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A Comment on the Issues Highlighted in Director Emily Boyd's Article in Nature


Stephen Woroniecki blogs on the issues highlighted in Director Emily Boyd's article in Nature

Recently our Director, Professor Emily Boyd, published an article in Nature, Climate Adaptation - Holistic Thinking Beyond Technology, exploring issues emerging in global attempts at climate change adaptation. A central theme of the article was how local implementation of adaptation relates to global actors and narratives through relations of power. In this blog post I explore some of the issues highlighted by Emily’s article, in the context of my work in Sri Lanka, which attempts to understand how interventions – however sustainable – engage with people’s everyday lives and practices, with consequences for the empowerment of the most vulnerable groups.

Emily points out that the science of climate change adaptation is a rapidly evolving field, as the impacts of climate change become increasingly and severely experienced, and a growing number of adaptation activities, both planned and autonomous, come to fruition.

In Sri Lanka, climate change is already high on peoples’ agendas, recognized from the highest levels of policy-making to the vocabulary of the fishers and farmers who I have been working with. People are adamant that in the last decade, the climate has become much more unpredictable, and extreme events – especially flooding and drought - have increased in frequency. Since 2010, 3 flood events have occurred, intermixed with droughts. Right now, Sri Lanka is currently experiencing its worst drought in 30 years, with more than 1 million people affected through agricultural losses and lack of clean water.

The cumulative effect of these events, and this uncertainty, is to decrease the viability of farming, especially rain-fed farming, as a livelihood, critically undermining people’s ability to meet their needs and aspirations and exacerbating inequalities between rural and urban, rich and poor.

Though this has led to national-level prioritization of the need for adaptation, development of relevant policies and plans, there has been limited implementation of adaptation activities on the ground, mostly confined to UN agencies and NGOs.

The article points out that climate change adaptation has been framed in a narrow and limited manner, characterized as essentially a set of responses to external shocks, impacts and disturbances by a society otherwise more or less in equilibrium. This framing leads to adaptation narratives with a limited and often overly technological focus, focused on plugging the gap between capacity and need.
Professor Boyd instead implores scientists, policy makers and planners to extend the framing of adaptation to understand vulnerability as a more complicated interaction between biophysical and social elements of an existing context. In this framing, climate impacts themselves are better understood as triggers.

In my research, I try to understand both the social and environmental ‘pre-conditions’ that contribute to peoples’ vulnerability. In Sri Lanka, this means understanding the way that ecological functioning mediates the effects of hydrological changes brought about by climate change. It also means understanding how particular groups benefits from these services, by way of understanding the institutions that shape access to resources, networks, and opportunities, with consequences for peoples’ ability to ease the burden of drought. For example, a subset of farmers have access agricultural wells, which dramatically eases the risk of crop damage from reduced rainfall. A focus on access also leads to an investigation of the informal institutions that regulate the distribution of irrigation and household water from ancient tank systems, as well as who is able to make money from exploitation of forests and slash and burn (Chena) agriculture in the catchment.

What also emerges is a picture that rural communities are enmeshed within a web of environmental and social issues, including water and soil pollution from increased pesticide use, increasing disease and pest burdens, human-elephant conflict, as well as broader education, mobility, food and water security concerns. Most rural issues in Sri Lanka have both a climate and a non-climate dimension, making the demarcation of climate issues (and thus ‘adaptation’) somewhat artificial. For instance, human-elephant conflict has risen nation-wide as forests have been encroached. However human-elephant conflicts are also exarcerbated by climate change, as drought-affected elephants enter villages in search of food and water. Similarly, pollution of water sources is an ongoing problem affected by commercialisation of agriculture, tapping of contaminated groundwater, and fertiliser subsidies. However pollutants are at greater risk of reaching thresholds harmful to humans and livestock as their relative concentrations become greater under conditions of drought.

The actions of national actors, in addressing policy imperatives such as self-sufficiency in rice, and targets for cash-crop production, can show up in the community as subsidies for fertilizer production, cooptation of institutions designed to protect forests, water or sand, as well as the as the politicization of local organisations, such as farmers organisations and the ways in which irrigation water is distributed.

Emily notes that our understanding of adaptation can be furthered by viewing it through the lens of the relational (i.e. bound up in social relationships) and political (in the broader sense). My research attempts to get to the bottom of the ways in which national-local and local-local relations combine to affect the ways in which people are able to respond to climate change in ways that strengthen marginalized people’s strategic life choices.

One example is the way in which societal structures condition the ways that men and women have access different types of assets. It can also show up in the ways that adaptation interventions themselves engage with such existing institutions, providing spaces for their reinforcement or contestation.

My research is showing that even so-called ‘sustainable’ adaptation alternatives, such as coastal forest belt protection, or the greening of farms in watershed catchment areas, can become arenas for political action, and without special recognition and support for minority voices, are most likely to reinforce existing disparities and power relations.

Attention to politics also means paying careful consideration to the ways in which adaptation is framed within policies, in the media, as well as planning and project documents. Sri Lanka has recently published its ‘National Adaptation Policy’ (2016-2025), as well as it’s Intended Nationallity Determined Contribution (INDC), and is in the process of developing its third communication to the UNFCCC. These documents provide a glimpse into how adaptation is framed at the national level. What is clear is that Sri Lanka views climate change as a threat to its work on development, urbanization, and poverty reduction as well as normative policies such as self-sufficiency in rice production and protection of plantation industries, but does not yet take seriously the links with inequality, social marginalization, and gender.

Professor Boyd makes the important point that the architecture of adaptation funding builds on a tradition of multilateral and bilateral aid flows, which is inherently flawed. Aid flows are often ineffective and are hampered by competing geopolitical mandates. This is exemplified in the way in which adaptation has happened so far in Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lanka’s adaptation funding has been in conjunction with intergovernmental organisations such as the World Food Programme, United Nations Development Programme, and Food and Agricultural Organisation. In turn, these agencies have been instrumental in achieving funding from relevant pools such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) (for ecosystem and community-based adaptation), Adaptation Fund, and most recently and significantly, the Green Climate Fund (for restoration of irrigation infrastructure). Finance has also flowed through the World Bank (for climate-proofing of infrastructure), as well as in a smaller-scale manner through NGOs such as Oxfam and World Vision (in community-based livelihood adaptation projects). What these organisations tend to do is organize adaptation as a discrete, and rather short project, with concrete deliverables, and hanging very tightly to global discourses on community participation, sustainability, and development. There is unfortunately little space for grassroots shaping of the meaning of local and national responses to climate change.

What I have found is that contrary to the framing of international actors and the government, adaptation in practice involves a great deal of uncertainty. Recognising and deliberating on climate change projections, adaptation options, and the means of achieving them, could all become sites for inclusion and negotiation by different parties, helping to address equity and legitimacy issues. There is little evidence so-far that national, regional or local actors have been involved in deciding where the practice of adaptation should start and stop (which issues should be included), or how issues of ‘adaptation’ should be integrated with broader concerns of peoples’ everyday practices, their access to various resources, and the negotiation of power relations at household, community and national levels. There are also unexpected opportunities for marginalized actors to express their agency, and voice their interests, but overly top-down intervention strategies threaten to rush through projects with little time for the social development that can meaningfully contribute to peoples capacity to adapt.

As scientists, we can try to be more reflexive, asking how and with what lenses can we observe the process of adaptation as it happens; what is it really that adaptation consists of and represents? And how do limited framings of adaptation shape the consequences of adaptation for vulnerable groups?



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