Resilient livelihood strategies in the face of climate change: What works and what doesn't

How do we translate the theory of “resilient livelihoods” into practical strategies that actually work on the ground? Photo by: Michael Szönyi / Zurich Insurance Group

The latest studies on climate change are bleak: At the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are on pace to warm up to 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Effectively, that means that within the next 100 years we will see water levels rise as much as two meters, flooding many coastal cities and making some island nations uninhabitable. In addition to the damage wrought by flooding, rising seawater levels will contaminate precious aquifers, leaving much of the world’s population without access to fresh water.

Food security will also be affected: A 2014 report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that climate change will reduce the production of staple food crops such as rice, wheat and corn by 50 percent in some parts of the world by 2050. Add to that more frequent and intense storms, hurricanes affecting thousands of communities around the world, higher air temperatures, and more frequent and intense hotspots.

All of these changes have particularly dire implications for the world’s poor, 70 percent of which live in rural areas and are reliant on agriculture as their primary source of income and employment. So it’s no surprise then that helping the most vulnerable communities learn to adapt to, and bounce back from, increasingly unpredictable climate change and shocks is one of the top priorities among the global development and humanitarian communities.

“Resilience” has become a buzzword in international development circles, and how to build resilient livelihood strategies may be key to reducing communities’ vulnerability to climate change. But how do we translate the theory of “resilient livelihoods” into practical strategies that actually work on the ground?

Devex interviewed a number of professionals from different sectors on some of the key strategies that work — and don’t work — when attempting to help communities become more resilient to climate change disasters.

What works (and what doesn’t)

David Nash, flood resilience community impact manager with Zurich Insurance Group, has been part of a small team working on creating a resilience framework in response to flooding that can be adapted to different locations around the world. One of the first things that populations need in order to be able to adapt to climate change, he said, is accurate information to provide prompt warnings of changes in their local environment. Such information, Nash said, is most effective if it’s built into the physical infrastructure, especially the communications networks.

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One example in Nepal is the connectivity between the river gauge reading station in the hills, which monitors real-time water levels in the Karnali river, and the phone-tree that connects the gauge reader with a network of communities, providing up-to-the-minute information and warnings about water levels. Other examples are the river reading stations in Koshi and visual display boards in local authority offices which provide water level information, and are connected to an alarm that is triggered when levels reach critical points.

Although both systems have been quite effective, neither is perfect. “The gauge reader in the Karnali is a single person with one mobile phone and one land line as back up,” Nash said. “There is a potential failure point, which could mean that no warnings get through in time.”    

Building redundancy into the response systems is another key factor that can help communities become more resilient — for example by creating hanging rope bridges that can be used when the normal roads are washed out.

“Livelihood isn’t just about what people do, it’s also access to markets,” Nash explained. “If a road goes out, it doesn’t matter what a person has to sell if they can’t go to where they need to sell it.”

Nash has also found that helping individuals to adopt secondary livelihoods is also critical to minimizing negative impacts when disaster hits. That can mean training farmers to grow flood-resistant crops, or teaching pastoralists other skills that can bide them over until waters recede and grazing fields are available once more.

Integrating climate change into development planning

Governments also have a large role to play. Mikell O’Mealy, a senior associate in climate change adaptation at Abt Associates, said that it’s important to work simultaneously with local communities, key stakeholders, the private sector and with governments — but it has to be to done the right way.

“One thing we know doesn’t work is when climate change adaptation is siloed away from other national and local efforts,” she said. “Addressing climate change needs to be mainstreamed within a government’s core development planning, so that when governments look at how to achieve their critical development goals related to health, infrastructure, education, natural resources management and economic growth, they’re able to do so in a way that strengthens resilience to climate impacts at all levels.”

Making sure there is an existing platform that facilitates peer-to-peer learning is also critical to allow these multiple actors to learn from one another. For example, in 2014, on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, O’Mealy worked with the small Caribbean island community of Petite Martinique, where the loss of coastal mangroves led to severe coastal erosion. This was threatening the primary road connecting the island’s 900 residents and their only power plant.

In delivering USAID assistance, O’Mealy collaborated with the private sector, the local government and community to bring in world-class engineering expertise to the island. Paired with local knowledge and resources, the community constructed state-of-the-art coastal revetment to not only stop the encroaching erosion, but to reverse it. Through an existing regional intergovernmental body — the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States — solutions in Petite Martinique were shared with other island nations and communities facing similar challenges.

“Peer sharing is absolutely key, and it works best when there’s a locally-based platform that can facilitate it on an ongoing basis,” said O’Mealy. “Sharing successes and lessons learned helps us all be more effective in addressing climate impacts and scaling up what works.”

