Tag Archives: Adaptation

When PowerPoint culture clashes with indigenous culture

Experts shape discussions and actions of adaptation. For two reasons the process must be questioned: Do the experts fully understanding the social context and the real needs of the local population? Is it democratic that these experts set the agenda rather than the administration of states? This essay shows alternatives for a new ethics in adaptation management.

Who sets the agenda of adaptation?

National Adaption Programs of Action (NAPA) were developed to mainstream climate adaptation in national policy to avoid ‘one size fits all’ solutions. Multidisciplinary technical teams examined the priorities for adaptation to climate change of each country. Many bureaucratic input is necessary to access international funds. The procedures for acquiring budgets are sometimes Kafkaesque. Due to the limited administration staff on Pacific Islands, small island states need expensive external consultants for project proposals (Traufetter 2012). International experts tend to privileges managerial and bureaucratic responses or capital intensive technical and engineering solutions which have a primacy in developed countries. Civil society and grassroot movements were not sufficiently integrated in the development of NAPA plans.

 Community opposition to projects

The inclusion of civil society in the policymaking process is particularly important for Pacific Islands, because rural areas of the region are still shaped by tribal governance structures, strong chief authorities and customary rights over land. Central government structures have limited influence on communities, so that adaptation projects can be compromised by land-use conflicts and strong community opposition. Technical concepts of conservation management where protected areas are set aside for any management, can obstruct subsistence livelihood options and can lead to opposition to projects. Gilman and Ellison (2007) described a case were a family removed planted mangroves, because they blocked the boat access from their house to the sea.

For a dialogue in cognitive justice

A technocratic approach make people to passive actors rather that active participants in the process of adaptation. Experts are often in a stronger position of power and knowledge as people in rural communities have often no formal education and limited knowledge about climate change. Especially for indigenous people expert language is a main obstacle to take part in a meaningful conversation between experts and citizens. The abstract language creates fears and paralyses the constructive engagement of people. But experts should not confuse these knowledge gaps with incompetence. Abstract science is important to understand climate change. But outsiders tend to overestimate their ability to understand a place in any depth. A complete picture can be only drawn by paying attention to the experience and observation of locals. People do not need someone taking decisions on their behalf but rather take actions in a self-determined way. Local indigenous population must be involved in the planning process. It is therefore a duty for project managers to better translated their plans in user friendly information and tools in order to enter in a respectful dialogue with local communities.

The value of traditional knowledge

According to the principles of ‘cognitive justice’ advocated by the social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, it must be ensured that traditional knowledge is not marginalized. People who live there day-to-day see with their own eyes the changing environment and are affected by the related problems directly. Indigenous people are highly aware of the rising sea level and have a strong knowledge about local ecology and adaptation strategies. During focus group interviews community members mentioned mangrove planting as coping strategy against storm surge and sea level rise (Grantham et al., 2011).Information about the environment and traditional skills how to cope with natural disruptions passed down the family line over generations. And can serve as source for historical climate observations as well as a guideline for an appropriate local adaptation strategy and a sustainable use of natural resources. (Crate et al., 2009)

 A participatory decision-making process for adaptation

Community-based communication tools were developed to create a space for a citizens-expert dialogue and to involved indigenous groups actively in adaptation management. The WWF South Pacific Programme Office (WWF-SPPO) implements the approach in the South Pacific Region:

In cooperation with local stakeholders local data are assessed at sites. Low technology assessments are privileged to collect data so that community members can be better engaged in the assessment process (Ellison et al., 2012). The dialogue of stakeholders is enhanced in citizen’s workshops. The general framework of climate change is a starting point for discussions. Science, agreements and policy drafts are made accessible to the communities by translating them from legal language to everyday language. Local trained facilitator help to explain texts. Educational toolkits in local language with videos, flipcharts, radio features, posters, drama and street plays aim to make complex climate change science accessible to people with no formal education. (Khan et al., 2012, Gombos et al., 2010). Discussions are informal to overcome communication barriers between local indigenous people and project managers (Grantham et al., 2011).

