Getting Locally Led Adaptation Right: Examples from Around the World
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High heat caused fires and heatstroke in Delhi in July 2022. The same year, flooding in Sydney forced residents to evacuate their homes, while floods in Nigeria displaced more than 100,000 people and damaged thousands of hectares of farmland. Hurricane Fiona cut off access to electricity and clean water across Puerto Rico.
Climate change may be a global crisis, but its impacts are felt locally.
Projects to adapt to the impacts of climate change, however, are rarely locally led.
Local people and organizations who are most directly affected by — and often disproportionately vulnerable to — the impacts of climate change are often left out of critical decision-making processes to address them, such as the design of adaptation programs or plans. These processes tend to be top-down, with more powerful actors like funders, large intermediaries, international organizations or central governments driving all the key decisions. Smaller, local organizations and communities get boxed out, unable to access the funding and other resources they need to recover and build resiliency to floods, droughts, heat waves and myriad other impacts of climate change.
This is not only disempowering to communities, it can also be ineffective. Implementing and sustaining on-the-ground adaptation projects — like transitioning to climate-smart agriculture, or upgrading homes and infrastructure to withstand flooding — requires a nuanced understanding of the local context and priorities, knowledge held by affected communities themselves. Recent studies show that locally led adaptation projects can enhance efficiency and effectiveness, avoid duplication, and mitigate unintended consequences of climate and development programs.
Getting Locally Led Adaptation Right
Of course, actually ensuring that adaptation is locally led is easier said than done. There is a range of barriers to decentralizing finance and power to the local level, each complex and challenging to overcome. Systemic social and political barriers create major power imbalances between local communities and national and international actors. Donors and governments are accustomed to directing funds to large organizations rather than smaller grassroots and local civil society organizations. Local groups may struggle operationally to access funding and navigate complex due diligence and other processes. The list goes on.
Locally led adaptation (LLA) aims to redress inequities in access to adaptation finance and decision-making power. This approach entails taking local innovation and knowledge seriously to inform adaptation solutions. It recognizes that the people and communities most affected by climate change are often those facing marginalization due to racism, colonialism, and systemic inequities in income, education, social capital, and political power. These groups require more equitable access to financing and decision-making power to ensure that adaptation investments reflect their priorities.
Still, there are some examples we can look to for inspiration.
A recent WRI working paper lays out 21 case studies of locally led adaptation. These projects are locally led, yet still involve collaboration with international funders, national governments and others working in solidarity with at-risk communities. They can provide models of how funders and governments can support adaptation in line with the Principles for Locally Led Adaptation.
Here are just a few:
Zimbabwe’s Urban Poor Collectives Upgrade Informal Settlements
The Gungano Urban Poor Fund was established in 1998 by the Zimbabwe Homeless Peoples’ Federation, a national network of women-centered, community-based savings schemes for urban poor communities in Zimbabwe. Today, more than 500 urban poor collectives operate savings and loan funds to finance sustainable livelihoods and settlement-upgrading projects.
Built on the collective savings of its members, the fund has since been able to attract contributions from philanthropic and bilateral donors.
How it works: The fund issues loans to grassroots collective savings groups, who then disburse funding to their members, including individuals, households and communities in informal urban settlements throughout Zimbabwe. Members use the loans build their own resilience to climate change, such as by installing dry toilets in areas prone to flooding; establishing solar energy systems to provide affordable, reliable power; or carry out household repairs after extreme weather events. Members then repay the loans at a 3% monthly interest rate.
Gungano Urban Poor Fund is an example of quick, easy-to-access finance for low-income communities who would otherwise struggle to access credit and finance services. Community members can now rapidly mobilize resources in response to unpredictable emergencies like flooding, fires, strong winds, and evictions, and finance their own needs and priorities.
