes climate change will bring.

The other Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan – the primary importers of Kazakh wheat – must also be prepared to respond to the impacts of climate change outside their own borders. We’re bringing these countries and Kazakhstan together to discuss risk mitigation strategies that can be taken at a national and regional level to buffer the region against the impacts of climate change on wheat production and food security.

Together with our partners inside and outside the region, USAID is working to ensure that the people of Central Asia and Afghanistan will have a stable, affordable supply of wheat far into the future. The respect accorded to bread and the role it plays in food security is too important to ignore.

Tracking Tigers for Conservation

The days of tiger hunting from the backs of elephants in the shadow of the Himalayas are thankfully over, but after years of overhunting and loss of habitat, the tiger hunt has taken on a new meaning in Nepal. Today, tourists can still head out on elephant back to spot tigers and the endangered rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, but the only shooting done is by camera. And now Nepali scientists, with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, are using genetic research to track, identify and protect the remaining 125 tigers in this region.

A large adult male tiger seen in the Terai Arc Landscape. Tiger conservation is a top priority in Nepal, a source and transit point of poaching and the illegal trade of wildlife. Photo credit: Christy Williams, WWF

Over the last two years, the USAID-funded “Nepal Tiger Genome Project” has used an innovative genetic technology to build a comprehensive national DNA database of the endangered Bengal tigers living in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape—one of the few remaining tiger habitats on the earth—by collecting and recording a unique genetic fingerprint from each adult tiger’s scat.  This closely held information is used to identify every tiger and its territory.  The data is used to protect habitat, as well as inform law enforcement and protect the animals from poachers.

The project extracts each animal’s unique genetic code from non-invasively collected scat samples. To date, the project has collected over 1,100 samples from Nepal’s four major national parks. Findings of this research are expected to facilitate a better understanding of the genetic and population dynamics of Bengal tigers in Nepal. With valuable data of this nature, conservation policies and strategies at local, national, and international levels can be greater informed, and therefore, all the more effective.

“This is the first time systematic sampling was used to collect and build a comprehensive genetic database of Bengal tigers in Nepal. Although tiger genetic work has been going on in India and other countries, such elaborate data collection and archiving has not been tried with Bengal tigers,” stated Mr. Karmacharya who is the principal investigator for the project and also heads the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, a wholly Nepali-owned and managed by a non-profit private sector institute.

The project is a concerted effort between the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, with both Nepali and U.S. scientists involved in collecting samples and conducting genetic analysis. Dibesh Karmacharya and Kanchan Thapa are heading the project in close collaboration with Dr. Lisette Waits of the University of Idaho and Dr. Marcella Kelly from Virginia Tech.

Already, the technology is being replicated and expanded to gather genetic information of other species such as the one horned Asian rhinoceros, elephants and snow leopards, allowing conservation professionals to track, and better conserve, these fragile and endangered species not only in Nepal but in other parts of the world too.

In Tajikistan, Little Drops Make the River

This originally appeared on FrontLines.

In Tajikistan, there is a familiar proverb: “In every drop of water, there is a grain of gold.” Water is the most precious resource in this mountainous, landlocked nation that is slightly smaller than Wisconsin.

More than 70 years of Soviet industrialization depleted water resources; moreover, many of the collective farms that maintained irrigation systems were dissolved 20 years ago and water systems have fallen into disrepair. For villages that have water, it is often contaminated. About half of all Tajik rural households do not have access to safe, potable water. In many instances, polluted irrigation water is the only source of water for household use.

School children in Khatlon enjoy their first taste of drinking water outside their school. Photo credit: USAID

According to the World Health Organization, waterborne diseases in Tajikistan account for 60 percent of gastroenteritic disorders such as diarrhea, dysentery, cholera and typhoid. Repeated illnesses linked to poor quality water not only keep children out of school and contribute to poor health outcomes, including stunted growth, but it is estimated that, in recent years, one in six deaths among children under age 5 in Tajikistan were linked to waterborne diseases.

Previous local efforts to build or maintain water systems were unsuccessful due to a cumbersome legal framework, lack of clarity over management responsibilities and lack of funding. Operators of small water systems often did not have training, and local residents had low awareness of the dangers of waterborne illnesses.

But, as communities begin to understand the value of steady access to clean water, they are coming together with USAID and other partners to install and maintain pipe networks. These new networks, often co-funded by local communities and built by local citizens, are proving sustainable in ways that earlier networks never were.

A Holistic Approach

USAID recognized that any solution would have to be multi-faceted and cross multiple technical sectors. To be successful, the safe drinking water program would need to build the skills of engineers, increase community awareness on water and health, and partner with local governments to democratically maintain the water systems. In addition, through Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s flagship food security initiative, USAID is partnering with local government officials in their efforts to increase the role and effectiveness of community-based water users’ associations and increase household consumption of nutritious food.

Jamoliddin Gulomov, chairman of Novobod Township, was eager to partner with USAID. His village in the southern province of Khatlon has never had access to clean water. Residents relied on the river, but the high price of fuel kept most people from boiling water before using it. USAID trained township specialists to maintain and repair the pipe network. The project also trained local peer educators to teach residents about health and hygiene practices. Finally, to ensure that the system was financially sound and sustainable, the Agency provided technical assistance and training to the local government to develop a transparent scheme for user fees.

Community members spoke up at local government meetings to set user fees, dug the pipeline, installed the pump station and, finally, celebrated the opening of the new system.

In addition to reporting a dramatic decline in the incidence of gastroenteritic diseases, Gulomov said, “We now have proven that the local government and citizens can cooperate to make life better for everyone.”

A Focus on Sustainability

Gulomov’s experience mirrors that of other communities involved in this project. Priority areas for this program were those that had received the least donor assistance and that had the worst health indicators. Local townships applied and were selected based partly on their capacity to sustain the improvements.

USAID partnered with a local university to train engineers in maintaining the new water systems. Students received internships to practice their engineering skills. Communities formed water, sanitation and hygiene committees to create a community health index report of baseline data and develop community health action plans based on the results.

Over the past three years, USAID has invested more than $1.7 million in improving 57 drinking water systems that provide access to clean drinking water to 150,000 people in Tajikistan…[continued]

Read the rest of the article on FrontLines.

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