Does helping people adapt to climate change do any good?

Rural communities are dependent on the land but are now facing new challenges from the effects of climate change

When I first worked in Kenya, 20 years ago, I saw how farming practices could provide a good life for men and women in rural villages even with little rainfall and where basic services, such as water and electricity were almost non-existent. Farmers and livestock keepers in the dry areas of Kenya have been, by necessity, resilient to difficult conditions. But this is at the cost of hard physical work over long hours on the farm alongside a constant search for additional income sources such as from small business activities just to feed the family and send children to school.

20 years on, rural communities are still dependent on the land but are now facing new challenges from the effects of climate change. Perhaps the biggest impact is the increased uncertainty of the weather patterns. Farmers are no longer sure when to plant, where to take animals for good grazing or when they will be affected by the increasing frequency of droughts and floods. This places a new demand on already vulnerable people. How can they adapt to climate change in the face of all this uncertainty?

Coordinating the Adaptation Learning Programme (ALP) implemented by CARE International has allowed me to witness how marginalised men and women in Ghana, Kenya and Niger are taking on this challenge.

By supporting rural communities to learn about climate change, seasonal forecasts and the levels of risk and probability, they can assess their own assets and capacities and use all these to make better, informed decisions. For example, farmers in arid North Eastern Kenya planted higher amounts of maize when they heard the forecast for October 2011 rains was good but also protected their livestock from exposure to water related diseases. With support from ALP, and local government services, they were able to enhance their production and incomes and at the same time manage risks and protect their livelihoods. All of which helped recovery from the severe drought of 2011.

Because climate change impacts on all aspects of life and yet cannot be precisely predicted, it is difficult to specify exactly what investments are needed to be sure that rural communities can continue to step out of poverty on a permanent basis. What works today will not be the same next year, as the climate continues to change and we experience extreme events and temperature changes never known of before. But in an environment of competing financial demands and a drive to ensure that every pound invested is maximised we wanted to know if the benefits created by supporting adaptation outweigh their implementation costs?

To determine the value of investing in adaptation programmes we worked with nef (new economics foundation) to produce some new research. Based on the experiences of two communities in Garissa, in arid North East Kenya, the forecastive research looked at multiple climate and socio-economic scenarios from now to 2030 and found that investing $1 in community based adaptation work can generate between $1.45 and $3.03 of economic, social and environmental benefits for the community.  These benefits could be in for example, systems for communicating climate forecasts, improved health and numbers of livestock, more secure access to water and fodder for animals, incomes from agriculture, local organisations and services or opportunities for women to engage in business.

The analysis clearly demonstrates that community based adaptation does pay off and that it outweighs the investment cost in all but the most extreme scenarios.  Even if climate change impacts turn out to be considerably lower than expected, investing in community based adaptation is still good value for money as the activities involved make sense for sustainable development, increasing vulnerable people’s ability to plan, organise and be more resilient to the climate risks and uncertainties they face.

Investment in adaptation work must recognise that the impacts of climate change on vulnerable people will continue to change over time, so there is no blueprint for action. Planning and decision making for specific interventions and investments must be supported at the local level, with flexibility to respond to unexpected events as, or before, they occur.

The new economics foundation (nef) has conducted some new research on behalf of CARE International which supports the economic sense of community based adaptation. Read the policy brief.

The Adaptation Learning Programme (ALP)

In 2010 CARE launched the Adaptation Learning Programme aiming to: identify the problems faced by communities in the context of a changing climate; determine potential current and prospective solutions both for communities themselves as well as for the wider region and build a robust community based adaptation strategy, while taking into account broader macro-institutional both regional and national conditions and strategies. Rather than designing a strategy in a top-down fashion, this five year, four-country, four-donor multi-layered programme focuses on co-production of solutions to climate change impacts, thus putting a significant emphasis on community answers, structures and decision-making.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.