Adaptation – just a fancy new name?


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Adaptation is the process of adjusting to change by minimizing harm and exploiting beneficial opportunities. Reducing vulnerability to incidences like the one pictured, remnants of a Bangladeshi forest following cyclone Sidr, is essential to protect forest-dependent livelihoods. Photo courtesy of Joiseyshowaa/flickr.

BOGOR, Indonesia (7 June, 2011)_In the past, I used to confront the question of “what do you do?” with great ease, briefly explaining my background in communications and then my sustainable resource management studies, leisure activities and future aspirations. Conversations would then happily swing to recent travels, latest books or anecdotal life situations (the non-embarrassing ones). Now, when I start with mentioning that I work in adaptation to climate change, I get two different reactions:

“Huh? What does that mean?”, coming from people unfamiliar with the concept, or;


“And how is this different from what I’ve been doing for years, apart from the fact that you guys get all the money now…”, coming from colleagues who work in development, conservation, sustainable resource management, disaster risk reduction (DRR) etc.


The first reaction I can handle with grace, although I still have difficulties explaining to my parents what I do for a living. The second reaction, which I get all the time at conferences, meetings and even here in CIFOR, definitely makes me sweat (which I blame on the heat and humidity if I am in the tropics, where I can quickly excuse myself and leave for water).


But I can’t keep avoiding this question and it’s about time that I structure my thoughts around it and prepare myself for the next encounter. The problem is that deep down inside I know that adaptation is something out of the ordinary, highly important and urgent but I find it quite challenging to convey this in a coherent and persuasive manner.


OK, so let me make my first attempt here!


On adaptation


The term adaptation can refer to many different activities (including technical, institutional, legal and educational measures), implemented by different communities of practice, in different places and within different time frames. There are also different understandings and interpretations of adaptation by different stakeholders. I am not going to engage in the conceptual debate here but rather focus on the purpose and process of adaptation and highlight the “additionality” of it in complementing conventional development, conservation and DRR activities.


Adaptation is essentially the process of adjusting to current or expected change by minimizing harm and exploiting beneficial opportunities if any.


Adaptation efforts can focus on responses to specific impacts (such as increased temperatures) and/or on reducing vulnerability by addressing the underlying causes of it. A system is vulnerable when it is highly susceptible to harm and to illustrate this concept, consider a person who has an open wound in his leg and lives in a place with poor sanitary conditions. This person is more vulnerable to infections than the people without open wounds. He can cleanse the wound to decrease his sensitivity and put a bandage on it to decrease his exposure to bacteria. He can also take antibiotics or go on an immune-boosting diet to increase his capacity in fighting off infections.


Taking from WRI’s spectrum of adaptation activities, vulnerability-oriented efforts can overlap almost completely with traditional development practices (e.g. diversification of livelihoods in flood-prone areas) especially when there is little or no account of specific climate risks. Such activities generally aim at reducing poverty and addressing other fundamental shortages of capability that make people vulnerable to harm. Although they don’t take climate risks into account, they can lessen the negative impacts of climate change (e.g. if crops fail due to flood from more intense rainfall, households can rely on income generated through alternative livelihoods).


At the other end of the spectrum, efforts can include specialized activities that target distinct climate change impacts which fall outside of the spectrum of conventional development (e.g. reducing the risk of glacial lake outbursts).

Banjarmasin canal. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Crosby/flickr.

“Is it really different to development?”


I wouldn’t say that adaptation is completely different to development. I prefer saying that adaptation can contribute to or enhance development, or better yet, that adaptation can “climate-proof” development and make it more sustainable.


What distinguishes adaptation is not the specific activities or measures, but the whole process of it, especially if we are talking about planned adaptation. Conventional development activities can of course result in co-benefits for adaptation but they can also result in mal-adaptation, meaning that they can increase the vulnerability of certain systems to climate change instead of reducing it. For instance, a dam built to address water-related problems upstream can disrupt the water flows on which downstream communities depend, making them more vulnerable to projected future droughts.


Planned adaptation to climate change involves the use of information about past, present and expected future climate conditions to develop activities that reduce vulnerability and increase well-being, or to evaluate the sustainability of current and planned actions, strategies and policies under climate change. Actions are planned on the basis of vulnerability assessmentsa process unique to the adaptation discipline – which answer the questions who is vulnerable to what, why is this vulnerability occurring or will occur, and how might this vulnerability increase in the future if no action is taken.


Vulnerability assessments describe current and future climate risks, where current risks are essentially the climate variability problems that are experienced in the present. Assessments are also informed by experiences of past climate hazards, their effects and the results of the management strategies that were employed to deal with them. Furthermore, they also take into account key non-climatic challenges in an effort to explore the underlying causes of vulnerability. And this is when things get confusing and boundaries are blurred, as these challenges are often conventional development issues such as gender inequalities and insecure access to resources.


