Transformational adaptation – when business as usual no longer works

This is the first in a series of blog posts about transformational adaptation by Garama’s Director, Nick Brooks. The series is inspired by a conference on transformational adaptation and agriculture in East and Southern Africa that Garama organised with the DFID-funded Vuna programme in South Africa in January 2017. It follows a discussion paper on this topic prepared for Vuna by Nick Brooks. Download the pdf of the paper here, and read a related Vuna blog article here. This article was first published on the main Garama website at http://www.garama.co.uk. 

1. A lesson from the past

Deep in the central Sahara, a crumbling mud-brick town sits at the edge of a dry lake bed. This is the medieval town of Germa, in southwestern Libya, one of a string of settlements along the Wadi al-Ajal, a valley defined by the towering dunes of the Ubari Sand Sea to the north, and the black cliffs of the Messak Settafet plateau to the south. Germa is romantic and impressive, but a more interesting settlement lies beneath it.

Under medieval Germa, the remains of large stone buildings represent the town of Garama (yes, we stole the name), the ancient capital of the Garamantian Tribal Confederation, a powerful political force in the central Sahara between about 500 BCE and 500 AD that challenged Roman hegemony in inland North Africa, before being incorporated into the periphery of the Roman empire (Mattingly et al. 2003).

Germa-casbah

The mud-brick walls of medieval Germa, built on the ruins of ancient Garama, the capital of the Garamantes, the central Sahara’s first indigenous civilisation. Photo by Nick Brooks.

The Garamantes, who made their capital here, are a fascinating study in adaptation to severe climatic and environmental change. Emerging from the cattle herding cultures of the central Sahara, the Garamantes developed urban centres supported by irrigated agriculture and trade, and controlled or influenced a vast area.

The first evidence of permanent settlement and farming in the Wadi al-Ajal dates to around 1000 BCE, and is from the vicinity of Germa. What is remarkable about this evidence, and the subsequent development of the Garamantian civilisation, is that it coincides with the final desiccation of this part of the Sahara, when rainfall in the adjacent upland areas effectively ceased and the remaining lakes (in the Wadi al-Ajal and the interdune depressions of the nearby sand seas) dried up.

As a result of decades of archaeological work by British and Italian teams (e.g.  di Lernia and Manzi 2002; Mattingly et al. 2003), we now have a very clear picture of how the Garamantian civilisation emerged through a long process of adaptation to increasing aridity, and ultimately the effective disappearance of surface water (this happened much later than in most of the rest of the Sahara, which prior to around 3000 BCE was mostly semi-arid savannah, due to the peculiar topography and geology of the Wadi al-Ajal and the adjacent areas). Unable to practice mobile cattle pastoralism in the lowland areas once certain thresholds of aridity were crossed, the inhabitants of this region moved first to transhumance and then to more sedentary cattle husbandry in oasis areas such as the Wadi al-Ajal, complemented by mobile sheep and goat herding in the adjacent highlands. When the surface water finally disappeared, rather than abandon the area or die out, the people who became the Garamantes chased the water underground, tapping the elevated water table under the plateau of the Messak Settafet using underground channels known as foggara, to irrigate the valley floor (Wilson 2006).

Mathandoush_25

Cattle engravings in Wadi Mathandoush, an ancient watercourse on the Messak Settafet, south of Germa. Photo by Nick Brooks. 

The above process took some three millennia, but it was neither smooth nor gradual. Palaeo-environmental and archaeological evidence point to multiple periods of rapid climatic and environmental change, coinciding with shifts in livelihood strategies, population distributions, and landscape use. The links between climatic and cultural change in this part of North Africa, and in the Sahara at large, are well established and uncontroversial (unlike in many other parts of the world, where suggestions that climatic and environmental change have shaped human societies are often treated with suspicion or hostility). The study of Saharan prehistory is an object lesson in how global climate change can result in profound changes in local environments and the availability and distribution of resources, which in turn precipitate step changes in how people make their livings and organise their societies.

2. From the Garamantes to the IPCC

The trajectory that led prehistoric Saharan pastoralists to develop the region’s first urban civilisation involves what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2014: 1758) refers to as ‘transformational adaptation’, or:

“Adaptation that changes the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects”

This is in contrast to “incremental adaptation” consisting of “actions where the central aim is to maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process at a given site.” Incremental adaptation generally involves the deployment of already familiar measures, perhaps to a greater extent or at a higher intensity than previously, in order to sustain existing systems or practices in the face of intensifying climate hazards, i.e. stresses and shocks such as drought, heavy rainfall or sea-level rise (Kates et al. 2012; Chung Tiam Fook 2015). Put simply, incremental adaptation is about protecting ‘business as usual’ in the face of climate change.

