By Gema Rodriguez, Climate Change Adaptation & Biodiversity Program Officer, WWF Spain
I have worked for WWF Spain for over 3 years. In that time I have seen the organization achieve numerous successes despite great challenges. However, we have quickly come to realize that our work is facing a new threat, one that requires us to rethink the way we approach conservation. We work mainly in the Mediterranean Region, an area greatly affected by climate change. While some of the impacts can already be seen in the places we work and on the programs we run, (especially those related with water scarcity) we know there is more coming.
In this context, we started working on climate change adaptation with the ultimate goal of mainstreaming it not only into our field projects, but also into our lobbying and advocacy activities. Starting to think in terms of climate change prompted a few questions: How must we strengthen or conservation and ecosystem management approaches to ensure we are successful in achieving our goals today and into a rapidly changing future? How can we prepare for increasing conflicts related to water scarcity? How can we know to what extent the species we protect will be affected by climate change?
To answer those questions, we started by improving our capacity on climate change adaptation. We organized a climate change adaptation training workshop for our conservation staff which was facilitated by members of the Adaptation Team at WWF-US. We had a great experience and acquired the necessary concepts and approaches to tackle the projected climate change impacts on our conservation work. After the training we came to realize the huge amount of work necessary to put into practice all we had learned. Additionally, we now had to take these new ideas and apply them to our own ecosystems, institutions, policies and projected impacts in the Mediterranean.
So we got on with it, starting by thoroughly revising all our work, being selective about where to put the emphasis and for what species or projects we should start working on. At the same time we started gradually thinking in terms of climate change adaption in our day-to-day work.
In the field with local communities
To start, we decided to work in one of the most emblematic WWF field projects, Doñana National Park Wetland, where we had already started to address climate change with some previous studies. Being surrounded by the largest rice-producing area of the Iberian Peninsula, the great dependence of both the wetland ecosystem and rice production on water availability makes this region particularly vulnerable to potential impacts of climate change.
In this context, we decided to work directly with the rice farmers and other stakeholders in a participatory process, to identify climate change impacts and potential adaptation interventions. In the end this was a lengthy process, which took us longer than a year to get through. The participatory process was held in parallel to the development of scientific research on climate changes impacts on the rice farming sector in Doñana wetland.
Engaging community groups, local level planners and experts in the field of climate change required a huge investment of time and effort. It required us to build new relationships, consolidate new and existing information about projected impacts, and design new participatory and social learning approaches and techniques. It was all worth it. Bringing different stakeholders together to discuss climate change and their vision for the future was a very enriching and demonstrative process for the local community. It also provided an opportunity for the study to contribute to raising awareness amongst local communities, and to foster a bottom-up approach to decision-making.
We also learned that sometimes the particular priorities of some sectors can result in support for short-sighted preferences which fail to acknowledge the long-term benefit of conserving natural ecosystem functions.
For example, the rice farming sector supported the option of enlarging irrigation infrastructure to secure the supply of fresh water from upstream. This kind of infrastructure could alleviate the lack of fresh water for rice fields in the short-term but it also stresses the river ecosystem by further reducing the natural flow of water downstream. However, the flow of freshwater down stream prevents seawater from moving upstream into the river channel. A decrease in freshwater flows – due to overall runoff reduction and/or to augmented upstream uses – could cause an increase in the river water salinity. Since Doñana wetland is located in a delta, the sea water intrusion and salinity damage is likely to be aggravated by the projections of sea level rise associated with climate change.
Working for a conservation organization, it is easy to forget how difficult it can be to understand the long-term benefits of ensuring that ecosystems are managed sustainably in a changing climate. However, it is clear that not all communities understand this. As such we have learned that education of these communities is essential.
When starting a process like this, you have to be ready to considerer all possible options and opinions that may not suit the optimal ecosystem based adaptation kind of alternatives. Participatory processes like the one we carried out in the South of Spain laid the foundation for a new way of thinking and planning for the future.
Nevertheless, it is necessary that the relevant government administrations reinforce and continue these kind of processes.
Our ongoing work in the field also helped to highlight the political decisions and planning processes that were happening in our country without considering our rapidly changing climate . Utilizing the vast amount of existing information about projected climate change impacts across Spain, we sought to help inform the revision of the Coastal Protection Law. The proposed reform plans to reduce environmental protection of coastal ecosystems like dunes and salt lakes, putting at risk the ecosystems that will have a key role in preventing impacts caused by sea level rise. Ultimately we were not successful in getting new language written into the revision this time. However, during the approval process government official’s did acknowledge the need to review existing climate information. Perhaps due to our efforts.
Beside the coastal law revision, there are other policy issues on the National and European policy agenda which are also being reviewed and it is important that we continue to push for climate change considerations to be included. Just a few examples include the Common Agriculture Policy and the funding for Natura 2000 Network negotiations.
Our communication department understands the importance of climate change adaptation. However, the staff feared trying to communicate something based on future projections and concepts which are quite difficult to understand for the general public?
So we started to think about how to make projected climate change impacts easy to understand. In other words, we translated complex scientific information regarding climate change impacts into easy to understand and attractive data. Regarding projected changes in the Iberian flora and fauna species distribution ranges caused by climate change, we created an online interactive tool to show the data and the proposed adaptation measures.Despite all the valuable communication tools, factsheets and actions that we carried out, climate change continues to be a tough issue to communicate in an accurate but easy to understand context.
These are only some of the more important lessons learned since we started mainstreaming climate change adaptation into WWF Spain work a year ago. It has been a very enriching and rewarding process and continues to be a challenge in our day to day work. But most important is that we have already laid the foundation to think and work as a climate smart organization.