Building Response Strategies for Climate Adaptation in Developing Countries

Covers of the two reports Lee reports about in this forum articleBy David R. Lee

Climate change presents challenges for all people and all countries, but for many of those in developing countries, the challenges are particularly acute. Most of world’s poor live in rural areas, and most rural people depend fundamentally on agriculture and natural resources.

Due to this dependence on the natural resource base, the livelihoods of the rural poor – often precarious in the best of times – are made only more so by the threats posed by climatic changes. These include rising temperatures, increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, melting glaciers which diminish future water resource availability, and coastal flooding which threatens agriculture in coastal areas.

Because of these problems, much attention has been devoted by international institutions, policymakers, donors and other organizations to considering policies and investments that would address climate changes and their effects. These include carbon taxes, cap-and-trade programs, clean technology development, market and financial incentives to reduce deforestation, and so forth.

However, often neglected in these important policy debates is the fact that it is local people – local farmers, households, and communities – who are ultimately on the front lines of climate change. It is they who are typically making the day-to-day resource management decisions – in allocating crop and forest land, in utilizing water resources, in adopting or not adopting improved technologies, etc. – that will largely determine whether climate adaptation measures succeed or not. Thus, effective climate adaptation strategies must ultimately be realistic, relevant and reflect the priorities of local people.

To help address these challenges, I have collaborated in the past several years with economists and officials at the World Bank, teams of developing country scientists and other collaborators, in developing a simple but effective methodology to assist local stakeholders and decision-makers in identifying and prioritizing climate adaptation needs and responses in agriculture. We have employed this methodology in five study sites to date, in northwestern Mexico (Yaqui Valley), Peru (Mantaro Valley) and southwestern Uruguay in Latin America, and Jordan (Jordan River Valley) and Lebanon (Bekaa Valley) in the Middle East.

The methodology is built around a series of stakeholder workshops we organized at each site, working with a local team of collaborators consisting of officials from the national agricultural research system in each country, farmers’ organizations, local university scientists, and others. The composition of each local team differed by location.

At each site, the local team identified stakeholders who were invited to participate in a series of workshops held over several months. Participants – ranging in number from 20 to 80, depending on the country site and workshop – were chosen to represent a diverse group of local stakeholders and interest groups: farmers and representatives of farmers’ organizations, extension personnel, scientists, technicians, government officials (national, regional and municipal), NGO representatives, and others. What all had in common was a familiarity with the agricultural sector at each study site, although representing different perspectives.

At each of the Latin American study sites, for example, we held three workshops. The first focused on providing scientific information to participants about expected future climatic changes in their region over the next 30 to 40 years, and the likely impacts of these changes in agriculture in the region. Stakeholders identified a range of alternative measures – research priorities, private investments, public policy changes, and other measures – that could potentially be employed by private and public sectors to promote climate adaptation in the region. “Profiles” addressing technical feasibility, costs, and likely impacts were developed for each possible response option.

The second workshop was devoted to leading the participants through a formal priority-setting exercise, based on the use of multi-criteria scoring methods, in which participants had to rank the options previously identified according to criteria reflecting the likely impacts, technical feasibility and economic viability of each option. The primary outcome of this workshop was a prioritized list of specific interventions collectively developed by stakeholders, and around which they had generally reached consensus.

The response strategies and their ranking in each country varied significantly, typically reflecting local conditions, constraints and expected climatic changes. For example:

  • In Mexico’s Yaqui Valley – the home of Mexico’s Green Revolution in wheat – the top-ranked response strategy was investing in further genetic improvement in wheat, maize and oilseeds to increase drought tolerance and disease resistance in the face of higher temperatures, increasing water scarcity, and more severe expected pest and disease outbreaks.
  • In Peru’s Mantaro Valley, a mountainous region characterized by small farms, high poverty, and grave threats to water resources due to melting glaciers, the top-ranked priority was investing in integrated watershed management, largely to sustain local water resources.
  • In southwestern Uruguay, with its successful and influential farming sector, local stakeholders’ top priority was the development of information and decision support systems to assist them in dealing with the biophysical and economic challenges presented by climate change.

In the Middle East countries, where we followed a similar approach, stakeholders in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley identified the development of improved irrigation technologies as their top priority, reflecting the critical state of the Valley’s water resources and expected future threats. In the Jordan Valley, local stakeholders ranked increasing farm productivity and water efficiency (which are interrelated) as their highest priorities, again reflecting the precarious state of the Valley’s water resources.

Following the second workshop, the local teams developed draft climate action plans synthesizing the priorities they identified. These plans included projections of expected impacts, and where possible, economic benefits and costs.

At the final workshop, the teams presented the action plans to an expanded set of participants, including national policymakers, Ministry officials, donor representatives, media representatives and others. The objective of this workshop was to highlight the priorities developed over the course of the project in each country and present the response options in a manner that would lead to further action.

The priority-setting methodology we developed and employed in these five countries has many advantages. It is simple, participatory, flexible, and transparent. Interestingly, although the sets of prioritized response options differed significantly in each country, many of the prioritized interventions had common themes:

  • Investment in water and irrigation management systems.
  • Technological innovations to reduce risk, such as drought-resistant crop varieties.
  • Development of weather and climate information systems.
  • Improvements in the integrated management of watershed resources.
  • Institutional and policy innovations to address the challenges posed by climate change.

These innovations include changes in land use policies, the introduction of drought and crop insurance systems, and various capacity-building mechanisms (extension, training, etc.) to enhance the ability of farmers and community members to better adapt to future climate change.

This priority-setting approach proved to be a useful mechanism in the initial design of local climate adaptation strategies and investments which require “bottom up” input from local stakeholders. It provides a good starting point. But it is not a substitute for further evaluation measures such as benefit-cost analysis and financial assessment, particularly for large-scale investments such as those in irrigation systems.

The studies on which this article is based:

David R. LeeDavid R. Lee is International Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University and Director of the International Relations Minor in the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell.

Category: Climate Change Forum

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