What does it mean to be climate resilient?

Experts in Ethiopia, Nepal, Jamaica and Uganda explain how they are preparing for future global warming impacts

The Philippines city of Tacloban was ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 - highlighting the need for better warning systems (Pic: UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

The Philippines city of Tacloban was ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 – highlighting the need for better warning systems (Pic: UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

By Ed King in Washington DC

Ask a meeting of 50 climate change specialists what they mean by “resilience” and you’re likely to get 50 different answers.

Like “sustainability”, it is a word much abused by the media, policymakers and big business.

But as extreme weather events linked to climate change start to bite around the world, the importance of resilience will grow.

What’s important says Dennis Bours, a Bangkok-based climate consultant, is that the term no longer simply applies to infrastructure.

“I think resilience means you don’t just look at climate action, which in the past you would talk about hard measures like sea walls,” he says.

“Instead you must look at a complete picture including policies, governance and management structures on a national and community level, and a combination of hard and soft measure that you look at as a complete package. It’s not just about one intervention.”

It’s a sentiment delegates attending a Global Environment Facility climate evaluation conference in Washington last week repeatedly stressed.

Communities best placed to cope with extreme weather are not simply those with the best flood defences.

The best protection is often local radio or the mobile phone, provided there’s a working network.

Farming threat

Meseret Kassahun works with pastoral communities in Ethiopia, who range over grasslands with their herds of cows, goats and – a recent addition for many due to their ability to withstand drought – camels.

“Having up-to-date information is challenging for them, and drought is a major risk for their day-to-day existence, and they are suffering a lot,” she says.

Most of these groups are illiterate says Kassahun, and get information by word of mouth. Their nomadic lifestyle means they rarely have a mobile signal. Text alerts wouldn’t work as no-one could read them.

Resilience for these tribes comes in the form of community radio stations, which are being set up at market places and offer weather forecasts and tips on how to protect their livestock.

In Uganda farmers are also facing fluctuating rainfall, says Julian Bagyendera, a consultant who monitors the effectiveness of local adaptation plans.

With the country’s burgeoning population relying heavily on local farmlands for food, a failed harvest can have serious implications.

“The towns depend on rural communities for food and milk. Once the rural communities are affected, the whole country is. Prices go high and commodities are scarce,” she says.

Again, communication technology is central to plans to help farmers adapt. Weather forecasts from central government are only broadcast once a day.

At a time when rainy seasons are becoming unpredictable that’s insufficient, says Bagyendera.

Better education is another solution, helping farmers develop “climate smart” techniques, such as planting more trees, choosing crops that survive arid spells and conserving water.

These need to be led by communities, rather than be imposed by government or aid agencies. Where villages and farmers are involved right from the beginning “those projects tend to be more sustainable even when donor funding closes,” she adds.

For Uganda, resilience is empowered communities and better weather forecasting.

Empowering villages

In the foothills of the Himalayas, Nepal’s farmers are facing similar problems, exacerbated by high poverty levels and a barely functioning central government, weakened by a brutal civil war that ended a decade ago.

The blistering heat that sears the Indian subcontinent in the summer is usually alleviated by the monsoon, which sweeps up from Sir Lanka, blanketing India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal with welcome rains.

But where once farmers could predict when the first drops might fall, now it’s far more unclear.

“The monsoon is not happening at a proper time – it is delayed – and the farmers are affected,” says Jeeban Panthi, a Kathmandu-based climate expert who works with farmers across the country.

Drought is increasingly common – odd for a country sliced through by huge rivers sourced in Himalayan glaciers, surging towards India and the sea.

A major problem he faces is another surprise. “The main obstacle is that if they hear the climate is changing, they think they will benefit,” Panthi says.

He has been conducting three pilot projects at different altitudes in Nepal, sowing drought-resistant seeds in an effort to show local villagers how they could benefit from new ways of farming.

It will take another five years to see if this has worked, he says, but the real breakthrough is reassuring locals this is a problem they can tackle. Believing you can be resilient is the first step.

Thousands of miles away, on the sandy shores of Jamaica, people can see the azure waters of the Caribbean, but are suffering because so little rain is falling from the sky.

Water use was restricted to two days a week in the capital Kingston, says Kimberley John, who assesses climate adaptation projects in the country for international donors.

Jamaica’s thriving mobile phone industry and media is evidence that communicating to the masses is not the issue.

What does need to change is an appreciation of where water actually comes from, she says.

“Often people think third world countries are very close to nature. In the Caribbean we’re not that close to nature, so we often don’t respect the linkages between forests on the mountain and water in taps.”

Old habits like rainwater harvesting that could help have been ditched. Once something every household would do without thinking, now few households or businesses store water for a dry day.

“Sometimes the things we used to do when we were poor we need to get back to,” says John.

“So many people were happy to kiss it goodbye as it was a sign of backwardness, but if it’s in policy that homes and businesses have to have catchment areas I think we’ll be able to deal with whatever shocks climate change brings.”

The good news is that these types of simple initiatives are paying dividends around the world, according to Rob Van den Berg, a veteran climate project evaluator.

And initial interventions to showcase farming techniques in arid areas, storing water or the development of new communication tools are just the start.

“Usually the impact takes place outside the project,” he says. “The project is just a vehicle to get something going.”

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The work in Ethiopia, Uganda, Nepal and Jamaica illustrates the increasing importance of education and information in preparing for the worst.

But the real test will come as climate impacts intensify, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent synthesis report suggested they will.

Lives are at stake. Early warning systems and an effective evacuation plan saw 700,000 Indians evacuated as Cyclone Hudhud smashed into the Orissan coast last month.

A year ago an estimated 6,000 Filipinos were not so lucky, many unaware that Typhoon Haiyan was bearing down on their small fishing villages. The storm surge overwhelmed defences, killed thousands and caused an estimated $2.84 billion in damage.

The IPCC projections mean countries, regions and cities will need to develop tailored strategies to “enhance resilience to climate change”, a term used in the Compact of Mayors released at the UN climate summit in New York this September.

In drawing up their plans, they will need to identify the specific risks they face, says Timo Leiter, a consultant for the German government’s development arm GIZ.

He cites a recent meeting with a city and was asked to offer a plan to help it become resilient to conflict, ebola, climate change and a host of other possible problems – a task that would take years to complete.

Instead Leiter, along with other climate development experts in Washington, advocates ambitious but focused projects, which knitted together can offer protection.

As for what resilience really means?

It does’t really matter, suggests Bours. It’s a personal decision, and each community needs to work that out for themselves.

“There are various definitions that are clear to various audiences. To some people adaptation, resilience and sustainable development means the same, while to other people resilience is more clearly defined,” he says.

“You can either look at the capacities you need to deal with shocks and stresses that can point towards resilience in the long term, or you can have other definitions.

“I personally think it’s most important that if you work on a climate change adaptation intervention that at least within your group of stakeholders you agree on a definition you all feel most comfortable with, opposed to adapting one that is the most sexy or trendy at the moment.”

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