By Dr. Hannah Reid
Natural ecosystems are widely acknowledged to be important in helping the world’s poor secure food, water, shelter, energy, a safe environment in which to live and work, and a livelihood. Ecosystem services are also increasingly recognised as key tools for helping people adapt to climate change. Crucially, it is the poorest and most vulnerable communities in developing countries who are likely to be hit worst by the impacts of climate change. These are often the same people that rely most on natural resources and ecosystems for their livelihoods. So it seems obvious that any effort to help vulnerable people adapt should take into account the importance of ecosystems and their services. It is perhaps surprising then, that such approaches do not receive more attention in national and international climate change policy and planning processes. This may in part be because of the lack of ‘solid’ evidence demonstrating the merits of such ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation (EBA).
What are ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation?
Examples of EBA include preserving wetlands to regulate floods, protecting watershed forests to provide cities with sustainable water supplies in the face of erratic rainfall and melting glaciers, conserving genetic biodiversity to secure future food supplies under changed environmental conditions, and planting or protecting mangroves and coral reefs to ameliorate shoreline storm damage. In addition, EBA can provide multiple livelihood and societal benefits, such as more sustained access to natural resources, and carbon sequestration to help tackle the root causes of climate change.
Moving from stories to science
Anecdotal case studies recounting the merits of EBA abound. But for EBA to gain stronger policy traction, we need more than stories. Critical analysis of the various social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of EBA in comparison to other adaptation options is needed. The 9th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation will run a session on ecosystems specifically addressing how to measure these issues better. Without such evidence it will be harder to justify the application of EBA. Hard infrastructure-oriented approaches such as damns or dykes come with political kudos and the simplicity of a single contract, and new technologies such as the use of genetically modified organisms have powerful lobbyists. The competition for limited adaptation funding and support is tough even though some of these alternative adaptation ‘solutions’ can even work against nature by constraining regular ecological cycles, which in turn can lead to ‘maladaptation’ by increasing medium- to long-term social vulnerability. So we need to get better at making the case for EBA.
Securing the evidence
Much evidence on EBA effectiveness already exists and is dispersed across a range of related fields, such as natural resource management, disaster risk reduction, dryland management and agroecology. Work to synthesise this evidence has revealed that EBA-relevant interventions are generally effective.
There are, however, large gaps in knowledge, and new research is needed to fill these gaps. In particular, few studies analyse two comparable sites – one with and one without EBA – or a ‘before and after’ situation in the event of a dramatic climate change impact such as a cyclone. Similarly, there are few case studies that closely examine who benefits from EBA among vulnerable communities and across broader scales. There is more evidence from some ecosystems (such as mangroves) than others (such as mountain, marine or grassland ecosystems). Knowledge on the limits of EBA and the timescales and boundaries in which it can be applied is also minimal.
When it comes to evaluating value for money, few studies provide a quantified economic assessment of the costs and benefits of EBA compared with other approaches. Such economic data can be difficult to obtain but can strongly influence decision makers when it comes to adopting a new approach. The studies that do exist show that EBA projects can be cost effective, and if you consider the full range of benefits they provide, tend to be better than hard infrastructural approaches to adaptation. But data from more than a few isolated case studies is needed.
One of the best quantified examples is 20 years old. In 1994 the Vietnamese Red Cross spent roughly US$1.1 million rehabilitating and protecting 12,000 hectares of mangroves in Vietnam. The investment saved donors what could have cost US$7.3 million a year in dyke maintenance. It has had other benefits too. Some 7,750 families benefited from the project, many of whom boosted their incomes by selling the seaweed, crabs, shrimp and molluscs that thrive in the mangroves. By eating these, people increased the protein in their diets. And during the devastating Typhoon Wukong in 2000, project areas remained relatively unharmed while neighbouring provinces suffered huge losses in lives, property and livelihoods.
Rich and poor countries are increasingly having to make plans to address climate change. Guided by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Least Developed Countries have developed National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), and all countries are now developing National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). Many nations have their own independent plans or policies too. Vietnam has over 200 laws, policies and strategies addressing climate change and disaster risk management.
Stronger evidence on EBA effectiveness will help policy makers and planners make more informed choices about which approaches are most appropriate in designing and implementing emerging climate change responses. It will help them assess the conditions under which EBA works, and what benefits, costs and limitations ecosystem use provides compared to other adaptation options.
Of course, improving the evidence base doesn’t necessarily automatically lead to policy change. Advocacy and capacity building may be needed to infuse EBA measures into wider policy, planning, funding prioritization and international discourse. Equally, policy change may not be sufficient to influence practice on the ground – a key challenge for Vietnam with its plethora of climate change policies and plans. But if the evidence is there, at least it’s a start.