Tamil Nadu, a coastal state in southern India with a population of 68 million, is on the frontlines of climate change. The region is routinely impacted by floods, droughts and cyclones that cause catastrophic economic losses (approximately $300-500 million per climate disaster). These climate impacts damage critical infrastructure, reduce agricultural yields and threaten livelihoods. For example, unprecedented rains in 2021 affected 31 of 38 districts and displaced 11,000 people. In 2015, rains killed hundreds and left an economic toll of approximately $3 billion.

Tamil Nadu is certainly not alone in its vulnerability. The over 1-degree C of global warming experienced to date threatens communities around the world with droughts, floods, extreme heat and myriad other impacts. But Tamil Nadu is responding differently than many of its peers.

The state recently launched its District Climate Mission initiative across all 38 districts. The innovative plan institutionalizes adaptation at all levels of local government planning, from background research to training and groundwork implementation. Every agency — including departments of water, public works, energy and transport — will now have climate adaptation as part of their remit.

This type of approach to adaptation is a first for India and arguably one of the best existing examples globally of "mainstreaming adaptation.”

Mainstreaming Climate Adaptation: From Concept to Reality in Tamil Nadu

As communities around the world grapple with the already-evident effects of climate change, adaptation has become increasingly recognized as a development policy imperative. The concept of mainstreaming climate adaptation — or integrating adaptation into all governmental planning and budgeting decisions, rather than treating it as a standalone issue — is discussed a lot but rarely executed. Mainstreaming climate adaptation into development planning and implementation processes holds the key to managing climate risks effectively.

Without mainstreaming adaptation, government agencies — such as state extension services, municipal corporations, revenue departments and public works departments — lack a mandate to act on climate-relevant issues. In addition, not all decision-makers have the information they need to plan for or even understand climate risks, never mind implementing adaptation solutions at the local level.

Tamil Nadu is a water-starved state, and with climate change worsening water scarcity, water resource management is a top priority. The use of water for agriculture is especially important, as close to 75% of Tamil Nadu’s available water goes to irrigation.

Hence, there is a dire need for water budgeting, revising irrigation schedules for individual crops, water demand forecasting, infrastructure management, enhancing energy efficiency at farms and more. Different departments — namely, agriculture, water resources, public works, energy, meteorology and extension services — must come together and “deliver as one” to manage water resources effectively, while ensuring agricultural productivity and food security.

This coordination between departments is key to prudently manage climate risks impacting agriculture. The District Climate Mission would ensure better coordination, improve preparedness and promote much-needed communication among department officials of various sectors, which is fundamental to mainstreaming adaptation activities at the local level. The Mission will also integrate local knowledge by facilitating communities’ participation in decision-making processes, help prioritize adaptation actions based on the risks perceived at the local level and design solutions that are fit to context.

How Will Tamil Nadu’s District Climate Mission Work?

The state of Tamil Nadu set up three key missions: the Climate Change Mission, the Green Tamil Nadu Mission and the Tamil Nadu Wetlands Mission, devoting about $90 million to implement them.

WRI’s Role in Tamil Nadu’s District Climate Mission

For the past few years, WRI India’s Climate Resilience Practice has provided technical support to various state governments in India to mainstream adaptation into district-level planning. With support from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and the Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection of Germany, the team is helping to climate-proof Tamil Nadu’s districts existing sectoral plans and build the capacity of public officials.

WRI also organizes district workshops that bring together public officials from different departments to understand near and long-term climate risks and identify and implement adaptation actions. These workshops were piloted in two districts in Tamil Nadu and there is demand for scaling the technical support across the state.

With an emphasis on impact, the District Climate Mission will work to make Tamil Nadu communities more resilient by:

  1. Enhancing understanding of changes in microclimates and how they translate into risks at the local level. Microclimates are determined by landscape, soil conditions, vegetation, land use and water retention. District Climate Mission provides an opportunity to resource managers, department functionaries and extension officers to understand the influence of microclimates, and more importantly, devise strategies to manage risks.
  2. Creating a new institutional structure. The District Climate Mission will help facilitate rapid information flow, provide assistance with timely advisories, enhance uptake of appropriate technologies designed for local needs and coordinate with all sectoral agencies to deliver as one.
  3. Developing and managing a repository of data at the district level, both on the impacts of specific climate events and best practices suited to regional agro-ecological conditions. The District Climate Mission will also help more efficiently channel resources available and monitor risks in addition to building the capacity of local public officials.

Learning from Tamil Nadu’s District Climate Mission

The District Climate Mission emphasizes a bottom-up approach to climate adaptation, facilitating local public participation and providing an opportunity to integrate community perspectives, concerns and experiences, while harnessing the rich knowledge embedded in departments and government agencies. Globally, there have been relatively few examples to illustrate how this is being done.  

The project-by-project, department-by-department and region-by-region approach to adaptation is no longer adequate for addressing climate risks. Tamil Nadu is showing the way to truly mainstream adaptation into ongoing policies, practices and processes at the local level. It is certainly an initiative to watch that could inspire other state and local governments.