Reed Merrill, chief of party for USAID’s LESTARI project, implemented through Tetra Tech, is based out of Indonesia, primarily working with forest communities on climate adaptation strategies. Often, he said, the difference between success and failure for any climate change adaptation — including livelihood strategies — depends on whether or not the communities are cohesive and have strong leaders.  

“Leaders need to be inclusive, willing to hear different ideas, and to allow other people to participate,” he said, adding that they also need the support of government in order for strategies to achieve scale.

“Even if we work successfully with half-a-dozen strong leaders, it’s only a drop in the bucket,” explained Merrill. “Governments need to come in and be supportive of the project in order for it to reach the maximum number of communities.”

Resilient partnerships

Similarly, forming multi-sector partnerships is becoming increasingly important when helping communities successfully adapt to changing environments and conditions, and in order to achieve maximum impact. Luca Alinovi, executive director of the Global Resilience Partnership, has noticed that projects that are the result of partnerships between humanitarian, development, government, and the private sector are often the most successful. While this may seem like an obvious strategy, in Alinovi’s experience few multisector projects are truly “partnerships.”

“One of the problems with partnerships is that they tend to be partnerships only in name,” he said. “Often you may have multiple actors in the same geographical space, but they’re serving different populations.”

Solving this problem is harder than it may seem: In order for partners to work most effectively, they need to “align, layer and sequence” their efforts to the real need of the final beneficiary, according to Alinovi.

One example of a partnership he considers “successful” is in Dogo, Somalia, where UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the Food and Agriculture Organization were all working, but targeting different beneficiaries. By conducting a joint assessment of the needs and assets of all of the different beneficiaries —in this case, primarily farmers and refugees — and also the various partners’ strengths, they were able to make effective adjustments that resulted in much more effective programming.  

Sequencing and specific targeting was also critical to this effort. “When you do a joint program, you have to specifically target beneficiaries’ needs, sequence the amount and quality of intervention that reaches the final beneficiary, so the program is beneficiary centric, and not agency centric.” On the ground, that meant making sure the proper sort of intervention or aid went to the right beneficiary at the right time to make a difference.

“All this contributes to resiliency, creating people capacities and capabilities, needed assets, and essential public goods and services, to empower them to handle the effects of unpredictable climate changes supporting the development of basic social services and conducive economic space that allows you to adapt and modify,” he said.

Helping develop local systems

Another key strategy gaining traction among resilience specialists focuses on identifying existing local systems that are critical to livelihoods, and taking a more facilitative role in order to find ways to strengthen them, rather than swooping in and providing direct aid.

André Mershon, a climate change specialist with USAID, visited one project in northeastern Uganda in which USAID's NGO partner is improving access to agricultural inputs and services through a facilitative approach that pushes local actors out front to sustainably provide products and services.

Rather than providing farmers directly with agricultural equipment and seeds — which can yield faster short-term outputs, but undermine the creation of a sustainable system of local agricultural input suppliers — the project attempted to strengthen the system by providing farmers with vouchers to purchase subsidized seeds and equipment from local dealers. This helped establish important relationships and demonstrated that even poor farmers will invest in inputs and implements. These subsidies will be gradually reduced over the life of the project.

The project also supports local suppliers to improve their business management skills and establish business relationships with seeds companies outside the region, developing a sustainable source of inputs. This approach helped farmers purchase almost 27 tons of improved seeds and nearly 1,000 ox plows through local suppliers during the last agricultural season.  

According to Mershon, this approach can be slower, but has much more beneficial long-term results for all concerned. “By using the most facilitative approach, you’re trying to build up a system that will provide results on its own. It can take three or four more years to get results — but the goal is to be able to step away, and have a set up that functions on its own after a few years without outside assistance.”  

There are also many things that we know don’t work: According to Alinovi, many programs are not actually creating effective resiliency because they lack exit strategies, meaning that communities become dependent on the service provider rather than cultivating independence.

And Abt’s O’Mealy has also observed failure as a result of implementing climate change adaptation strategies that weren’t based on strong evidence and monitoring of what’s effective on the ground. “We’ve seen this too often, where development partners sometimes come in and create adaptation actions that aren’t based on rigorous evidence, accurate assessment, or locally-appropriate best practices,” she said. “As a result, we see negative, unintended impacts that actually enhance climate vulnerabilities at the local level.”

Another thing that doesn’t work is treating climate change like some distant problem that exists far into the future.

“The best way to help communities understand climate change is to show them how it impacts their lives today by looking at current climate variability, and using this as an entry point for discussing how long-term trends will affect their livelihoods,” said USAID’s Mershon. “It’s a balancing act between helping people meet their immediate needs by managing the variability that is affecting their livelihoods now, while helping them to prepare for a future in which climate is changing and the future is increasingly uncertain. If you can’t manage current variability, you can't manage future changes.”

What works and what doesn’t when cultivating livelihood strategies in the face of climate change? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Malia Politzer

    Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.