Villagers commit in a self-determined way for adaptation goals. Action plans for climate change adaptation are developed on community level. Since decisions are taken by the community, they are socially acceptable. Though not legally binding, decisions entail compliance by social control. The local community is responsible for the implementation of the plan. Village committees for guiding conservation actions are selected (Ellison, 2007). People are trained in workshops in conservation skills (Saalem Khan et al., 2012; Techera, 2010) Indigenous people got empowered to cope with the new threats on their own.

Case of best practice: Locally Managed Marine Areas Network (LMMA)

The community based approach is practiced in Locally Managed Marine Areas Network (LMMA) on Fiji Islands. Launched in 1997, the LMMA developed a decentralized village-based network of communities working on marine conservation projects. In Fiji over 250 marine protected areas and 25% of Fiji’s coastline are protected by this governance regime (UNDP, 2012). In 2002 the project was rewarded as case of best practice with the ‘Equator Initiative Award’ of the United Nations Development Programme (Techera, 2010). The LLMA Network expanded as success story to several countries of the region (Figure 1) (UNDP, 2012). The conservation areas under traditional community law seems to be better protected than government-owned land. Ellison (2009) described that governmental mangrove forests on Fiji were sold for commercial activities, whereas mangrove forests under traditional law could have been kept aside for any management by taboos. Adaptation concepts can make use of this strong stewardship ethic for nature.

© 2015 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 

LMMA Network

Figure 1: Number of sites in the LMMA Network (Fiji, Indonesia, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Solomon Islands), 2000-2010 (Source: UNDP, 2012, p. 13)



Mangrove restoration – The new marvel against coastal erosion?

Coastal erosion is the herald of sea level rise. Mangrove restoration is promoted as ideal response to this problem: It’s cheap, does not harm the environment and mangroves are even natural land-builders. But can mangrove ecosystems grow in tandem with the sea? Opportunities and limits of this adaptation strategy are tracked for the South Pacific island region against the background of climate change.

Coastal erosion – The herald of sea level rise

South Pacific islands are exposed to a high erosion risk by sea-level rise; 16% of land area of South Pacific islands is in low elevation coastal areas (<10 m). Currently, 70% of the coast of South Pacific islands are erosive (Nurse et al., 2013).). Many Pacific islands have small land mass, so that people have limited space to migrate landwards (Gilman et al., 2006). 50% of the population live in coastal areas (Russell, 2009). Adaptation strategies against coastal erosion are hence vital for this region.

Paradigm shift in coastal engineering

Artificial coastal engineering methods like seawall got a bad reputation because they are expensive and have detrimental erosive effects on adjacent ecosystems (Cheong et al., 2013, Nunn, 2013). This lead to a paradigm shift in coastal engineering (Cheong et al., 2013; Duarte et al., 2013). In the last years, mangrove restoration is promoted as cheap ecosystem-based alternative: Gilman and Ellison (2007) calculated that a 12 months restoration project cost them only USD $2,150. Mangrove restoration therefore a tempting adaptation strategy for developing countries with limited financial resources.

 How do mangroves protect against the ocean?

As intertidal habitat mangrove ecosystems are a natural buffer zone between land and sea. Mangrove ecosystems reduce the wave energy by 50% and stabilize shorelines with their roots (Alongi, 2008, Lewis, 2005). This protects against abrupt shoreline erosion after storm or tsunami events (Ellison et al., 2012). As mangroves are highly tolerant to fluctuating conditions, they colonize rapidly gaps after storm events (Alongi, 2008). Mangroves are also land builders: During tidal inundation and after storms and heavy rainfalls, substrates from adjacent coral reefs and rivers are carried to mangrove forests (Gilman et al., 2007). Mangrove roots slow the water movement so that fine clay and silt particles settle down the water column (Alongi, 2008).The accretion increases the local surface elevation. The short and mid time benefits of mangroves are uncontested. Optimistic scientists expect that mangroves allow islands to in rise ‘in tandem with the sea’ (Pala, 2014, p. 496).

