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Building Communities' Adaptive Capacity: What Can We Learn from Development?

Darshana Patel's picture

Adaptive capacity is “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences.” (The definition comes from the Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.)

Communication has a role in all levels of climate change adaptation efforts; from the dialogue that establishes multi-governmental agreements, the positive public opinion required to introduce national polices to implementing new practices at local levels. But building adaptive capacity at the local level seems the most complex and challenging. Whether at the community, household or individual levels, building local adaptive capacity requires shifting people away from the “old way” of doing things to introducing new processes.  Adaptation efforts require communities to implement new practices and ideas, take risks, and experiment.

Measuring adaptive capacity means not just looking at the bits and pieces of the system itself, but how this system operates when it is set in motion and understanding the underlying processes that drive it. Several frameworks have been developed to assess these dynamics, including a Local Adaptive Capacity (LAC) framework (ODI), the Adaptive Capacity Wheel and an Adaptive Capacity Index (Pelling, Kings College of London).  Some notable aspects of adaptive capacity include: 

Variety of all kinds:  Communication must happen in many different formats, in ways that matter the most and it must happen often.  Dialogue should include many types of actors that communicate with each other regularly. Variety also means that dialogue must allow for many different types of problems, solutions and opinions to emerge.

Governance matters: Institutions must evolve to fit ever-changing local needs.  These institutions must be equitable and be accessible to all and transparency, accountability and providing access to information are prioritized. Most importantly, these institutions must be universally accepted in order to be effective.

Learning and experimenting:  In order to adapt to climate change, communities must undergo a process of continuous experimentation and learning. As the definition suggests, adaptive capacity is not just about absorbing and responding to shocks.  It is about how to create opportunities and proactively generate change.  Processes must allow for critical self-reflection, which includes being open to alternatives and a space for innovation, which includes allowing for mistakes to happen.

In one community-based adaptation project, a Berber community in Morocco that was facing an increase in extreme weather patterns and threatening their food security began to coordinate as a group to maintain common infrastructure in the village.  In India, communication amongst local government, rural communities, and research organizations through various means has helped the communities plan for future drops in rainfall. In the Guyana, the coastal communities living below sea level use a hotline to report on flooding in the areas. There are many, many examples of these types of localized efforts.

Maybe stronger adaptive capacity at the local level can provide new entry points for shifting age-old power structures. Or is it more likely that these old ways of doing things will determine the limits of new adaptation processes? After all, we are still embedded in social structures that define how power is expressed, how decisions are made and whose voice is legitimate. New Orleans post-Katrina or Haiti post-earthquake prove that natural disasters can sometimes shift the political landscape, for better or worse.

Finally, can adaptation measures that are introduced by outsiders (including donors but even national governments), lead to sustainable social changes at the community level? This is especially relevant when it concerns establishing new forms of communication among communities.  Do these forms of communication get absorbed into the local social fabric last once the outsider leaves? Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons has argued that outside interventions rarely create lasting local institutions.

If this doesn’t seem challenging enough, increases in extreme weather events requires that these capacities need to be built up quickly. The unpredictability of and increase in extreme weather events related to climate change require a sense of urgency and introduces an “X” factor to what we already understand about traditional development practices.

In many respects adaptive capacity can apply to development generally and both are certainly interlinked. What may now be required of the development community is to critically re-assess which community level projects have actually been sustained over time.  Those that have lasted are the true “best practices” that will guide interventions in this new context.
 

Photo Credit: R. Zougmoré (CCAFS). Farmer workshop on climate information, Bamako, Mali.

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