Protecting the Vulnerable in a Changing Climate: Lessons from the South

There is no longer any doubt that the Earth’s climate is changing. While industrialized nations debate action to stem greenhouse gas emissions, an urgent reality still gets too little attention. Billions of the world’s poorest people are already living on the edge, and will need help adapting to climate change.

Developing countries are most threatened by climate change impacts because they have fewer social, technological, and financial resources to adapt, says IDRC's Simon Carter.

By Simon Carter

For many of us in Eastern Canada, 2009 may well seem like the year summer forgot; yet the 10 hottest years on record globally have all occurred since 1997. Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice coverage in July 2009 was the third lowest in the satellite record, beaten only by 2006 and 2007.

For Canadians, there are both moral and practical reasons to consider the global consequences of climate change, and do what we can to support adaptation by the poor. In 2008–2009, Canada’s aid budget was approximately CAD 4.8 billion. Climate change threatens to undermine these investments, while increasing future demands on our development assistance.

Exactly how people and ecosystems will be affected by climate change remains uncertain, but the United Nations Development Programme and other credible organizations fear that millions more could face shortages of water and food, as well as greater risks to health and life. Potential serious effects include lower crop yields and thus a greater incidence of hunger, and the spread of climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria. Sea level rise could inundate coasts worldwide, threatening some of the poorest cities on earth.

Developing countries are the most threatened by climate change impacts because they have fewer social, technological, and financial resources to adapt. Preparing vulnerable populations for these changes and increasing their capacity to cope is critical. Valuable lessons can be drawn from research supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on how communities can deal with climate variability and change in some of the world’s most stressed environments.

From the efforts of research teams in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we know that adaptation strategies are best developed locally, in tune with the needs of specific communities.

The potential costs of adaptation are difficult to pinpoint, but are estimated to be far greater than available resources. Few developing countries will be able to afford elaborate engineering responses such as “hard” coastal defences against sea-level rise. But they might, as recent research in Morocco suggests, benefit from lower-cost “soft” approaches, such as protecting coastal wetlands that form natural buffer zones, and reviewing coastal zone development plans.

Farmers will also benefit from better access to reliable forecasts and advice. Research teams in Benin, Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania are experimenting with ways to help rural populations access climate information through the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa program. Findings to date from this joint initiative of IDRC and the UK Department for International Development confirm that rural people need forecasts and advisories in languages and forms they understand, and from sources they trust. With better forecasts, they can make better choices about what and when to plant.

In the Middle East and North Africa, already among the world’s most arid regions, researchers have found ways to increase the availability and quality of water by managing demand and changing attitudes about water use. The Water Demand Management Initiative—a collaborative project funded by IDRC, the Canadian International Development Agency, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development—has supported innovative ways to reuse household grey water, saline groundwater, and effluent wastewater for irrigating crops.

In flood- and drought-prone areas of India, Nepal, and Pakistan, scientists working with communities have found that the benefits of managing disaster risks—through insurance coverage and early warning measures, for example—almost always outweigh the costs. They conclude that such people-centred approaches can be more cost-effective in reducing vulnerability than large-scale investments in infrastructure that try to eliminate risk altogether.

Poor nations may feel the effects of climate change most acutely in the short term, but we are far from immune. With our globalized economy and diverse population, Canada’s well-being is intimately linked to the fate of others. There are many good reasons to support efforts in developing countries to better understand and plan for the impacts of climate change. They provide lessons for Canadian planners and policy-makers that will help us prepare for the challenges we face, while protecting our neighbours, our trading partners, and our investments in global development.

Simon Carter manages the Rural Poverty and Environment, and Climate Change Adaptation in Africa programs at IDRC.

Published: 23 Nov 2009

Contact details:

Head Office
Mailing address PO Box 8500, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3H9

208 Jor Bagh, New Delhi 110003, India
Phone: (+91-11) 2461-9411

Latin America and the Caribbean:
Juncal 1385, Piso 14
11000 Montevideo, Uruguay
Phone: (+598) 2915-0492

Middle East and North Africa 
Zahran Gate Complex Suite 302,
25 Ismael Haqqi Abdo Street,
Amman, Jordan

Sub-Saharan Africa
PO Box 62084 00200, Nairobi, Kenya

Street address: Eaton Place, 3rd floor
United Nations Crescent, Gigiri, Nairobi, Kenya
Phone: (+254) 709-074000

+1 613 236 6163
News topics: 
Content type: 
Websites: Link to article Link to the Rural Poverty and Environment Program Link to the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa Program