 Mangrove ecosystems under pressure

South Pacific mangrove forests occupy an area of 5,975 km2 with large areas in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia (Ellison, 2009). But they are under pressure. Overpopulation on capital islands lead to a rapid deforestation and pollution of mangrove ecosystems (Donato et al., 2012). Streets cut mangrove forests from freshwater input. Dredged sediments reduce the substrate source for mangroves (Allen et al., 2001). Moreover, artificial coastal control systems like seawalls reduced the longshore sediment transport so that coastal zones turned to deepwater habitat (Gilman et al., 2006). When mangroves did not recover naturally, the ecosystems need to be restored.

 The success story of mangrove restoration

A success story of marine conservation is the Locally Managed Marine Area Network (LLMA) on Fiji Islands. Launched in 1997, the LMMA developed a decentralized village-based structure with over 250 marine protected areas. 25% of Fiji’s coastline are protected by this governance regime (UNDP, 2012). The project success relies on a good cooperation with local communities. Protected areas have an open-access regime with flexible rules for subsistence. Locals are involved in decision-making and in the conservation work. The project benefits also from the strong stewardship for nature of indigenous groups: Often LLMA areas are better protected than government-owned reserves. In 2002, the LLMA project was rewarded as case of best practice with the ‘Equator Initiative Award’ of the United Nations Development Programme (Techera, 2010).

 Vulnerability of South Pacific mangroves to sea level rise

The natural pressure on mangrove ecosystems is growing with climate change. On long-term, mangrove sedimentation rates must exceed the rate of relative sea-level rise to hold pace with relative sea level rise. The sedimentation rate is defined as balance of net erosion relative to accretion rates (Gilman et al., 2007). When sea level rise is faster than the sedimentation rate, the seawards margins of mangrove forests continue to erode and retreat landwards (Figure 1).

 mangrove graph

Figure 1: Sea level rise relative to mangrove surface (Source: Gilman et al., 2006, p. 10) 

Two factors make mangrove ecosystems of Pacific Islands vulnerable to sea-level rise: First, many have no significant sediment input from rivers or continental longshore drift (Alongi, 2008). Sedimentation relies on the supply of organic detritus and material from coral reefs (Gilman et al., 2006, Ellison et al., 2012, Alongi, 2008). Second, most Pacific islands have shallow slopes with tidal range of less than 1 m. Mangrove forests in Fiji, Marshall Islands, Federal State of Micronesia, Tonga and Tuvalu have today negative sediment budget balance. They experience a loss of land area. Only forests on Samoa and Solomon Islands have sediment budget balances over the projected sea level rise. 

Mangroves’ response to climate change

Yet, it is uncertain how mangroves respond to altered climate conditions: On one hand, the plant productivity and thus the accumulation of organic material can increase with higher atmospheric CO2 levels and precipitation levels (Ellison and Fiu, 2010; Gilman et al., 2006). One the other hand, rising water temperatures can lead to temperature stress for mangroves which support only water temperatures up to 24°C (Ellison and Fiu, 2010). Either, waves deposit more organic material from adjacent ecosystems or degrading coral reefs cut mangroves from sediment supply (Gilman et al., 2006; Ellison and Fiu, 2010).

Strong regional variance of sea level rise

The Pacific Island region shows a strong regional variance of relative sea level rise: First, the Pacific Island region is characterized by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). This natural ocean cycle causes a regional variability of sea level in the order of ± 20-30 cm (Nurse et al., 2013). Second, the region is shaped by strong tectonic plate movements: The Pacific plate subducts beneath the Australian plate to the east of Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu and north of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (Ellison, 2009). Subsiding areas at the east of this margin experience a higher rate of relative sea-live rise than stable areas or uplifting regions (Ellison and Fiu, 2010). Due to the high regional variance, the appropriateness of mangrove restoration as adaptation strategy is very site dependant.

Climate smart restoration

Climate smart restoration must therefore select restoration sites carefully to gain long term success. Unfortunately, fieldwork is often rather an uncoordinated quick fix approach. Seedlings are planted like in gardens in the hope that it works against erosion. Stressors which inhibit the natural regeneration of mangroves are not removed. (Nunn, 2013). The selection of ‘climate smart species’ (Ellison et al., 2012, p. X) is also crucial for project success: Plants of the genus Rhizophora are more tolerant to the salinity of ocean water (Ellison, 2007a). This makes them on long term more resilient to sea-level rise. After several years, it must be monitored, if young trees are able to gain full habitat functions.

