By Alison Clausen, as told by Harisoa Rakotondrazafy, WWF MWIOPO
Mangrove ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Despite their importance in providing essential coastal protection and other environmental services, mangroves suffer from increasing human pressures and sea level rise.
The Adaptation Challenge
A large amount of mangroves are found on the west coast of Madagascar near the Tsiribihina and Manambolo River deltas. The mangroves in this region have already experienced climate-related changes, and climate change projections indicate air temperature, cyclone intensity, and variability in precipitation will increase substantially by 2100.
In 2009, we began a two-phase project to implement ecosystem-based adaptation strategies in this area in a way that enhances the resilience of both the local human communities and the mangrove ecosystems. We carried out an initial vulnerability assessment that showed that 19 per cent of mangroves in this region are vulnerable to climate change due to their low resilience worsened by the existence of high probability flooding zones.
The first phase of the project focused on undertaking research to develop detailed mapping of social and ecological vulnerability throughout the project area. The second phase involved implementation of climate change adaptation strategies in two sites of high vulnerability. In the Tsiribihina delta mangroves, the selection of the sites was based on the outcomes of the initial vulnerability assessment work, along with other variables like presence of community structures and presence of endangered species.
Once the sites were identified, we compiled additional baseline data on the ecological, socio-economic and climatic characteristics of the two pilot sites. Following a series of capacity- and awareness-building activities, we identified three different adaptation strategies to implement: mangrove restoration, bee keeping for honey production, and ecotourism
Once the strategies were identified we provided the necessary support to implement these strategies and establish community-based monitoring systems. We also provided support to local government authorities to integrate climate change adaptation considerations into relevant local planning frameworks.
Successes, Failures, and Surprises!
One of our biggest challenges during the project was a lack of data. During the initial vulnerability assessment we could use broad scale data to get an idea of overall relative vulnerability, but when it came to the local level, there was virtually no data available. As a result, we had to re-create a social and ecological baseline, which took a lot of time.
Another challenge was developing community-based monitoring systems. The goal was to use community members to monitor the effectiveness of adaptation strategies so adaptive management approaches could be adopted, and the capacity of the community could be raised. However, we were working in a very isolated area with high rates of illiteracy, so it was difficult to develop tools that were at the right level for the community and that also provided useful information.
The perceptions of the community, local authorities, and WWF colleagues about the relationship between adaptation and ‘traditional’ conservation activities surprised us. It was relatively easy to explain to the stakeholders that strategies needed to be based on the results of the vulnerability assessment – that is, we were successful in getting across the message “that if we are not responding to vulnerability, then we are not doing adaptation”. However, when we presented the selected adaptation strategies, many were amazed that they looked like business-as-usual conservation. We had to take time to explain that sometimes doing what we do now, but doing it better in a way that responds to adaptation is the best way to respond to climate change.
One of biggest and most pleasant surprises was the enthusiasm shown by the local authorities. They initiated the idea to integrate climate change issues into the new regional development plan and have continued working on this even once the project has finished.
In the future, we would allocate more time and resources to the vulnerability assessment. Conducting the assessment took a lot of effort and delayed implementation of the actual strategies. While vulnerability assessments are essential, it would be great to find more efficient ways to carry out this step so that we can move more quickly into the identification and implementation stages.
I would also like to have more time to complete the entire project. We had around four years for this project, but a large part of this time was dedicated to the vulnerability assessment. We did not have as much time to implement and monitor the adaptation strategies as it was a learning-by-doing process.
We would recommend key concepts training for the implementation team, partners (including technical experts), local government and NGOs, and the communities. Such capacity building should be carried out regularly to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of technical knowledge and concepts.
Even though the project documents referred to “ecosystem-based adaptation strategies” we found that in reality the debate about different types of adaptation strategies – e.g. ‘ecosystem-based adaptation’, ‘community-based adaptation’ etc. – are largely irrelevant when working on the ground, especially in a context such as Madagascar where the links between human livelihoods and ecosystem health are so strong. It was just important to look at the specific characteristics of each situation, to keep in mind the overall goal of increasing the resilience of both ecosystems and human communities, and to develop the most appropriate responses.