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Calcium carbonate crust in an interdune depression in the Ubari Sand Sea north of Germa, indicting the presence of a freshwater lake prior to the desiccation of the region some 3-5 millennia ago. Photo by Nick Brooks.

In contrast, transformational adaptation occurs when changes in climatic or environmental conditions are so severe, or occur so rapidly, that existing systems and practices cannot be sustained, and need to be replaced by alternatives or addressed through processes such as migration. In the prehistoric central Sahara, transformational adaptation involved first the adoption of mobile cattle pastoralism as the environment became more variable and unpredictable in the 5th millennium BCE, and then its abandonment as the region became hyper-arid after about 3000 BCE and people adopted more sedentary livelihoods or shifted to sheep and goats (di Lernia 2002). A further transformation occurred when the surface water disappeared and the population of the Wadi al-Ajal adopted intensive agriculture linked with the development of a more complex and urban organised society in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE (Mattingly et al. 2003; Drake et al. 2004).

3. Transformational adaptation in the 21st century

Most of today’s adaptation interventions involve incremental rather than transformational approaches (Chung Tiam Fook 2015). Indeed, many do not even go as far as incremental adaptation, instead addressing the so-called ‘adaptation deficit’, or the gap between current practice and what is sustainable under existing conditions (Burton and May 2004). A key question for adaptation in the 21st century is where, and when, the limits to incremental approaches might be encountered, meaning that transformational approaches will be necessary. This might occur as a result of the local manifestations of climate change being so severe and/or rapid that societies simply cannot adapt, or of relatively small changes meaning that systems or activities that are already marginal are no longer viable (Kates et al. 2012).

Our prehistoric Saharan analogue suggests one type of change that might require transformational adaptation, namely a transition to hyper-aridity. Such a transition might already be underway in the US Southwest, and is suggested – at least as a possibility – by climate projections for parts of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, and parts of southern Africa. According to the United Nations Statistics Division(1), Tunisia, Israel and Jordan already use 69.7%, 79.7% and 92.4% of their annual total renewable surface water resources every year, through runoff capture and abstraction from non-renewable aquifers. Projected changes in temperature and rainfall mean that total renewable surface water availability may decline below current usage in the latter half of the 21st century. Clearly, current water management regimes and agricultural systems would not work under such a scenario, and different economic and production models would be required in the event of such an eventuality. In southern Africa, climate projections indicate severe drying in the far southwest, while a 2005 study by Thomas et al. raises the possibility of a shift to hyper-aridity in the Greater Kalahari region, as fossil dunes that are currently stable become mobile due to changes in rainfall and wind regimes and the disappearance of vegetation. Such a transition would place the viability of existing agricultural and livestock systems in doubt, potentially requiring a shift to new activities and/or the abandonment of certain areas. Aridity is likely to intensify in many other parts of the world, including parts of southern Europe, Australia and Central Asia.

Increases in aridity will be driven as much by changes in temperature and evapotranspiration as by changes in rainfall. However, aridity is not the only impact of higher temperatures. A recent paper by Pal and Eltahir (2015) concluded that the combination of temperature and humidity in the region around the Arabian/Persian Gulf is likely to approach or exceed the limits of human survivability within the 21st century, making it physically impossible for people to live there in the hottest months.

The other obvious context in which transformational adaptation might be required is sea-level rise, which will increase disaster risk, potentially to the point at which the costs of defences or reconstruction become unfeasible, leading to the abandonment of coastal areas. Ultimately, sea-level rise will simply wipe out some coastal areas, as they disappear under rising waters. The intrusion of salt water into coastal aquifers due to sea-level rise and subsidence resulting from the abstraction of groundwater will lead to changes in coastal ecosystems and challenge coastal agriculture.

A combination of rising temperatures and declining rainfall may make certain crops unviable. A modelling study by Rippke et al. (2016) identified areas in which nine existing sub-Saharan Africa crops, under current management regimes, might become unviable due to climate change, starting in the 2020s for the most at-risk crops. This study suggested replacing existing crops with alternative crops as a ‘transformational adaptation’ measure that was feasible in most (but not all) contexts.

The above examples suggest the existence of thresholds of change beyond which existing systems and practices are existentially challenged. Climate vulnerability and risk assessments (VRAs) need to start considering what these thresholds might be, and where and when they might be breached. However, such thresholds are not fixed, and might be ‘pushed back’ by incremental adaptation measures, meaning that transformational adaptation can be delayed or avoided. Modelling studies might also be overly simplistic in their representations of what is viable and what is not, particularly when it comes to agriculture. For example, smallholders deploy a host of measures to produce crops in highly marginal environments that might be technically ‘unviable’ by the criteria used in modelling studies.

