World Resource Institute

Mainstreaming Adaptation into Development: Serving Short- and Long-Term Needs in the Least Developed Countries

By Nicola Ranger, Research Fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science


Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 2: How can we balance today's pressing needs with long term risks?


Decision making in a changing climate is a crucial and timely issue for the World Resources Report and I particularly welcome the focus on least developed countries, where the number of applied case studies on adaptation decision making to date have been limited. The five authors each provide a unique perspective and I think make a valuable contribution to the discourse.

Together the papers achieve a rich mix of insights; from national analyses, to specific options and frameworks, and finally a discussion of the challenges of long-term policy against the backdrop of broader socio-political concerns. It is impossible to provide a commentary that does justice to all the insights provided in only a few pages. Instead, this commentary discusses some of the cross-cutting themes that emerged which I consider particularly pertinent to the question at hand: how can public officials, especially in low-income countries, address today's short-lived pressing needs while preparing for tomorrow's climate related impacts and surprises?

Mainstreaming adaptation into development

A key theme of the papers is the importance of mainstreaming adaptation into development and the natural synergy between these objectives. Development is a pressing short-term need of least developed countries. But this need not mean that adaptation is neglected. By mainstreaming adaptation into development, short-term and long-term needs can be complementary. Development itself is an effective form of adaptation, through, for example, increasing institutional capacity and enhancing economic and social resilience. Some examples of specific measures were given for Nepal and Sudan, including economic diversification, education, health services, property rights, sustainable use of resources and soil fertility management in agriculture. Conversely adaptation, by reducing the negative effects climate, can help to alleviate the damage and disruption from weather extremes that can often set back development.

On a similar theme, a number of the authors note the challenges and opportunities for addressing adaptation in the context of wider environmental, economic and socio-political trends, including economically-driven migration (Nepal) and desertification (Sudan). To be successful, adaptation should not be considered in isolation but in the context of these broader trends; this is central to the concept of mainstreaming adaptation into economic development and planning.

Maintaining flexibility to cope with future uncertainties

A challenge for decision making highlighted in the papers is how to deal with uncertainty about future climate. Two of the papers describe the challenges this creates for traditional decision making approaches and the resulting need to move from a paradigm of backward-looking risk assessments (based on historical data) to one that is forward looking - recognizing that risk is changing over time. A positive message from each of the papers is that this uncertainty should not and need not be a barrier to adaptation. One author concludes that uncertainty is not new in societal decision making; climate change merely provides an additional source of uncertainty.

The concept of building in robustness through maintaining flexibility in adaptive decisions resonates in each of the papers. I feel that this is a central concept in successfully mainstreaming long-term adaptation needs into short-time priorities. Development investments and policies that are not designed to be robust to a changing climate risk locking-in future vulnerability and potentially costly maladaptation. A number of authors highlight that flexibility can be facilitated through developing a suite of adaptation options, including 'no-regrets' options that give benefits under any climate scenario. I would add that development itself is a key no-regrets measure.

The authors make the important point that adaptation should not be a one-off, but a continuous process of planning, implementation, monitoring and review. Adaptation should be designed to dynamically respond to new information over time. I would add that through sequencing a suite of options over time, strategically, a planner can reduce risk today and in the long-run, while maintaining flexibility to respond to new information. For example,  the UK's Thames Estuary 2100 project has highlighted how implementing '˜no-regrets' options first can both reduce risk and buy time to learn before making more inflexible decisions.

Social and institutional capacity building and strong governance

The importance of institutional capacity building and strong governance in adaptation resonates strongly from the papers. But is adaptation impossible without strong and engaged national institutions? Local solutions and bottom-up action also emerges as a way to galvanise action. For example, previous authors have shown that autonomous adaptation can form an effective and efficient way to respond to the threats and opportunities posed by climate change. One paper highlights that autonomous adaptation is already occurring at a local level in response to existing stresses and shocks. The responses include technological innovation, diversification of livelihoods, migration and reallocation of labor. Local community groups, NGOs or the private sector can play a role in enhancing the effectiveness of autonomous adaptation, through, for example, local capacity building and providing information, incentives and financing.

