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FEATURE: Postcard from Kuala Lumpur – Building resilience in a changing climate

Last week, development workers, policy-makers and researchers from across Asia met in Kuala Lumpur to explore how their communities and societies are building resilience to climate-induced change.

Three days of rich debate at the CDKN-sponsored conference shone a spotlight on inspiring case studies from the region, as well as factors that undermine livelihood resilience: such as environmental degradation, lack of basic sanitation and health services, and social inequity. Participants came up with practical suggestions for how they could work across boundaries of geography, profession and language to create solutions.

The conference was organised by Wetlands International South Asia, Cordaid and Ekgaon, with the financial support of CDKN and IDRC. Its primary goal was to bring together experts and innovators from the fields of disaster risk reduction, sustainable livelihoods development and ecosystem conservation. These disciplines all contribute to the common challenge of ‘building livelihoods resilience,’ but don’t often speak to each other.

Social capital and innovation thrive at the grassroots

Strong themes emerging from the case studies were communities’ innovative spirit in the face of climate-induced disasters, and the importance of social ties for spreading coping strategies and longer-term adaptive behaviour.

Malik Amin Aslam, former Environment Minister of Pakistan, put it bluntly:

“When you talk of building livelihood resilience it’s not a matter of choice, it’s an imperative. People will be building resilience locally whether government helps them or not because it’s a matter of survival.”

Nguyen Van Kien of Australian National University described how farmers in Vietnam’s Mekong delta had switched from  growing rice to the relatively lucrative neptunia, and how they had harvested golden snails that proliferated in flooded fields, to feed and increase the productivity of their domestic ducks. Individual and community innovation here has run ahead of the policy-making curve, with local government later finding ways to support such adaptive measures.

In a case study from Indonesia, Ananda Lakshmi of Bandung Institute of Technology described numerous efforts by the government to increase the resilience of coastal communities to sea level rise, storm surges and changing fish distribution. The most successful measures were government provision of aquaculture equipment and training, less successful were endowments of large, long-range boats—provided without community consultation—which were left to rust.

‘Keeping up with a running train’

Participants described the many ways that climate impacts are already affecting human wellbeing and development potential: from sea level rise along coastlines to drought in grassland areas and unpredictable rainfall and flood events in mountain valleys.

They agreed that climate change and its impacts on the natural and human world are now biting so deep that ‘resilience’ doesn’t mean ‘bouncing back’ from extreme climatic events to the way things were before. The reality is that the baseline is always changing; building resilience is about ‘being able to keep up with a running train.’

Building resilience: what does it take?

Participants identified the following essential ingredients for building livelihoods resilience in the face of climate change:

  • Enhance livelihoods across the board and address the needs of marginalised groups such as poor women, the elderly, ethnic minorities and lower castes in particular. Good people-centred development will promote resilience.
  • Make the most of local knowledge, and support local innovation; ensure that affected communities participate meaningfully in planning and implementation of strategies to build resilience and reduce disaster risk.
  • Include ‘hard’ measures such as infrastructure, as well as ‘soft’ measures such as institution-building and governance.
  • Bridge the divides between science, policy, and practice. Stakeholders from these respective areas should deliberate more together in the quest for solutions.
  • Assess the special requirements for building livelihoods resilience in urban areas, where the effects of climate impacts will be felt quite differently from rural areas.

Lindsey Jones, from Overseas Development Institute, contributed comparative thinking from ACCRA (Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance), a research initiative that looks “not only at what a system has that enables it to adapt, to also recognises what a system does to enable it to adapt” such as flexible decision-making.

A government perspective

A panel of former and current government ministers from South Asia reinforced these findings. Ashok Kundra, former Indian Environment Minister, said: “The [Indian] Ministry of Environment is backed up with a lot of scientific sources … at the policy level, policy formulation is well structured. At the micro level, particularly as regards to livelihood issues, it is not so good. Much greater research is required on how climate affects the grassroots.”

S M Munjurul Hannan Khan, Deputy Secretary in Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment and Forest said: “We are doing a lot of livelihood work but not necessarily addressing resilience. A lot is short term, how to address the immediate need of the people after a catastrophe, but not necessarily resilience.”

What’s next?

Work to understand what makes livelihoods resilient to climate change, and the role of informed policy processes in doing so, is just beginning. The ‘Building Resilience in a Changing Climate’ conference was a catalyst towards better knowledge-sharing  among communities of policy and practice.

A conference declaration will be available shortly. Please visit the Building Resilience 2011 conference website where you will find abstracts from the conference and follow up discussion forums. Articles based on presentations at the conference will be published later this year.

Image courtesy Oxfam International.

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