Victims of climate crises have legal rights


An aerial view of Milimani area in Maragua town which was affected by floods following heavy downpours. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

In 2022, members of a community in Baringo sued the State for its inaction that led to their suffering from the effects of flooding. The 66 members of the Ilchamus and Tugen communities, in the suit, filed at the Environment and Lands Court in Kabarnet, claimed government's failure to integrate and mainstream climate action had been rendered very poor. They, therefore, wanted the court to declare that the government should be held accountable for their losses and displacement.

A year earlier, teams had sued the Amu Power and other stakeholders of the Lamu Coal Power project and the Environment and Lands Court halted it on the basis that the environment assessment was inadequately done, among other issues. It also led to the withdrawal of support from the likes of Africa Development Bank.

Globally, the 2023 UN’s Global Climate Litigation Report shows that an increased number of people turning to courts to address climate change problems, even as talks such as the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC come up with solutions, including the recently ratified Loss and Damage Fund that is domiciled at the World Bank.

According to the UN’s status report, in 2023, there were at least 2,180 climate-related cases filed by women’s groups, youth, children organisations, and indigenous people, among others. The cases were handled in 65 jurisdictions in local and international courts, tribunals and other bodies. An earlier report released in 2020 had indicated 1,550 such cases.

This is an indication that more people understand their fundamental rights and are becoming more empowered to demand better governance and accountability.

Undeniably, climate change deprives communities of critical pleasures, freedoms and rights. Many who end up in camps suffer sexual and other abuses. People are exposed to diseases, conflicts in new environments and disrupted access to medical services, especially for terminally ill people. Some end up as climate refugees, with children moving without documents and families split, especially in such calamities as Cyclone Freddy that hit the Southern African countries. They lack access to water, and education. Their lives are generally disrupted. Deaths also do occur in such climate disasters, sometimes in hundreds.

So do these people deserve any legal rights? The UN Global Climate Litigation Report highlights the importance of rule of law on environmental issues. As countries, we have very good policies and laws that would help combat climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, but implementation is not given the seriousness it deserves. The focus and push for international entities, and the global North to pay for the loss and damage suffered by local people should complement locally-led action and push for implementation of the policies and rights enshrined in the good constitutions, failure to which governments should also pay.

Acts by such communities as those in Baringo need to be encouraged to put governments on their toes, not just in ensuring increased mainstreaming of climate action, and better disaster preparedness, but also encourage them to be more active in accessing the other opportunities in the global pedestals.

The Lamu and Baringo cases may have been enabled by legal entities as well as activists, but in the end, human rights, the biodiversity and environment wellness are safeguarded when they are successful. Civil society groups must continue to build capacities of the vulnerable communities and encourage them to seek climate justice through the courts as an equally viable avenue.

Governments owe citizens protection from impacts of climate change. Everyone deserves to enjoy all human rights and be happy. If litigations can increase the enjoyment and climate action, then let many more people go to court.

The writer advocates climate justice. [email protected]