(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

When adaptation does not work

A man carrying his belongings in a styrofoam box tries to reach a rescue boat after flooding in Manila
Jason Gutierrez/IRIN

People in developing countries have been learning to adapt to increasing salinity, erratic rains and, in some instances, frequent flooding as the climate changes. But a new study has taken a closer look at some of these adaptation strategies and found that, past a certain threshold, they cease to work.

The study, by the UN University (UNU) for the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative, dispatched researchers to locations in five poor countries - the Gambia and Kenya in Africa; Bangladesh and Bhutan in Asia; and the Federated States of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean.

In Micronesia, 92 percent of respondents from the island of Kosrae, where sea levels are rising at alarming rates, were experiencing adverse impacts despite their efforts to adapt. This was also true of 87 percent of farmers interviewed in Punakha District, in Bhutan, where people have been trying to cope with increasingly erratic monsoon rains. About 70 percent of rice farmers in Bangladesh’s Satkhira District say measures taken to adapt to increasing soil salinity are failing.

In western Kenya’s Budalangi Division, 72 percent of respondents living near the River Nzoia and Lake Victoria, where people are exposed to frequent flooding, said their coping strategies were not working, and around 66 percent of residents interviewed in the Gambia’s North Bank Region said they were unable to cope with drought anymore, reported Koko Warner, a scientist at UNU and scientific director of the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative.

''Because of the drought, we had to cut down our daily food intake from three times a day to two times a day, and we had to eat smaller portions. My health deteriorated, and I was, most of the time, feeling dizzy when standing''

The study could support the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks currently taking place in Doha. The findings could help them negotiate a stronger deal for themselves as participants consider the creation of a mechanism to fund and support initiatives that address the losses and damages caused by climate change.

Pa Ousman Jarju, chair of the LDC group at the UNFCCC talks said, “This new report sheds light on the possibilities and constraints we face in our fight against climate change. Ignoring this knowledge can either mean our collective success or failure in stemming the pathways to loss and damage.”

Below is a snapshot of the study's findings.

Micronesia and increasing sea-level

The sea level is rising 10mm a year in Micronesia, compared to a global average of 3.2mm a year. Kosrae is particularly vulnerable to climate change as the rising seas are expected to exacerbate coastal erosion, storm surge and other coastal hazards.

Communities have tried to stem coastal erosion by building seawalls and planting trees along the shore. However, these efforts have not been sufficient, and some have come at additional costs. The study reports, for example, that ancient ruins are being dismantled and used to build seawalls. Coastal erosion has also destroyed graves. “As individual households are largely left to their own devices to combat as pervasive a problem as coastal erosion, most adopted measures are insufficient.”

Kilafasru Kilafasru, from Malem District in Kosrae, told researchers, “In 1971, we built the first seawall… from coral reef rocks and rocks from the hill… Fifteen years later, we had to build a new seawall because the water just kept on rising. At that time, we only used the rocks from the hill because it was illegal to use the coral reef rocks. In 2004, the last seawall was built - this time the government paid for it and we didn’t have to do anything. The building of the latest seawall, however, had an unforeseen negative effect. It changed the current, and as a result we lost all of our beaches…”

Read more
 When the damage is done
 BANGLADESH: Salt-resistant paddy offers hope to farmers
 Getting to the bottom of sea-level rise
 KENYA: Trapped in Budalangi flood plain
 Climate change in-depth
 Coastal erosion

Bhutan and the monsoons

Erratic monsoon patterns are disrupting the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Bhutan’s Punakha District - referred to as the country’s rice bowl - where rains are used to irrigate the rice fields. Ninety per cent of the people interviewed said that rainfall has been decreasing over the last two decades.

The farmers have tried to adapt by shifting to crops that do not need as much water as rice and by developing water-sharing arrangements between households and villages. But rice fetches more income than other produce, so the residents’ earnings have taken a dip, affecting their quality of life. Tensions among households and villages have also increased, sometimes leading to violence.

Phub Lham, a farmer, who used to act as the community’s ‘Yu-pen’, the person who manages matters related to irrigation, said, “I guess we are used to conflicts about water, but the conflicts are on the rise. And they are getting more severe.”

Kenya and floods

Budalangi Division, a low-lying area on the shores of Lake Victoria, is affected by periodic flooding. More than 96 percent of the people interviewed said floods have become more frequent and intense over the past decades.

Following floods in December 2011, most interviewees said they had received relief aid, but that it was often not enough. To cope, many sold critical assets such as draught animals, which had severe implications for future livelihood security.

Bangladesh and increasing salinity

Farmers transplanting salt resistant paddy in Sarankhola sub-district of coastal Bagerhat district in the southwest of the country

Farmers transplanting salt resistant paddy in Sarankhola sub-district of coastal Bagerhat district in the southwest of the country
Monday, March 15, 2010
Salt-resistant paddy offers hope to farmers
Farmers transplanting salt resistant paddy in Sarankhola sub-district of coastal Bagerhat district in the southwest of the country

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Farmers transplanting salt tolerant varieties of paddy in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh’s coastal Satkhira, more intense cyclones and rising sea levels have led to increased intrusion of salt water into the fields and paddies.

Norendranath Mondol , a rice farmer, had been successfully growing new salt-tolerant varieties of rice, but when Cyclone Aila struck the area in 2009, it turned his life upside-down. He told researchers, “I didn’t get a single bag of rice from my seven acres in 2009, and in the past two years the harvest has also been extremely poor.”

The study estimates that, between 2009 and 2011, the total rice harvest loss amounted to US$1.9 million for just the four villages surveyed.

The Gambia and drought

The North Bank Region of the Gambia has a history of recurrent droughts, but they have been increasing in frequency. Rainfall levels in the last three decades were over 35 percent lower than in previous decades.

A survey of 373 North Bank households during the 2011 drought revealed that most residents had tried to find alternative sources of income and had sold assets to buy food. But jobs were scarce and selling assets left them even more vulnerable. Residents were forced to cut back on meals, a coping strategy that undermined their health and well-being.

The drought destroyed farmer Karamo Krubally’s crops in 2011. He told the researchers, “Hunger started creeping into my family like an eagle scavenging for a carcass… Because of the drought, we had to cut down our daily food intake from three times a day to two times a day, and we had to eat smaller portions. My health deteriorated, and I was, most of the time, feeling dizzy when standing. I went to the doctor who said that it was a result of low food intake.”


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