Identifying adaptation priorities

One author suggests that where resources are constrained "decision makers in developing countries should prioritise the consolidation of social and institutional frameworks that allow continuous adaptation". I agree that social and institutional capacity is the foundation of effective adaptation; however, in identifying immediate priorities I suggest that adaptation must go further. Two important priorities for any decision-maker should be to (1) ensure that decisions avoid (as far as possible) locking-in potential future vulnerability to climate and (2) identify and manage (as far as possible) any near-term significant and/or irreversible impacts of climate. With these three foundations in place, the priorities may be to seize "˜no-regrets' options that have immediate benefits, both in terms of climate risk reduction and development.

Avoiding decisions that lock-in future vulnerability can entail trade-offs with other development objectives. An example is where short-term needs tend to promote building on high-hazard flood plains, but in the long-term this could expose inhabitants to greater risks and costly adaptations. Two authors suggest that engaging local communities can help in resolving such trade-offs. One author argues that: "only a bottom-up approach can allow for the timely identification of local priorities and needs, as well as the preferred"¦ responses and related trade-offs".

Better managing risks from extreme weather

An important area of adaptation highlighted by three of the authors is the reduction in risks from extreme weather events. The Stern Review (2007) stated that the first and most costly impacts of climate change are likely to come through changes in extreme weather events. One author points out that developing countries tend to be particularly vulnerable to extreme events. Of particular concern to the authors are the negative long-run impacts on economic growth and development, through loss of lives and livelihoods and environmental degradation. Better managing risks from extremes is a crucial 'no-regrets' component of both development and adaptation that can significantly reduce risks today as well as enhancing flexibility to cope with future climate change. The authors highlight a suite of options, both structural and non-structural, including risk information, early warning systems and improved drainage systems for floods.

Macro-and micro-scale finance

Finance is recognised as a key barrier to adaptation in developing countries. It is particularly valuable that some authors provided insights on the importance of micro-scale finance, including access to credit and insurance, as a way of supporting autonomous adaptation. Two of the papers specifically refer to the potential of insurance (either micro-or macro-level) as a cost-effective approach to managing the residual impacts of climate change. I strongly agree with this but urge caution; insurance has a role to play, but that role is limited.

The author from Swiss Re provides a detailed account of the beneficial and synergistic roles that disaster risk reduction (DRR) and insurance can play in many risks from extreme weather. This is certainly evident in many regions, and it has been shown that the financial injection provided by insurance in this context can speed recovery and reduce the indirect and long-run effects of disasters. However, I think it is prudent to recognize the limitations of insurance. Previous work has shown that insurance, without DRR, can be a maladaptation. Insurance does not prevent (direct) losses or fatalities. Further, there is evidence that in some cases insurance can lessen the incentive to reduce risk autonomously. However, I agree that well-designed insurance systems, as one part of a comprehensive disaster risk management approach, can be highly beneficial.

Information gathering and dissemination

A final cross-cutting theme is the barrier to adaptation created by a lack of information. In addition, one author highlights the importance of disseminating information in forms that are accessible to all levels of decision makers. A valuable observation is made that information itself can galvanise action, particularly at a local level. Information is not just necessary to inform specific actions, but also to engage decision makers and get their buy-in to prioritise adaptation. "Transparency" of information and discourse is raised as a helpful way to increase the profile of adaptation, "ignite debate about potential solutions" and keep "priority from slipping way"; a good suggestion being the use of indicators of the regional state of climate.

In terms of information needs, one author makes the pertinent point that while most lobbying effort is focused on climate information needs, the real gap is the socioeconomic data needed for adaptation. On a positive note, the author from Swiss Re highlights the potential to export tools and lessons learnt from recent research (e.g. their 2009 study "Economics of Climate Adaptation: shaping climate resilient development) to support adaptation in least developed countries.