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Reimagining Climate Adaptation

Being at the forefront of climate disasters, India has experienced flash floods, droughts, cyclonic storms, heat waves and other indirect effects due to climate change in the last two years. A study in 2021 showed that more than 80% of our population lives in districts highly vulnerable to climate disasters, and most regions in India have low adaptive capacities. As such, amidst the worsening effects of climate change, policy priorities must integrate critical resilience-building and risk-reduction measures to protect India's most vulnerable communities from these ill effects. With widespread recognition that the climate is changing and becoming more uncertain, how can communities be better protected from the most adverse impacts of climate hazards?

Climate Hazards and Adaptive Capacities

For vulnerable communities exposed to climate hazards, their adaptive capacity reflects their ability to moderate potential climate-induced damages to their lives and livelihoods. Adaptive capacity, sensitivity and exposure to climate risks together indicate the community’s vulnerability to climate change. For example, a family residing along the coast might have high exposure to seasonal cyclonic storms. However, their ability to relocate during the storm’s landfall and rebuild damaged parts of their house indicate their capacity to adapt to climate change.

Improving the adaptive capacities of vulnerable populations involves transforming the concept of public service delivery and implementing programs that encompass more than just the traditional idea of development. Climate change adaptation goals require a multisectoral approach involving the government machinery's multiple verticals (departments). Further, integrating resilience building into development objectives and local governance institutions requires mainstreaming macro-level systems perspectives into district-level development plans and Panchayati Raj institutions.

Top-down approaches to climate adaptation actions have been critiqued for remaining centered around the priorities and risk perceptions of funding organizations, donors and non-local stakeholders who tend to exclude local communities and institutions from the process, sometimes leading to maladaptation. Locally led adaptation (LLA) initiatives can enable local communities to design and implement interventions based on their perception of their own needs rather than being relegated to token beneficiaries of government schemes and development programs.

Access to irrigation facilities improves households' adaptive capacities and results in green oases in regions where rainfall deficit has led to yield loss and land diversion. The climate exposure of households without irrigation facilities or private water sources often mirrors extant social inequities.

Development Models and Locally Led Adaptation

Operationalization and mainstreaming of Locally Led Adaptation (LLA) in development activities spearheaded by the government is plagued with several challenges, reflecting the complex nature of climate change and the diversity of local contexts. Mainstreaming LLA has remained challenging due to a lack of integration into policy processes, technological barriers and local capacity issues. Further, institutional structures may impede the successful implementation of adaptation measures since local problems such as economic deprivation, unemployment, caste conflicts, contestation over natural resources, land rights and other locally relevant matters often take precedence over climate adaptation efforts in many contexts.

Conventional models of governance that isolate creative visioning into distinct departments have hindered the integration of adaptation efforts into broader development agendas. Climate action objectives are often 'superimposed' onto existing practices in governance and bureaucracy through integration into central and state-sponsored schemes. This model targets the visibility of efforts and prioritizes low-hanging fruits that do not require long-term investment or behavioral changes, reducing LLA to a theory merely of conceptual value. Extant practices also focus on top-down information flows and decisions, often ignoring or placing little importance on ground-level evidence. The prevalence of such practices usually leads to the absence of community feedback regarding climate vulnerabilities and their adaptation needs even after the programmatic completion of intervention activities.

Re-modelling Development

From an implementation perspective, meaningful and substantive information dissemination and capacity development for local communities can help people engage more meaningfully with local and regional development plans and the stakeholders with decision-making capacities. The value of LLA stems from its re-visioning of participatory approaches into a community-led model. As an ethos, LLA applies as much to climate adaptation planning as it does to development in general. Community-led processes ensure that the local community’s involvement extends to the design of solutions for local issues through interventions, schemes and targeted programs.

As a first step, action-oriented research can contribute towards reducing the chasm in understanding between technical actors and local communities by creating programmatic indicators rooted in local contexts to increase community relatability. When designed alongside suitable capacity development initiatives, scientific and reliable data can be gathered from the ground independently by the community, which can be used better to understand vulnerabilities, risk exposure and adaptive capacities. Integrating traditional knowledge with such action-oriented research will also help with community buy-in and ensure the sustainability of any planned interventions.

The success of such locally led approaches is evident in India's forestry sector. This study cites the example of Joint Forest Management Committees in Himalayan states where decentralization has been realized through de-concentration, with forest resources managed wholly by local custodians of biological resources. Another ubiquitous example of decentralized governance and planning for development work is the flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Considerable resources devolved to local government have helped provide wage employment, improve community asset base in rural areas and improve environmental services such as groundwater recharge, landslide risk reduction and irrigation measures. Across these examples, effective decentralization of decision-making has empowered local actors to exercise the powers needed to meet many demands of local inhabitants and deliver what is typically viewed as development.

Another successful model for LLA is Nepal’s National Framework for Local Adaptation Plans for Action (LAPA), which is driven by the guiding principles of being "bottom-up, inclusive, responsive and flexible." Adaptation actions identified by local communities are operationalized through the LAPA at the village development committees (VDCs) level or municipalities in the case of larger towns/cities. Critically, the first step in this framework for developing LAPAs is climate sensitization for the local community. Developing and implementing action plans, including integrating climate change adaptation into sectoral and area-specific plans, are all anchored with local institutions.

Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s mangrove afforestation programs have helped serve dual purposes of improving the climate resilience of local communities and providing alternate livelihood options for fishing-dependent families. The picture shows a canal currently undergoing clearing and excavation to create mangrove channels using the fishbone method.

Addressing challenges surrounding the effective translation of LLA principles into practice requires a holistic and collaborative approach that involves local communities, governments, NGOs and international organizations working together to develop context-specific and sustainable adaptation strategies. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is facilitating the Government of Tamil Nadu's ambitious Climate Smart Villages (CSV) pilot program through a technical partnership. The CSV project aims to saturate eleven demonstration villages with climate adaptation and mitigation interventions alongside capacity development initiatives to make them climate smart. Some of the interventions envisioned include mini data centers at villages for localized and granular climate risk information, solar rooftop solutions for public buildings, wastewater management and rainwater harvesting, per the needs identified through a rigorous LLA methodology.

From Local to Global

The Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), first introduced in the Paris Agreement in 2015, finally found agreement across Parties, after eight years, on an overarching framework at COP28. The adaptation cycle adopted under the GGA mentions enablers for enhancing adaptive capacity and, hence, the resilience of communities. Amidst this context, realizing the benefits of LLA will require stakeholders with the means of implementation and support to devolve suitable finance and technologies and improve local capacities. Ensuring equity in adaptation requires prioritizing vulnerable social groups such as marginalized communities and future generations, moving beyond incremental changes towards empowerment and transformation. Where local meets global, communities and society at large can meaningfully build resilience to climate change and tackle increasing risks to their lives and livelihoods..

All photos are by Vishvak Kannan/WRI India.

All views expressed by the author are personal.

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