Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Multiple Actors: The Challenge of Building Adaptive Capacity to Climate Change in Sri Lanka

By Centre for Poverty Analysis[1]

Climate change is a global phenomenon that is predicted to disproportionately impact low and middle income nations who have less economic stability and greater levels of poverty. Poor communities within these societies who are least able to withstand external shocks will face the brunt of the impact. They will need support from the state and non-state actors to be better prepared, protected and enabled to recover from these shocks. This situation challenges developing countries to meet economic and social development agendas while reducing or minimizing the impact on the natural environment. It is challenging developing countries to adopt sustainable pathways to development that try to achieve a sustainable balance between human and environmental wellbeing. In Sri Lanka, efforts to put in place more sustainable practices and to address climate change are taking shape. Various interventions are advocated and are being tested from policy to practice, involving a range of stakeholders or “actors”. This essay examines how different levels of actors attempt to address climate change. It uses an actor-based approach to analyze what enables or impedes adaptation for different levels of actors and draws from a study carried out within the context of agriculture, fisheries, and tourism livelihoods in coastal areas of Sri Lanka.

Building adaptive capacity 

Development in a climate conscious way requires integration of environmental safeguards into development policy, programmes and more importantly, practice. This entails building “adaptive capacity” which means the ability of a country to offset the effects of climate change. The ease at which a country can do this depends on its capacity, the resources and institutions. While the uncertainties and technical aspect of earth sciences increases the level of difficulty to build adaptive capacity, getting buy in from a range of stakeholders to commit to and take action further heightens the complexity of the task. 

The stakeholders that have to be considered in this instance are vast and range from the government, non-government and private sector to community groups and individuals. Their interactions cascade through local, national and international dimensions as well as from policy to practice. Different stakeholders will also respond to same climate stimuli with different perspectives, depending on their capacities, experiences, social interactions, agendas and power dynamics. Hence the cooperation and commitment of many different actors at different levels determines how decisions and actions are taken to adapt to climate change.

This essay looks at four levels of actors - policy makers, sectoral/institutional actors, civil society and the community/individuals, who were identified in order to understand positive

[1]This paper is based on a study entitled: Exploratory study on adapting to climate change in coastal areas of Sri Lanka, by Shanila Athulathmudali, Amila Balasuriya and Karin Fernando, published by CEPA, working paper series No 18 (2011).

and negative drivers and pressures that influence their roles and positions towards building adaptive capacity.

Enablers and hurdles among levels of actors

The factors within each actor level that enable or hinder adaptive capacity are presented in two columns below:

At the policy level

Climate change is recognized as an important national issue and attempts have been made to set the frame conditions for sustainable development and institutional greening that is reflected in the establishment of the National Council for Sustainable  Development and it’s Action Plan (Haritha Lanka). Commitment to climate change can also be seen through the initiatives to set up  national policies and strategies specifically for climate change. The use and acceptance of consultative approaches to develop these policies can also be seen as an enabler that can influence sectoral/institutional policies.

Despite the favorable frame conditions set, adopting and applying the principles of these policies and strategies are not mandatory. The Ministry of Environment that oversees these policies cannot directly implement a large part of the interventions needed and can only promote and lobby for these changes amongst a large number of Ministries. This is further hindered with a lack of incentives and financial resources specifically for climate change adaptation that can be provided to encourage sectoral structures to undertake climate change related actions. 

At the Sectoral level

At the sectoral/institutional level some sectors (i.e., agriculture and fisheries) have incorporated the principles of sustainable development into their policy and strategy orientation. Some sectors also have research and extension services (i.e., agriculture and fisheries) that allow for sector-specific knowledge generation.  This has aided the absorption of specific environmental issues into the research agendas, hence there is some knowledge generation at this level. They also have a network of implementing agencies through which this information can be taken to the communities.

However, sectoral/institutional priorities (i.e., food security, productivity, income) override the incorporation or promotion of sustainable practice, and most of the knowledge generated and shared is geared to increasing productivity. Climate change adaptation is also hampered by limited technical knowledge of climate change, the uncertainty in the science, and the specificity of actions that impede generalised solutions that can be easily mainstreamed. Short planning cycles, structural and leadership changes, poor coordination among ministries also hinder long-term commitment needed to undertake climate-change adaptation.

At the Civil Society level

Civil society groups have the flexibility in scope and function to give priority to environmental issues and incorporate this element into their programmes. They are also helped by access to funds and technology that aid adaptation and can give specific training, education, awareness to implementers. The greatest asset this group of actors has is their ability to work across different levels from policy to practice and provide a good feedback/knowledge transfer mechanism.

Hurdles in this category of actors is that organizations working specifically on sustainability issues are few and geographically scattered, hence they are not adequate to generate a critical mass that can enable scaling up climate change adaptation. The civil society lobby is also perceived as a negative force that opposes certain government policies, which limits their ability to influence change. Short-term project cycles also mean that these interventions are time-bound and may not sustain over time.

At the community/individual level

At the level of practice where communities and individuals try to adapt to climate change, it is economic benefits that are driving it. Sustainable activities also seem to happen more on a supplementary level (i.e., growing saline resistant crops in degraded land or dolphin tour boats) benefiting from niche markets and premium prices. However prevailing environmental conditions such as droughts or depleted resources are leading to communities looking for options. Access to external support such as funding, knowledge, etc., is also a clear enabler that has led to to adoption of sustainable practices.

Barriers to adaptation on this level have been the economic risk burden that would have to be faced, and the inability of poor people to take this risk. Technical knowledge and access to information on climate change and adaptation measures is also a hurdle. Additionally, the lack of institutional support to endorse or encourage sustainable practices (as many are still pushing the conventional/economic growth agendas) is preventing an impetus to change.

Way forward for building adaptive capacity
Given the cross cutting nature of climate change and the need to integrate environment into a range of sectors, building adaptive capacity needs to consider how the various actors involved will act or react to the proposed initiatives. It is important to understand and unravel the context (macro and micro), vested interests, competing agendas, capacities and resources that exist amongst the actors. This involves looking at how the agendas of the different actors interact and counteract with regard to climate change adaptation and the need to capitalize on the existing enablers while taking action to address and minimize the hurdles. For example:
  • What is in the policy and what is practical: where sustainable development may be advocated in the policy but interventions and financial resources may not be part of the implementing plan, or a more specific mismatch where organic fertilizer is advocated by the policy but in practice farmers are not able to find/make the quantities of organic fertilizer. 
  • Balancing the various needs at different levels and stakeholder groups – the sectoral/institutional mandates, the livelihood needs at the community level and the ecosystem requirements.
Due to the specificity of adaptation to the product, location and climate threat a more decentralised approach may be more appropriate. This may also help to localize the activity and hence create more practical links amongst the actors. Furthermore, adaptation at every level needs to be supported through funding, knowledge technology, capacity and experimentation to come up with specific problem solvers in order to have options for the future. Forums where information on the success and failures of these experiments can be shared, disseminated and exchanged are also necessary.  Another important aspect that has to be taken into account is the time component that adaptation involves. It is a gradual process that has to work down through the levels of policy makers, and across through the stakeholders to get individuals on board and build resilience to climate change impacts through trial, error and research according to the specific climate threats and context. Understanding the interactions among the many stakeholders through the chain of policy to practices and vice versa should be a key part of the process of building adaptive capacity.

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