Creativity on the frontline of the climate crisis

When governments fail, might creativity unlock the solutions to tackling loss and damage? Maxine Betteridge-Moes casts an eye around the world to investigate
words – maxine betteridge-moes
location – london, uk
photography – elikem akpalu
location – accra, ghana

Mary Kluse stood knee deep in flood water, scrubbing a plastic chair outside her home in Mepe, in eastern Ghana. Her husband stood a few feet behind her, stepping gingerly through the murky water as the couple attempted to salvage their belongings from a devastating flood that tore through their town, displacing them along with 26,000 others.

“[The flood] destroyed most of our things; our properties have been destroyed. We are suffering now. We want buildings, we want roads and food. It’s difficult for us,” said Kluse.

In October 2023, after an unpredictable and heavier than normal rainy season, water levels in Ghana’s largest hydroelectric dam reached dangerously close to the structure’s maximum operating capacity. According to the Volta River Authority [VRA], the government-owned electricity company that manages the dams, they began “controlled spillage” of excess water from the reservoir – a normal practice after heavy rainfall that typically doesn’t have a significant impact on downstream communities. 

The VRA maintains that it warned ‘key stakeholders’ about the controlled spillage, and that it provided them with information on how and where to evacuate. But locals like Kluse say they never received any such warnings, and allege government negligence caused the widespread devastation which saw entire homes flattened, crops completely wiped out and disease outbreak in the following weeks. 

“This is not a natural disaster. This is a man-made disaster,” Togbe Korsi Nego VI, the Chief of Mepe, said in an interview from his home, where volunteers had been gathering every morning from dawn to distribute donated relief items. “The government has refused to take responsibility.”

Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa is the Member of Parliament for North Tongu, where the town of Mepe is located. He says he was not among the ‘key stakeholders’ and that he was never notified of any controlled spillage.

“They kept us in the dark,” he said. “Nobody came here to engage communities, to prepare us to evacuate.”

After pressure from MPs like Ablakwa, a Parliamentary inquiry has been launched to investigate what went wrong. Many residents have now returned to their homes following a major disinfection and fumigation project, after spending weeks in school shelters, in cramped conditions, deprived of their livelihoods and education.

“My people have been robbed of their dignity,” said Ablakwa in an interview in October. 

Of course, Ghana is not the only country where environmental warnings have failed to reach affected communities. In August 2021, 12 disabled people drowned in a care home in Germany when the River Ahr burst its banks, and the local district authority was accused of ordering an evacuation too late. In November 2019, residents of a village in northern England complained that they were not warned to evacuate their houses after the flooding of the River Don. In Libya this past September, a lack of early warning and flood evacuation planning, in combination with ill-maintained infrastructure, led to the deaths of more than 4,300 people. These are just a few examples of the impacts of a climate crisis that, if left unaddressed, will continue to wreak havoc the world over. Crucially, the countries that are suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis are those that are least responsible for contributing to it. As Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Shari said in 2021, after catastrophic flooding destroyed one million houses, washed away more than 3,500km of roads and killed 1,700 people and one million animals:  “We are suffering from it, but it is not our fault at all.” 

The examples above show that loss and damage from human-induced climate change is happening across the globe. While governments undeniably have an essential role to play in ensuring communities have the information they need to stay safe during a natural disaster, low-income countries in particular need sustainable financing for early warning systems, weather stations and climate modelling to prevent humanitarian disasters. 

But where government responses and funding falls short, the creative industries can play a crucial role in community engagement that is both accessible and culturally relevant for disaster preparedness and risk mitigation. Shared learning of creative endeavours that originate from across the global South and North have the potential to be adapted the world over.

In Scotland, for example, where flooding is the most common, widespread and costly natural disaster, a creative approach was piloted in Aberdeen in 2018, which provides some important insight into how artistic engagement could be used to raise awareness and preparedness in flood risk communities. 

“In order to do this and do this well, we need to be able to understand how we communicate and engage with communities in a way that’s meaningful and relevant,” said Rebecca Devivo, the engagement and communications officer with the Scottish Environment and Protection Association [SEPA]. 

In 2018-19, SEPA worked with arts and sustainability charity Creative Carbon Scotland [CCS] in the Denburn Valley in eastern Scotland, where the local council has been installing various flood protection schemes to improve climate resilience in the city. In contrast to traditional forms of public engagement, a local musician named Simon Gall was brought in to design and facilitate a number of engagement workshops on flooding and local flood risk management on behalf of SEPA. Gall worked closely with primary students at Fernielea Primary School, and his approach centred around familiarising the students with the waterway and creating songs in the oral tradition to help reinforce the message of flood awareness. 

“The idea was that I would use song to reinforce this message using creative engagement,” he said. The project directly led to increased local community involvement, intergenerational learning and flood preparedness, delivered via a highly shareable medium which lives on within the local community to this day – reinforcing and maintaining those learnings.

This suggests just one example of how, whether in Ghana, in Scotland, or anywhere else in the world, the arts can offer a different way of thinking about environmental issues, and a way for communities to feel they can collaborate on, and take ownership of, their own awareness and preparedness when it comes to environmental risks. Working with a creative expert can also help to break down barriers to who is, or is not, an expert when it comes to environmental issues – moving discussions away from the traditional, top-down ways in which environmental consultations are often carried out. 

The Loss and Damage Collaboration [L&DC] is another example of a group championing creative responses to climate change.  A collective of climate policy and art and cultural experts from across the global South and North, they are curating rebel ideas to ensure that people living in vulnerable developing countries have the support they need to address climate change related loss and damage. Their Art and Culture Program brings together cultural and creative practitioners to explore the role of the arts and cultural industries in addressing and raising awareness of loss and damage from climate change. Their newest project, Ways of Repair was launched in January 2024 and will “commission critical thinkers from the arts and humanities to explore different perspectives, aesthetic explorations, knowledges and lived experiences of the climate crisis in relation to Loss and Damage.” It’s an innovative and exciting step towards better integrating the arts and humanities into responses to the combined and intersectional crises of climate, human rights and environment.

One thing is for certain: without immediate and urgent action to address the climate crisis, there will be more, and more extreme, weather events in the near future. Investing in creative approaches to community awareness and preparedness has the potential to meaningfully change the lives of people like Mary Kluse in Ghana, and countless others around the world who are on the frontlines of this crisis.

As the former Indian President A.P.J Abdul Kalam said: “When learning is purposeful, creativity blossoms. When creativity blossoms, thinking emanates. When thinking emanates, knowledge is fully lit. When knowledge is fully lit, economy flourishes.”

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