The Gungano Urban Poor Fund model is an alternative to other top-down models that lack transparency. The fund is managed and owned by the urban poor communities themselves. Risk management occurs through loans provided to groups of individuals, organized into “solidarity loan groups.” Communities also partner with local and national governments, leveraging state resources to fund larger upgrading and housing projects.
This approach is especially effective in helping communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. It’s helped them secure land tenure; build resilient, low-income housing; and improve reliability of sanitation and water management infrastructure. As communities drive their own resilience-building, they are also building financial management skills and strengthening their ability to prioritize and design their own informal settlement improvement projects.
Pawanka Fund Invests in Indigenous Knowledge to Build Resilience throughout Latin America
The Pawanka Fund is an Indigenous-led grantmaking fund supporting Indigenous Peoples’ initiatives to promote traditional knowledge, rights and self-determined development to face the impacts of climate change.
Across Latin America, Indigenous communities are revitalizing ancestral conservation techniques to build climate resilience, restore territories and preserve culture. Protecting their territories — as the Pawanka Fund does — enables communities to use their land for sustainable, resilient activities, like landscape rehabilitation, and helps prevent harmful land degradation or extractive practices. It also encourages effective adaptation strategies informed by Indigenous knowledge and ecosystem conservation practices.
In Belize, for example, Mayan communities are employing climate-smart agricultural practices such as Inga tree alley cropping, which entails planting crops in between rows of Inga trees. This approach helps enhance nutrients in the soil while keeping forests intact by limiting the need to clear land for food production.
In Chile, NGO Toki, an organization of the Rapa Nui people, has drawn on traditional knowledge to cope with climate change’s threats to water availability. They have designed a water management system that collects and stores rainwater and water vapor for use in agriculture.
Pawanka approaches funding recipients as genuine collaborators from the start, partnering in the design, implementation and monitoring of projects, and providing technical assistance to partners so they can meet legal and financial requirements to receive funding. One thing that sets its model apart is its emphasis on cultural due diligence, in addition to fiduciary due diligence. Cultural due diligence provides a framework for ensuring Indigenous community partners are actively promoting social well-being and equity in their communities.
The model shows how funders and their partners can work together to meet operational and administrative standards, as well as social justice standards.
Bangladesh’s Climate Bridge Fund Supports Climate Migrants
Bangladesh’s Climate Bridge Fund is a trust fund that provides grants to local NGOs working with climate-induced migrants, women, youth, displaced peoples, and other groups facing disproportionate climate risks.
Community groups use the funds for a range of adaptation measures. Funds may support start-up businesses that provide back-up income to farmers and others whose livelihoods are threatened by droughts and other climate impacts. They may finance increased access to health services or awareness-raising campaigns about climate-related health risks, such as exposure to water-borne diseases and dehydration. Or they may use funds to fortify and repair community infrastructure in the face of climate impacts.
The fund, which was established by the international non-profit BRAC and receives support from Germany’s KfW bank, currently works in five cities in Bangladesh.
The fund was designed to move away from short-term project funding to a model that is durable over the long-term, with longer funding windows than typical adaptation finance initiatives and quicker, more predictable access for local partners. Through this model, fund administrators invest in local communities by providing technical support and facilitating partnerships with more established organizations, which also support sustainability over the long term.
In one example, Water Aid Bangladesh partnered with the Village Educational Resource Centre of Bangladesh (VERC) to work with local government representatives in improving the climate resilience of local water and sanitation services and infrastructure. Water Aid Bangladesh and VERC helped develop piping, water collection and access points, and drainage systems resilient to flooding and other climate impacts. Importantly, the organizations worked with local government agencies to strengthen their ability to manage climate risks and maintain climate-resilient infrastructure.
Now Is the Time to Invest in Locally Led Adaptation
These are just a few examples of locally led adaptation being put into practice around the world. Funders and governments can look to them for inspiration in supporting locally led adaptation projects through their own programs and policies.
To learn more, check out WRI’s research paper, Locally Led Adaptation: From Principles to Practice.