Adaptation in a situation of uncertainty

It is difficult to prognosis if mangroves of the South Pacific Island region can hold pace with sea level rise. Mangroves cannot reverse long-term erosion trends – especially not when worst case emission scenarios become true. But mangrove restoration is at least a low-cost mid-term adaptation strategy which gives time to retreat in a situation of uncertainty. The limits of this adaptation approach must be well communicated to local population to prevent maladaptation and a false sense of security.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 


Water shortage in paradise

Surrounded by sparkling blue sea, many Pacific Islands facing the risk that freshwater scarcity could turn their islands uninhabitable. Tuvalu declared in 2011 the state of emergency due to water scarcity. During six month it did not rain on the remote atolls. Approximately 1,500 people of the 11,000 inhabitants run out of fresh water (BBC, 2011; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2011).

Why is there water scarcity on Pacific Islands?

One reason for the water crisis is climate change. Nations like Tuvalu are tiny atoll islands with thin freshwater lenses and no rivers or lakes. The warming trend lead to higher evaporation rates, so that more precipitation is required to replenish the freshwater lens. By sea level rise, more seawater pushes against the freshwater lens of atolls, so that groundwater gets too salty to drink.

Since groundwater is not potable, rainfall collected by roof catchments is often the primary source of freshwater. This makes people very vulnerable to droughts. The region is characterized by dry and wet seasons and strong variation of precipitation patterns due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Every two to six years La Niña periods with drought conditions occur. With climate change, ENSO events become more intense with longer periods of drought. But during the drought crisis of Tuvalu in 2011, precipitation pattern lay in the range of normal variations (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011). Why was Tuvalu not any more able to meet the citizen’s needs for water?

 Other driving forces for water stress

The driving force for water scarcity is not only the lack of resources, it is also a question of an increased water demand. In the last years the domestic use of water grew with new lifestyles, cars, washing machines, and imported food. Households got equipped with flush toilets which increased the water demand increased by 25-40 % (GEF Pacific IMRW, 2012).

Problems were exacerbated by a high population density. With 333.3 people per km2 Tuvalu has today one of the highest population density in the world (FAO, 2012). The rapid population growth lead to a fast urbanization with quickly constructed insufficient water infrastructure. Rain tanks are often leaking. The growing number of family members compromises the water security in drought periods, because water tanks were constructed to cater a smaller number of family members. Many people have no paid work, so that they cannot afford to buy new water tanks. For households without income, even low fees for water from public cistern can be too much.

Poor families use the salty groundwater as emergency water source in periods of drought. But today, groundwater is often contaminated by heavy metals from waste dumps and by facial bacteria from leaking septic tanks. Health authorities on Tuvalu strongly recommend not to drink well water. But in drought periods poor people and islanders far from public cisterns have no choice. Therefore, waterborne and water-related diseases like diarrhoea and cholera, are likely to occur.

How to cope with the problem of water scarcity?

Disaster risk reduction measures are cheaper than emergency relief. The increase of water storage capacities and sustainable use of local water resources has a high priority for Pacific island nations. Water catchments get improved, communities get equipped with desalination units and dry composting toilets are installed. Educational videos like “Falevatia: A toilet for our future.” highlights the benefits of this low tech solutions:


Public awareness campaigns seek to improve knowledge about water resource management. Since national TV channels do not exist, the radio is the best way to reach people on remote islands. Weather forecasts get improved because in situations of drought they give time for emergency adaption.

Water scarcity could also compromise the food security of islands. Pulaka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) is the main staple of the traditional diet of Pacific islanders. It has a low capacity to tolerate saltwater. Crops die due to saline water contamination, so that the cultivation of salt resistant crops is now promoted.

Outlook to the future: Is it too late for domestic adaption?

Regional governments are aware of the limits of adaption. A growing population compete over the allocation of water resources. It is not sure, if islands can cope to with less stable precipitation patterns in the future. The IPCC stated in the Forth Assessment Report that it is very likely that low-lying island states are getting entirely uninhabitable long before their full submersion due to the lack of water (Mimura et al., 2007). Some settlements had to be already relocated due to the lack of water.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.