Adaptation projects key to fighting climate change

This op-ed was published on Nikkei Asian Review on 9 December 2015.

On a sunny day, Maavah, one of the islands of the Laamu Atoll in the Maldives, is a veritable paradise. Visitors are welcomed by white sandy beaches dotted with swaying palm trees and a modern harbor. The island’s top-notch facilities include a high school and a medical clinic.

But for the people of the island, such as Yusuf Shiham and his son Mohammed, this picture-perfect scene so popular with tourists is far from the reality of their lives. They do not resent tourists, but they must contend with problems that holidaymakers almost never witness.

 In recent years, inhabitants of the Maldives have been on the receiving end of nature’s wrath more times than they would like to count.

The Shihams’ home is flooded annually by storm surges and high tides. Seawater inundates their mango and coconut plantations time and again, hitting hard at their source of income.

With recurrent floods contaminating groundwater, and long dry spells creating drinking water shortages, the plight of these island communities could not be starker. The slightest fluctuation in ocean currents or an undersea earthquake thousands of kilometers away can cause tremendous damage in a matter of hours.

The science behind climate change might certainly be complex, but the impact it has on lives and livelihoods is straightforward.

Adapting to climate change

Simply put, besides changing the way people act and think about the environment, the most pressing need for communities at risk is funding. Money that will help them adapt to climate change and protect their homes, jobs and lives.

In the Maldives, rising sea levels and storm surges have salinated freshwater tables on several islands. But now, adaptation projects across these islands are helping communities harvest rainwater to make up for the loss of those freshwater tables.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme Adaptation Gap Report, developing countries, particularly those categorized as small island developing states, or SIDs, like the Maldives and various landlocked and mountainous nations, face serious challenges in terms of mobilizing resources for adapting to climate change.

The SIDs, for instance, have relatively small settlements, where — given concerns over economies of scale — private for-profit investments can be difficult to attract. These countries can spare very little of their own public resources to cater to the adaptation needs of communities spread across far-flung islands.

But financing for adaptation while seemingly simple, is an issue of contention in the global climate-change talks now taking place in Paris.

Despite international pledges made during previous conferences to raise over $100 billion annually for such efforts by 2020, the funding provided for adaptation initiatives in 2012-13 was only about $25 billion, 88% of which was spent outside the developed world.

UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report estimates that by 2050, the annual cost of adaptation for developing countries will have risen to between $250 billion and $500 billion, even with the necessary cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

New approach

If the world is to help countries such as SIDs combat climate change, we need a more multidimensional approach to financing adaptation.

This includes the ability of a country to mobilize domestic resources and leverage affordable private finance, to deal with its debt levels, its vulnerability to economic shocks, as well as natural disasters.

This is where the private sector, philanthropists and individuals could play a vital role. Last year, Americans donated up to $258 billion, according to Giving USA, a philanthropic annual report that monitors charitable donations.

This is more than double what adaptation currently costs — based on current projections of $100 billion annually. While it is true that needs are ever on the rise, fortunately, so too are contributions from individuals.

Indeed, the potential of crowd-funding platforms to finance adaptation projects that help communities build resilience to cope with climate change is immense.

In 2014, over $16 billion was raised through such platforms and that amount is likely to double this year, says Massolution, an online platform that tracks crowd-funding contributions annually.

Crowd-funding is particularly viable in the context of SIDs, where comparatively small investments — say, of around $50,000 or so — could help extend the reach of adaptation measures over entire communities and deliver big results.

In the case of the Maldives, any platform would have to be linked to the tourism industry, given that the country receives over a million visitors every year. Tourism accounts for nearly 30% of gross domestic product and over 60% of foreign exchange earnings for the Maldives.

The islands attract high-spending tourists. Hypothetically, if each tourist were to voluntarily contribute $20 that could add up to an annual collection of $20 million.

Integrated programs

Working with the government, the U.N. is already piloting an innovative approach in the Maldives that seeks to make awareness and sensitivity about climate-change issues an integral part of development and planning at the local level, thus bringing about a change in the way communities think and act on climate change. The goal is to integrate climate change and adaptation into government development plans and programs, at all levels including at the grassroots.

The first step under this program — Low Carbon Emission and Climate Resilient Development (LECReD) — involves promoting a low-carbon lifestyle while building communities that are resilient to the impact of climate change.

The objective is that this will lead to short-term, medium-term and long-term development planning for the islands and atolls based on the evidence from a project underway at Laamu Atoll. The project puts decision-making and implementation of adaptation measures and projects into the hands of residents and their local councils.

In addition, under this program, the U.N. will provide up to $50,000 to local councils, community-based organizations, and women’s development committees. But clearly, that is not enough money to sustain projects on waste and water management, energy, floods, soil erosion and conservation for communities, for the long term.

The LECReD program will help communities develop their own climate-sensitive plans for development, and explore the public and private finance options.

While our efforts to build partnerships with the private sector and individuals are still works in progress, it is evident that the private sector, philanthropists, as well as individuals are vital to funding, and can help communities adapt to risks from climate change.


Shoko Noda is U.N. Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives.

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