Transformational adaptation as defined above (i.e. abandoning or replacing existing systems on the grounds that they are not viable under climate change) is not a panacea, and should not be proposed as a universal solution. Nonetheless, it should be on the radar of planners and decision-makers, and should be explicitly considered in VRAs and the design of adaptation strategies. Climate projections suggest a warming of around 4°C by the end of the century, relative to the pre-industrial average. This warming is very similar in magnitude to the warming that occurred between the end of the last ice age, some 21,000 years ago, and the beginning of the current interglacial period around 10,000 years ago. But it is happening some hundred times faster. The world of the past 10,000 years has looked very different to that of the last glacial period. It is inconceivable that a similar warming, over a much (indeed, ridiculously) shorter period, will not reshape the face of the Earth in ways that we have only begun to comprehend. Transformational adaptation may not be needed everywhere, but in some places it will be absolutely essential to our survival.

Subsequent articles in this series will discuss, among other things, examples of transformational adaptation, the relationship between transformational adaptation and transformational change (e.g. in institutions and governance), the timescales associated with transformational adaptation.

(1) https://unstats.un.org/UNSD/MDG/SeriesDetail.aspx?srid=768

Notes

References

Burton, I. and May, E. 2004. The Adaptation Deficit in Water Resource Management. IDS Bulletin 35.3, Climate Change and Development.Chung Tiam Fook, T. 2015. Transformational processes for community-focused adaptation and social change: a synthesis. Climate and Development. DOI: 10.1080/17565529.2015.1086294.

di Lernia, S. 2002. Dry climatic events and cultural trajec- tories: Adjusting Middle Holocene pastoral economy of the Libyan Sahara. In F.A. Hassan (Ed.), Droughts, food and culture: Ecological change and food security in Afri- ca’s Later Prehistory (pp. 225–250). New York, NY: Kluwer.

di Lernia, S. and Manzi, G. (eds.) 2002. Sand, Stones and Bones: The Archaeology of Death in the Wadi Tannezzuft Valley (5000–2000 BP). Centro Interuniversitario di Ricerca per le Civilta` e l’Ambiente del Sahara Antico e Delle Zone Aride, Universita` Degli Studi di Roma and Department of Antiquities, Libya, pp. 281–302.

Drake, N., Wilson, A., Pelling, R., White, K., Mattingly, D., Black, S., 2004. Water table decline, springline desiccation, and the early development of irrigated agriculture in the Wadi al-Ajal, Libyan Fezzan. Libyan Studies 34, 95–112.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Barros, V.R., C.B. Field, D.J. Dokken, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L.White (eds.)]. Cambridge.

Kates, R. W., Travis, W. R. and Wilbanks, T. J. 2012. Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 7156-7161.

Mattingly, D.J., Reynolds, T., Dore, J. 2003. The Archaeology of Fazzan: vol. 1, Synthesis. Department of Antiquities, Tripoli and Society for Libyan Studies, London, pp. 327–373.

Pal., J. S. and Eltahir, E. A. B. 2015. Future temperature in southwest Asia projected to exceed a threshold for human adaptability. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2833

Rippke, U., Remirez-Villegas, J., Jarvis, A., Vermeulen, S. J., Parker, L., Mer, F., Diekkrüger, B., Challinor, A. and Howden, M. 2016. Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2947.

Thomas, D. S. G., Knight, M. and Wiggs, G. F. S. 2005. Remobilization of southern African desert dune systems by twenty-first century global warming. Nature 435: 1218-1221.

Wilson, A.I. 2006. The spread of foggara-based irrigation in the ancient Sahara. In Mattingly, D.J., McLaren, S., Savage, E., al-Fasatwi, Y. and Gadgood, K. (eds.), The Libyan Desert: Natural Resources and Cultural Heritage, pp 205-16, London: Society for Libyan Studies.

Capacity building for adaptation mainstreaming, monitoring, evaluation and learning – filling a gap

Climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time, and has the potential to undermine human development, erode or reverse economic growth, and adversely affect human wellbeing in a multitude of ways. This was nicely summed up in the 2007 UNDP Human Development Report, which opened with the statement that climate change “calls into question the Enlightenment principle that human progress will make the future look better than the past.”

