What does real resilience to climate extremes look like? It might come down to three things: the ability to adapt to changes, anticipate what might happen next and absorb shocks when they do come along, World Economic Forum understands.
That’s the argument of a new paper by researchers working under the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) initiative, a UK government-funded effort to help people cope with climate pressures in some of the most fragile and vulnerable parts of the world, from South Sudan to Nepal.
Efforts to build resilience to climate impacts – from more frequent droughts and stronger storms, to creeping sea-level rise and failed harvests – aim to ensure families, communities and governments can manage and bounce back from them, the report says.
Right now that’s a daunting task in many parts of the world, and the results of failures are easy to see: more hunger and poverty, more flooded homes, families migrating to survive, girls forced into early marriage as their families struggle to make ends meet.
What could help reverse that? Making sure communities and countries work to adapt to changing conditions, anticipate shocks and build up capacity to recover, says Katie Peters, one of the report authors and a researcher with the Overseas Development Institute in London.
Japan, for instance, has just been struck by its worst flooding in more than half a century. But the deluge came not long after leaders invested heavily in efforts to reduce disaster losses following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people.
How well did it work? Torrential rains and flooding this time around destroyed homes, killed seven people and left about two dozen missing. But news footage showed well-equipped and well-prepared emergency services saving many other people, plucking them from the roofs of flooded homes and cars.
“The recent floods in the wake of Typhoon Etau in Japan show that investing in the capacity to be ready to respond to a disaster – what we might call absorptive capacity – pays off,” Peters said.
Similar efforts need to be started, continued or stepped up in many places around the world as the climate becomes more extreme, she said.
“To prevent future loss of lives and livelihoods, continuing to invest in risk reduction – as Japan does so well – is important to build the ‘adaptive capacity’ of individuals and societies to reduce the impact of future hazards,” she said.
Efforts to build that capacity, even in some of the world’s poorest or most fragile countries, are underway as part of the BRACED programme, the report noted.
In South Sudan, anti-poverty charity Concern Worldwide is helping farmers adopt flood-resistant crop varieties, to reduce losses. In Uganda Mercy Corps, an international development organisation, is trying to ensure farmers build more diverse sources of income, so if crops fail they have something else to fall back on.
In the Sahel, Acting for Life, a development agency, is working to create safe corridors for the movement of pastoralists and their livestock across national borders, while looking at how much control women have of animals and how that changes in times of drought or floods.
Such efforts amount to “good development”, according to the report – changes that “aim to improve wellbeing regardless of whether climatic events” affect those farmers in the next few years.
Communities also are working to anticipate shocks better in many parts of the world, through things like early warning systems and more accurate forecasts, created for districts rather than just states or regions, and passed on to farmers through simple technology, such as mobile phones.
Sometimes just making people more aware of the growing risk of shocks – and that something can be done to prepare – is a key step, the report suggested.
In Burkina Faso, development charity Christian Aid is checking how strongly people agree with statements such as: “Droughts are an act of God, there is nothing we can do about this.” The group aims to measure how that evolves as communities are educated about climate risks, the report said.
When shocks do come, plenty of things can help communities survive and manage: savings accounts, remittances, insurance that pays out based on weather triggers, and government welfare safety nets, among others, the report said. All aim to prevent people falling into a worsening spiral of poverty when they are forced to sell livestock or land, or take children out of school to survive.
So what can bring about the kind of change needed to build genuine resilience? And what makes that stick?
Finding leaders who can influence thinking and turn ideas into action, the report said. Making sure women, minorities and others whose important voices may have been ignored become part of decision making. Lobbying governments for change. Not being afraid to walk away from something that doesn’t work. And ensuring that small advances can be scaled up and last, it said.
“Creating a sustainable way to address… challenges requires a new focus on what can be done before a situation gets to the point of crisis,” Peters said.