Aerial image of a woman stooping to gather crops in a large field
Cambodia’s climate vulnerability is magnified by its reliance on agriculture—30% of the population and almost a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the United Nations. Credit: UNDP Cambodia, CC BY-NC 2.0

Many internationally funded climate adaptation projects “reinforce, redistribute or create new vulnerability” in developing countries, according to a new review led by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and the University of Oxford. Essentially, the paper argues, people in developing countries are worse off after climate change adaptation interventions are undertaken. Developing countries are already disproportionately burdened by the impacts of climate change.

The paper, published in World Development in January, is authored by a group of 20 scientists and adaptation practitioners. It comprises a review of 34 studies on adaptation projects in developing countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania.

The crux of the issue lies in the fact that “the existing structure for adaptation projects frequently focuses on the impacts of climate change rather than [on] the root causes of vulnerability,” said Lisa Schipper, one of the paper’s authors and an environmental social science research fellow at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. Adaptation efforts might seek to address effects such as sea level rise, for instance, while failing to fully address social issues that create vulnerability, such as adequate access to education, job opportunities, housing, and health care.

For example, to combat the agricultural effects of the region’s rising temperatures, Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economy Strategy included increasing the country’s amount of irrigated land and shifting people’s livelihoods from pastoralism to agriculture. But this strategy shifted “some people into more marginal livelihoods like informal jobs. This has a huge impact on people’s long-term vulnerability,” said Siri Eriksen, lead author of the paper and a professor of international environment and development studies at NMBU.

Aditi Mukherji, a principal researcher at the International Water Management Institute who was not involved in the new study, agreed with the idea that reducing vulnerability needs to be a central component of adaptation success. “We can’t move towards transformational adaptation without tackling the root causes of vulnerability,” she said.

To tackle these causes, “it is absolutely essential that there is more adaptation funding,” said Eriksen. She added that “there has never been adequate [adaptation] funding in comparison to the need” and that addressing this lack of funding is important because “it’s a social justice issue…rich countries which have emitted the most [greenhouse gases] are the least affected and the ones which are most affected are the ones which have emitted the least [greenhouse gases].”

Reconsidering the Current Model of International Aid

Any existing and future adaptation funding, Eriksen cautioned, needs to be better managed than the current model.

What the current development aid model broadly entails is that when a project is designed as part of the Green Climate Fund or the Adaptation Fund, an international agency like the United Nations manages its overall finances. From there, funding flows to nongovernmental organizations or local research institutes. These organizations then implement the project on the ground.

An important reason for these maladaptations is the lack of widespread consultations with local stakeholders.

Failures of these “top-down intervention” approaches have been well established over decades, Schipper said. An important reason for these maladaptations is the lack of widespread consultations with local stakeholders. One way to overcome this, Schipper said, is to ensure that “local partners actually represent everybody and not just a subset like landholders.”

Case studies of how vulnerability might be better understood in the context of international aid come from, among other places, Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, climate adaptation strategies included upgrading coastal infrastructure to protect people from tropical cyclones and storm surges. This more fortified infrastructure turned out to be a maladaptation, the authors argue, as it encouraged residents to stay in high-risk areas. Incremental adaptation strategies focusing on the immediate effects (like storm surges) may introduce new risks in the long term (like having more communities at risk).

However, Mukherji explained, a more holistic consideration of vulnerability does not have to be concentrated on specific climate adaptations alone. Bangladesh, she said, has made “tremendous progress” in addressing social issues such as child and maternal mortality, female participation in the workforce, school enrollment, and food security. In addition, the country has developed very good early-warning systems as part of its disaster preparedness program.

“These are truly spectacular achievements for a small country with a huge population, and it could not have happened without concerted government and civil society efforts,” Mukherji said, adding that “the progress also signifies reduction in [climate] vulnerability to a large extent.”

Essentially, Mukherji noted, although some people in developing countries may still remain vulnerable, “a broad-brush picture of what is, and is not, maladaptation is not yet informed with sufficient granularity. This paper is a step towards that understanding.”

—Rishika Pardikar (@rishpardikar), Science Writer


Pardikar, R. (2021), When climate adaptation intervention risks further marginalization, Eos, 102, Published on 22 February 2021.

Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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