Adaptation through the eyes of the most vulnerable

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ImageWhat would support for climate change adaptation look like if it were designed to meet the needs of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change?


It might, for example, offer guaranteed wage employment to the rural poor in India or Ethiopia, in return for their labor in creating check dams, and water-harvesting structures – precisely the kinds of public works that can also help to increase landscape-wide resilience to climate change, improve the livelihoods of those dependent on rainfed agriculture, and even contribute to retaining soil carbon. Or it might provide a social protection floor for nomadic herders in Mongolia for when livestock losses during periodic bouts of harsh winter/spring weather conditions known as dzud exceed the level that can be covered under a commercial livestock insurance program.


Last Tuesday Andrew Steer blogged from the opening of the “Down2Earth”conference in The Hague, where he held out to 1000 participants from 100 countries the tantalizing yet fully achievable promise of a ‘golden triple win’ on agriculture, food security and climate change. 



Just before the closing plenary session in The Hague, I chaired a side event hosted by the World Food Programme on the role of social protection and safety nets in helping to foster both food security and pro-poor adaptation to climate change. We heard about the above examples from Ethiopia, India and Mongolia, among others, and came away convinced that while there are promising programs already under way, there is much more to be done to scale up such approaches in practice, perhaps through harnessing new sources of climate finance.

Social protection and safety nets are not just about what governments can do for people. Public action can also build on rather than undermine customary forms of social assistance and help people help themselves. In Mongolia, for example, urban relatives of nomadic herders have long received idesh – or ‘food [meat] for the winter’ – in return for their assistance in putting up herder children during the school term or facilitating access to other urban services. A rural livelihoods project currently under preparation in the Indian state of Rajasthan aims to extend this principle. It is combining support for drought adaptation on farms and common lands with measures to improve the returns to seasonal and circular wage labor both for migrants and their families back in the village (e.g. through skills training, job placement services, health insurance, safe shelter and ID cards). Remittances from migrant household members often prove critical to the resilience of household livelihoods during drought periods.


While customary coping mechanisms are coming under increasing strain in many rural communities facing the combined threats of increasing climate risk, food and fuel price spikes, creative ways such as these need to be found to protect and promote productive livelihoods that can remain resilient in the face of climate change.


Looking ahead to the climate change talks in Cancun, the partners in today side event─ the World Food Programme, Save the Children UK, the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA), the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies, and the World Bank – are planning a similar event for COP16. The idea is to bring the potential role of social protection and safety nets even more firmly onto the agenda for the climate change negotiations.


The Roadmap for Action agreed at the Down2Earth conference in The Hague this week underscores the role of social protection measures, including productive safety nets’ as important elements of risk management strategies. Let us not forget who the triple win needs to benefit most.


Robin Mearns

Manager, Social Sustainability and Inclusion

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