While much is often made of the fact that greenhouse gas emissions appear to have stabilised in the last few years, the concentration of carbon dioxide (the most important greenhouse gas) is increasing more rapidly than ever, possibly due to the conversion of natural carbon sinks into carbon sources as temperatures rise. The prospects of limiting warming to no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial global average surface temperature are increasingly slim. To keep below the 1.5°C threshold, we need to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations below their current levels. Any serious mitigation of climate change will involve the large-scale deployment of measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Instead, we are continuing to add it at an unprecedented rate.

While mitigation is more urgent than ever, we are now committed to a certain level of warming, whatever we do. Meeting the commitments under the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that countries have submitted under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) may reduce future warming, but will not limit it below 2°C. Once we reach 2°C, future warming may be locked in as a result of feedback processes in the climate system.

Adaptation is therefore a vital complement to mitigation. Indeed, the economic and political stability of many nations, and the material wellbeing of their populations, are likely to depend on how well they adapt to climate change and its impacts. Climate change will mean that existing systems and practices may not be viable in the future, as climatic and environmental conditions change, with knock-on effects on value chains, markets, commodity prices, purchasing power and a host of other factors. Existing systems might be ‘climate proofed’ so that they can continue to function – so-called ‘incremental’ adaptation. Alternatively, they may need to be radically altered or replaced with alternatives through ‘transformational’ adaptation. Climate change will change the sustainability equation: what is sustainable under current climatic conditions may not be sustainable in the future as climatic and environmental conditions evolve.

Identifying actual and potential climate change risks, and identifying, prioritising and supporting adaptation needs, will be essential to securing economic and human development. In other words, much future development will depend on the integration or mainstreaming of climate change adaptation into development plans, policies and programming. While this is widely recognised in the community of practice emerging around climate change adaptation, there is a long way to do before adaptation is fully integrated into policy and planning processes, and the level of capacity to do so remains low in many countries and institutional contexts. Once adaptation strategies and measures have been implemented, there will be a need to monitor and evaluate their success and learn lessons, so that any necessary adjustments can be made. Are interventions really helping people to manage evolving risks more effectively and maintain or improve their material wellbeing despite climate change, or are they just delivering short-term benefits that will not deliver long-term resilience, or that may even undermine it (i.e. ‘maladaptation’)?

While capacity building is central to many development and adaptation interventions, this tends to be delivered through individual programmes or projects in a rather piecemeal fashion. Similarly, while the importance of monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) is widely recognised, tracking the success of adaptation and resilience-building interventions remains extremely challenging.

In response to the need for more general, accessible capacity building around adaptation mainstreaming and MEL, Garama 3C has developed two short professional training courses, on (i) Climate Change Adaptation and Mainstreaming for Development Professionals (more details here), and (ii) Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) for Adaptation (more details here). These courses run for three and two days respectively, with the latter immediately following the former. They are open to any individuals and organisations that need to mainstream adaptation into their work and/or track the effectiveness of adaptation interventions, either individually (e.g. a single programme) or collectively (e.g. at the national or sub-national level). The courses are held in the UK, and have run since 2013, attracting participants from donor and recipient governments, multilateral development banks, other multilateral organisations including UN agencies, and the private sector.

Both courses consist of a mixture of taught sessions and practical exercises, aimed at providing participants with the skills needed to undertake adaptation mainstreaming and/or M&E, and to design systems and mechanisms to effectively integrate adaptation into institutional processes and planning.

The Adaptation and Mainstreaming course includes modules on global climate science and policy contexts, adaptation concepts and frameworks, key elements of mainstreaming, screening for climate risks and opportunities, climate risk and vulnerability assessment, and adaptation decision-making. Participants undertake exercises in which they screen a project for risks and opportunities, design a climate risk assessment, and identify some potential adaptation measures.

The M&E course outlines the challenges of adaptation M&E and familiarises participants with emerging M&E frameworks and approaches to the measurement of resilience. It addresses the use of conventional development indicators in conjunction with climate information for tracking adaptation effectiveness, and the use of M&E frameworks and systems for adaptation and resilience learning. Participants undertake exercises involving the identification of adaptation results at different levels (output, outcome and impact), the development of M&E frameworks and indicators, and the use of climate information and development indicators to track adaptation success.

The next set of training courses will be held on the campus of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, in the week of 19-23 June 2017. Garama is currently exploring the possibility of running these and other courses outside the UK, in partnership with other organisations.

For more information on the existing courses, explore our website or send an email to training@garama.co.uk If you are interested in potential training partnerships (e.g. running one-off or regular courses outside the UK), please contact Nick Brooks, Garama’s Director, at nb@garama.co.uk.