It is now widely accepted that communities throughout the Pacific Islands are one of the most vulnerable groups to the impacts of climate change. There is widespread documented evidence of the rapidly changing climate across the Pacific, with rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, increasing intensity of tropical storms and cyclones, ocean acidification, changes in rainfall patterns, and changes in inter-annual climate variability, being recorded across most island chains. The impacts of these changes on human communities are increasingly dramatic, and include declining food and water security, loss of agricultural lands, human health implications, threats to key industries like tourism, economic losses, and damage to coastal infrastructure and human settlements.
Despite the increasing number of community-based adaptation initiatives across the region over the past decade or so, most Pacific communities seem to remain highly exposed to the effects of future climate change and it is not known whether these communities are now better prepared to cope.
While adaptation to local environmental variability and change is not new for Pacific communities, the magnitude of impacts as a result of climate change is already unprecedented, posing an additional burden on development for many countries. In the 2013 Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, Pacific leaders unanimously expressed, ‘Climate change has arrived. It is the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific’.
In an attempt to support often-marginalised Pacific communities, donors such as Australian Aid, Germany’s GIZ, the European Union and America’s USAID have funded, and continue to fund, adaptation initiatives to reduce vulnerability and protect livelihoods and resources at the local community level. These community-based adaptation projects have been oriented towards numerous activities, ranging from safeguarding coastal foreshores and reefs from high intensity storms, improving disaster responses to reduce harm and damage, and enhancing food and water security to improve people’s livelihoods and needs.
Despite the increasing number of community-based adaptation initiatives across the region over the past decade or so, most Pacific communities seem to remain highly exposed to the effects of future climate change and it is not known whether these communities are now better prepared to cope. Some preliminary work from a new and ongoing Australian Research Council-funded project in the region by the authors has revealed some mixed results. Based on assessments of over ten communities across Kiribati and Vanuatu throughout 2016, the results have seen some positives, such as increases in human, social and/or physical capital, which has boosted adaptive capacity. However, overwhelmingly, the results have shown that these adaptation projects have largely been unsuccessful in reducing people’s vulnerability to climate change. The reasons for this include:
- limited involvement of community members in project design;
- inappropriate projects that haven’t met the needs of the community;
- limited analysis of root causes of vulnerability and hence poor project targeting;
- little or no skills training or support for the community as part of the project;
- limited community ownership of the project;
- inequitable intra-community project benefits causing social tensions;
- issues of elite capture; and,
- short-term planning horizons that see singular, short-lived project outcomes.
This preliminary work mirrors findings of a small number of studies that have documented reasons why these community-based adaptation initiatives may or may not be as successful as first anticipated.
While our research is in its initial phase, there is a picture emerging that the results of community-based adaptation efforts are mixed and lean more towards a failure of these adaptation initiatives in protecting livelihoods, resources and ecosystems.
To date, global action on climate change has long been dominated by mitigation efforts that aim to reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions entering the atmosphere. By comparison, adaptation research and practice is still in its infancy, but it is rapidly gaining traction because current levels of greenhouse gases have already caused irreversible changes to the climate system. Given the scale and magnitude of impacts from present and future climate change, external planned adaptation assistance at the community level is not just necessary, but essential across the Pacific, and this should indeed increase.
However, simply funding efforts to undertake community-based adaptation is not enough; these initiatives need to be carefully monitored and rigorously evaluated. At stake is the ability of people to continue living the lives they want to, in the places they want to. Assessing and understanding the appropriateness, effectiveness, equity, impact and sustainability of these community-based adaptation projects and activities is crucial for the Pacific Islands so that efforts can be prioritised by donors, recipient governments, non-governmental organisations and communities themselves.
Karen E McNamara is based at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland. James Watson is an Associate Professor Fellow at University of Queensland and Director of Science and Research Initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Image Credit:CC by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr