Good Adaptation Begins at Home …

Across Europe this month, heavy flooding has hit Italy, France and the UK.  While significant parts of Somerset, England are under water, hard questions have been asked about Britain’s ability to respond to crisis, and its ability to reduce the risk of such disasters in the future.

If we can ask these questions of our own countries during times of crisis, then we can expect that vulnerable citizens in affected countries across the world will do the same. That’s made it an interesting week to start a blog about climate change adaptation.

In the process, the questions being asked of the British government are the same as this blog wants to ask of adaptation policy at the international level.

  • Who will win and lose from decisions about the nature of adaptation measures, and how are these decisions made?
  • How much money are governments willing to put up to support real, lasting resilience to climatic changes (like increased flooding)
  • What are the implications of climatic changes on economies, particularly the most vulnerable?
  • What technologies are going to be developed or re-used to aid adaptation?
  • How is adaptation tied to development, and how should this influence decision-making?

This week gives us the opportunity to ask a different question – does Britain manage its own adaptation in the same way as it promotes it to developing countries? The question matters because Britain is a major contributor to climate finance, putting up USD1.5 billion between 2010-2012 To understand adaptation elsewhere, it’s worth taking time to understand whose funding it, and therefore having the say in how it’s controlled, spent and evaluated.

The UK has seen record rainfall for this time of year, and an increasing amount of the country is being declared as at risk of flooding in future. Indeed, the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment has told us to expect exactly this kind of weather threat long into the future.  And yet, news this week declared that climate change adaptation spending in the UK has halved in the last year.

The coverage on Sky News featured local residents, experts and government officials debating the possibilities of dredging rivers, re-zoning wetland, planting trees (afforestation) and community response measures. Curiously, the phrase “climate change adaptation” wasn’t mentioned once, by anyone, anywhere in the broadcast.


First off, let’s call these measures what they are. Whether it’s in England or Bangladesh, measures to reduce the damage and impact of extreme weather fall squarely under the category of climate change adaptation. Having got the semantics out the way, there is a useful comparison to be made between adapting farmers in the UK to adapting farmers in other parts of the world. UK small-holders were dealing with issues like:

  • Having to protect valuable livestock from water and flooding, moving them to higher ground
  • Use of all the Winters resources to manage the current emergency
  • The psychological impact of disaster on the local community
  • The short-term loss of mobility, access to basic resources (food, drinking water),
  • The lack of warning – the community had been told that similar flooding two years ago was a “one off”,
  • Contaminated flood waters – 60x the amount of bacteria than deemed safe by the WHO
  • Damaged farmland affecting productivity for the near future

None of these impacts are unique to Britain; you would be likely to find similar problems anywhere that is vulnerable to flash flooding, bursting river banks or coastal inundation.

What has been clearly demonstrated is the close link between vulnerability and adaptation to climatic changes and social, political and economic development. In Somerset, the existence of a rapidly responding, well equipped emergency service infrastructure (coordinated health, police and fire services), sturdy housing, and institutional emergency mechanisms (like the government’s COBRA), all helped to ensure the flooding was a disaster, not a tragedy. In terms of immediate recovery, widespread insurance will ensure that losses are mitigated to some extent, and it is likely that government backed services (including the military) will ensure that residents are able to function with at least a semblance of normality until the flood waters subside.

The process of deciding what measures will be put in place is currently the subject of heated debate. The voice of the local community is being loudly heard. Local farmers want the river dredged, and it would be very difficult for the government to ignore them. Civil society groups like RSPB and the Association of Drainage Authorities are arguing for a range of measures to ensure long-term resilience. There is a clear link between the voice of those affected, civil society, local government and national government’s choice of action. Part of this is down to well organised lobbying by community groups. One thing is clear, the solution taken will be a decision made with the input of a wide range of actors, with those affected likely to have a loud voice in the process.

Flooding Continues To Affect People's Lives On The Somerset Levels

It’s also worth noting that funding for these measures will come direct from government, via the Environment Agency. In partnership with local governments, changes will be funded and managed directly by government bodies.

But abroad, the UK contributes funding for adaptation programs that tells a very different story. Much of the UK’s funding for climate change goes through multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank. One example is the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR), an arm of World Bank Funding, to which the UK has put $519 million, almost 50% of the fund’s total budget. The PPCR aims to support transformational adaptation measures that put developing countries on a path to low carbon, climate resilient development.

The PPCR has received criticism in several of its 9 recipient countries for the lack of participation of NGO’s and civil society groups. The pattern of weak engagement with civil society groups is echoed again and again.  One report in Nepal showed that “the process of stakeholder consultation has been condemned as lacking transparency in the engagement process. The main criticism has centred on the lack of involvement of NGOs active at the community level on climate change, with very few of these organisations consulted” Another report on the same fund in Mozambique found that that there was “no sense among civil society organisations (CSOs) of having been engaged in the PPCR Phase 1 process. This was the case even among those interviewees whose organisations were listed in the PPCR documentation as having been consulted”. To some extent, this is the fault of the Nepalese and Mozambican governments, but it also comes down to the donors desire to roll out their projects as quickly as possible. 

When it comes to finance, the PPCR is limited to only providing 45% of its funding in grants. The rest must come in concessional loans to participant countries, all of which are poor developing countries. The double standard here is uncomfortable. In the UK, the government bites the bullet and has its own agency fix the problem with funds direct from its own coffers. Abroad, unavoidable adaptation is an investment opportunity . The maximum funding for adaptation can’t be obtained without a significant loan component from institutions of the World Bank Group.  The use of loans for adaptation measures in this way is the equivalent of someone breaking your leg before declaring that they are the only person qualified to fix you, and demanding that you borrow money from them so that you can walk again. It is exploitative and unfair.

A curious set of facts emerge out of all this, leading us usefully to the questions that encapsulate the purpose of this blog. At home, Britain’s own environment minister, Owen Paterson, is a known climate sceptic, with funding for adaptation and the environment agency facing significant cuts.

Owen Paterson, Photograph: Tim Ireland / PA

Owen Paterson, Photograph: Tim Ireland / PA

Even so, affected citizens are having their say, and their voice weighs heavily on the government’s decision making. Away, Britain is a major contributor to climate finance initiatives, emphasising loans over grants, private companies over public funding, and riding roughshod over the voice of the people who are supposed to benefit.

In this blog, we want to question the motivation for this confused behaviour. It’s all very well for developed countries to pledge billions toward adaptation, but we want to know who will really benefit, who in practice makes the decisions, and what will the implications be for the world’s poorest in the long run.