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Adaptation aims to make people and societies less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. By doing so, adaptation can decrease climate-related security risks, which stem from vulnerability. It can also contribute to building and sustaining peace. Typically, adaptation has taken a back seat to mitigation in terms of climate action, but as the effects of climate change intensify, the need for adaptation has become increasingly urgent.
Adaptation will feature prominently at the upcoming climate summit, COP27, in Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh. Among other things, Egypt will launch an initiative called Climate Responses for Sustaining Peace. One of the pillars of this initiative is to strengthen the links between climate adaptation and peacebuilding. This is a welcome development. But for such initiatives to succeed, to unleash the potential synergies between climate adaptation and building and sustaining peace, the social dimensions of adaptation need to be given just as much attention as the technological dimensions.
Discussions about adaptation are often focused on technological fixes, for example adopting more drought-tolerant crop varieties, building irrigation infrastructure and flood barriers, or setting up early-warning systems for extreme weather.
Such technological interventions can certainly have positive effects that reduce conflict risk in vulnerable communities. For example, in the village of Sonahaphanta, Nepal, disputes arose when farmers stole water from one another to irrigate their crops after rainfall became increasingly unpredictable. New boreholes and water pumps for irrigation, along with capacity building on water management, greatly reduced the number of disputes and improved the community’s social cohesion.
In southern Egypt, a climate adaptation project implemented by the World Food Programme aimed to increase the resilience of agricultural communities by substituting the crops that farmers grew with more heat-tolerant varieties, among other measures. As well as improving food security, this generated additional benefits that reduced vulnerabilities and thus climate-related security risks. For example, the resulting higher incomes allowed households to spend more on education, which can make people more resilient and better able to adapt to a changing climate. The project also encouraged farmers to collaborate, which mitigated existing tensions over irrigation water.
The social side of adaptation
For all the potential benefits that technological interventions can bring, adaptation is still essentially a social process. Whether technological interventions succeed in boosting resilience and peace depends on social factors: are the technologies accepted and valued? Are they perceived as benefiting everyone or as deepening existing injustices? Do they take into account the local context and local knowledge? Do local people take ownership and spread such interventions through their networks?
Social processes that facilitate cooperation, as well as shared customs and rules to govern resource sharing and community dialogue, can decrease the likelihood of communal violence and build peace. In a project in Chad, for example, a combination of advanced technology and local customs reduced tensions between communities over land and river boundaries. Using high-resolution satellite imagery, village leaders from Mayo-Kebbi Est engaged in participatory mapping to locate rivers, cattle corridors, and water points. Using the co-generated map as a basis, they then agreed on ways to use natural resources more sustainably, based on existing local rules, in turn decreasing conflicts.
Good social relations and networks can also improve the uptake of new climate adaptation technologies and initiatives. In the Oromia region of Ethiopia, for example, a study found that farmers were more likely to implement climate adaptation strategies when they had good relationships with the farmers’ training centre and local government. Similarly, in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China, farming households that had a strong relationship with government representatives were found to be more likely to implement government-led climate adaptation strategies than those that did not.
The importance of the social side of adaptation in reducing climate-related security risks and building peace is increasingly recognized by the policy community. The National Adaptation Plans for Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan and Togo all emphasize that adaptation can decrease conflict over natural resources by encouraging groups to cooperate over their management.
Making adaptation a climate response for peace
Adaptation should reduce people’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change without increasing that of others, which in turn can reduce the potential for conflict. However, there are no one-size-fits-all models. Technological interventions need to respond to local demand and local circumstances and to fit with local customs, knowledge and social relations. Mis-steps will not only fail to address climate resilience but could also exacerbate tensions that can lead to conflict and instability.
In designing and implementing adaptation strategies, it is essential that policymakers and practitioners consider the technological and social aspects of adaptation together, harnessing the potential benefits of both to reduce conflict risks and improve peacebuilding.
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