Adaptation activities can include measures that are similar to those of sustainable development, poverty reduction, natural resource management, disaster preparedness and urban planning. The process of developing and carrying out these activities is what is unique to adaptation as decision-making incorporates the analysis of climate risk and vulnerability, and of the possible cumulative effects of both climatic and non-climatic threats, including gradual and incremental changes such as sea-level rise. This is all done in an effort to climate-proof development and reduce risks of mal-adaptation under uncertain future conditions.


Coming back to the open wound  analogy, putting a bandage on  the wound and giving antibiotics  (conventional development) might not necessarily increase the wounded person’s  adaptability to an increased risk of infections. . Under future conditions, reoccurring floods might worsen sanitary conditions and/or induce new infections. Holistic planning can be more effective by taking into account past actions and reactions, current challenges and weaknesses, and future risks.

“Ok, so its basically the same as disaster-risk reduction, right?”


Right and wrong!

Neither disaster-risk reduction (DRR) nor climate change adaptation are about disasters or climate change only, but rather about all of the social, physical and economic factors that turn a hazard into a disaster and that influence the magnitude of, and are affected by, the threat. So there is a common focus to reducing risk: a focus on vulnerability reduction.

However, DRR also deals with non-climatic hazards such as tsunamis and earthquakes, something which falls outside of the adaptation portfolio. On the other hand, DRR usually focuses on only one event at a time and within shorter time horizons. Adaptation thinking can enhance DRR by considering a collection of hazardous events, in the context of cumulative disaster risks, something which requires a longer-term perspective in risk reduction. Another difference lies in the fact that DRR puts a greater emphasis on extreme events. Adaptation additionally considers incremental changes in biophysical processes and variables, including temperature and humidity, that might affect ecosystems, livelihoods and human health.

“But we are already working on increasing ecosystem resilience!”


This is the challenging statement that comes out when speaking about adaptation, and specifically adaptation of ecosystems, with colleagues that work in conservation.


Many conservation practitioners don’t make distinctions between adaptation and the process of increasing ecosystem resilience by, for example, limiting the outside threats to these ecosystems. Protected areas are considered as one very important strategy in this direction, as they contribute to enhancing the resilience of ecosystems by limiting human-induced pressures (the negative effects of which are projected to be exacerbated by climate change). Protected areas can also be managed in a participatory manner and thus provide benefits to communities through alternative livelihood possibilities.





Gede-Pangrango National Park, Indonesia.




“So why waste time with adaptation planning?”

Well, firstly because we shouldn’t focus only on resilience. Of course resilience is important but it is usually interpreted in a very narrow manner by looking solely at an ecosystem’s ability to return to previous conditions after shock or at the maintenance of status-quo. However, the current and expected future rate of global climate change is unprecedented in modern history, and in many cases it will exceed the natural capacity of ecosystems to adapt. Consequently, some changes in ecosystem state, function and distribution will be inevitable, making the return to previous conditions or maintaining status-quo a rather impossible endeavor (and  a waste of time and resources in the effort).

My colleague and friend Eliot Levine from the WWF makes a very good point about this in a related blog article. He compares two hypothetical conservation strategies by two different organizations, both aiming at protecting a declining species of bird. The strategy of Organization X is based on conventional conservation planning, while Organization Y integrates adaptation thinking into the process.

After conducting population surveys throughout the country, and analyzing development trends and natural resource extraction efforts in key habitats areas, Organization X concluded that the top threat to the species was habitat loss due to increasing deforestation and mining, with most severe impacts in the south of the country (where the greatest decrease in bird population was identified). In contrast, the northern section of the country showed an increase of population. Organization X thus decided to pursue the establishment of protected areas in the southern region of the country to ensure a habitat with sufficient carrying capacity for the bird species in the future.


Organization Y went through much of the same process and identified the same population changes and habitat loss in the same areas. However, Organization Y’s planning process included an analysis of regional climate trends and variation over the past 10 years. The climate analysis showed that the south had been experiencing increasingly warmer daytime and nighttime temperatures. Additional studies indicated that many of the birds located there were actually migrating north as a result of these temperature shifts. These studies revealed that the specie’s primary food source, a tiny insect, had been negatively impacted by the rising temperatures, resulting in diminished food sources for the birds. Organization Y thus concluded that establishing protected areas in the north would be the most effective way to conserve this target species, as this would ensure that the remaining forests at higher, cooler elevations would buffer both the birds and the insects they feed on from rising temperatures. Allocating limited resources for the protection of birds in the southern region of the country was not considered as a good choice, since the remaining habitat could become completely unsuitable for the species in the future.

Similarly to the point about development and adaptation strategies, the actual activity in each of the hypothetical cases above is the same – the establishment of protected areas. The difference lies in the decision-making process and the reasoning behind the action.

Adaptation strategies for ecosystems do not only aim at reducing current threats to ecosystems (e.g., deforestation) but also at reducing future threats. After minimizing non-climatic threats, specific adaptation measures can be incorporated into management practices such as facilitating the evolution of an ecosystem towards a new state that meets altered conditions.

Most conservationists usually cringe when you mention this – facilitating ecosystem shift –  as it is regarded as something highly negative to be avoided. But some change will inevitably occur whether we like it or not.

Measures that facilitate ecosystem shift or evolution do not aim at resisting or reverting changes with all means possible. They focus rather on easing transitions and natural adaptation processes that would lead the ecosystem towards a new, yet socially-acceptable, state. Examples include the reduction of landscape fragmentation to enhance connectivity between habitats for species migration and the conservation of large spectrum of forest types across environmental gradients or biodiversity hotspots.

“Ecosystem services for human well-being? Been there, done that!”

Typical reaction if I talk about my specific area of interest in adaptation – Ecosystem-based Adaptation (named EbA in abbreviation).

Despite its deceiving name, EbA is an anthropocentric approach concerned with the way ecosystem services can help people adapt to both current climate variability and future climate change. A classic example is the restoration of mangrove shelter belts to help people adapt to projected increased occurrences of typhoons and flooding in coastal areas.

Mangrove seed in Tanjung Puting National Park, West Kalimantan – Indonesia. ©Center For International Forestry Research/Daniel Murdiyarso

I am not going to illustrate here the multiple benefits that people derive from ecosystems in the form of ecosystem services and how they are generally important for humanity’s well-being. This has already been well-documented and I am sure I don’t need to convince the readers of this blog about it.

What I want to talk about is the added value that EbA approaches bring in aligning adaptation, conservation, development and DRR interests (e.g. the mangrove shelter belt  will help people adapt to increased typhoon frequency but it will also enhance livelihoods, biodiversity and coastal disaster risk reduction).

What is essentially unique to EbA is again the process. The process of building such synergies based on information from integrated vulnerability assessments, which answer questions such as: how is the ecosystem vulnerable?, how is the supply of ecosystem services vulnerable and how does that impact society?, how are the people vulnerable?, how is climate variability and change affecting/ projected to affect their use of ecosystem services?, how is the socio-ecological ecosystem as a whole vulnerable?

While EbA builds on concepts such as adaptive ecosystem management, community-based ecosystem management, use of indigenous knowledge, sustainable livelihoods, environment for poverty reduction etc. (concepts which are not new at all), it does so through an overarching framework where the adaptation of ecosystems is considered in order to ensure the role of ecosystems for the adaptation of society. Additional issues are taken into consideration, such as how is ecosystem service delivery projected to change in the future due to climate and how will this change impact different segments of society.

Consider this hypothetical scenario for example. At the beginning of 2005, an organization planned for a sustainable development project targeting erosion problems and also poverty reduction. After consulting with the local communities, it decides on planting tree species X to restore degraded lands in an erosion-prone area. The species are chosen based on community preferences for timber and non-timber products to be marketed for livelihoods. A massive restoration project then begins which also involves the communities in planting the trees. Vulnerability to climate was not taken into account and thus climate variability data and climate projections were not used in the planning process.

Here is what is happening now. After 5 years of efforts the trees start dying out. The community is in despair as it has to diverge fresh water resources from uses in agriculture to the effort of maintaining the remaining trees alive. The planted tree species require a higher amount of water to survive and the area is experiencing a severe decrease in rainfall. Decreased precipitation had been occurring in the recent past (1995-2005) but it was never really an apparent problem. Some crops had manifested a degree of intolerance to the drier conditions but drought was never considered a threat in the region. The community now experiences increased vulnerability as both their food security and their alternative livelihoods from the reforested lots are impacted.

An integrated vulnerability assessment would have shown both the agricultural vulnerability to climate variability and change, as well as the vulnerability of ecosystem service delivery from the reforested lands. If such an assessment would have been made,  different tree species might have been chosen, ones that are drought-tolerant and ones that can actually enhance the ground water tables. Such a species would have lead to benefits for both agriculture (by protecting water supplies) and alternative livelihoods (NTFPs, fuelwood etc.).

It is possible for classic development and conservation strategies to lead to adaptation co-benefits.  EbA however strategically plans for concrete adaptation benefits to reach the vulnerable and the communities that are and will be at risk from climate hazards.

In the end, adaptation is not so much about the kind of activities but rather about their purpose  and effects under changing conditions. It is high time we start building synergies between the different communities of practice in order to minimize the risk of mal-adaptation, ensure the sustainability of efforts, and  use the limited resources available in the most efficient manner.

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