There’s nothing like venturing beyond the usual four walls to reinvigorate a topic of interest. No better way to bring to life the reams of academic and grey literature than to set out, open-minded, into the field. And so it was that I recently found myself in Uganda, ready to uncover the nuanced realities – both opportunities and constraints – of ecosystem-based adaptation.
Ecosystem-based adaptation (or EbA) is defined by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall strategy to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.
It’s an idea that typically conjures up images of mangroves planted to dampen the impacts of storm surges and rising sea levels. And, importantly, it forms the focus of a newly launched Royal Society policy project examining human resilience to climate change and disasters… hence my being in Uganda.
I was fortunate enough to witness the fantastic work being done by Birdlife International and its in-country partner, Nature Uganda, in and around the south western town of Kabale. Some of my experiences included:
Observing a ‘community resource mapping’ exercise
This allows a community to identify the location, availability, use and state of key natural resources in their local area – the first step to articulating which resources are being jeopardised by climate change.
Learning about threats to people’s livelihoods…
For example, deforestation on steep upper slopes is leading to increased surface run-off and flooding during times of heavy rain, as well as soil erosion and increased siltation of rivers and streams.
…and their solutions
In deforested areas the branches are cut off surviving trees to encourage root growth, thereby anchoring and stabilising the soil. Trenches are also dug as a means of limiting soil erosion and flooding in the valleys.
Munyangabe Francis, Chairman of Mecda Collaborative Forest Management Association (left) talked about how a growing population and unpredictable heavy rainfall are putting pressures on local resources and livelihoods. Jdah Ndyomugyennyi, Treasurer of Mecda Collaborative Forest Management Association (right) expressed her optimism regarding EbA (particularly the fact that it has led to increased soil productivity) and her willingness to share her new knowledge of climate change and EbA with others.
All in all, my time away from the books proved time very well spent. It shone fresh light onto my understanding of EbA, and bestowed on me the following (among other) take-home messages:
- The neat boxes into which academics and policymakers tend to place types of adaptation – ‘hard’, ‘soft’ ‘ecosystem-based’, ‘community-based’ – are, in reality, more of a melting pot.
- The well-documented list of EbA benefits – cost-effective, pro-poor, durable, applicable at multiple scales… – is incomplete. It overlooks the benefits that derive from the sheer presence of a community-friendly, EbA-implementing organisation in a vulnerable area.
- Community attitudes towards EbA are most heavily influenced by what ‘business as usual’ would have looked like.
- Adaptation decision-making and implementation are complex, involving multiple actors at multiple scales (local, national and international).
- As an objective outsider, it’s tempting to think that adaptation approaches are implemented only once a specific problem has been identified and its possible solutions weighed up against one another. Yet, in reality, many EbA interventions are simply an extension of existing sustainable land management practices, and are more opportunistic than objective.
- In a similar vein, EbA isn’t necessarily a discrete and dedicated adaptation intervention. Instead, it can be an opportunity to strengthen and co-ordinate the ecosystem components of other interventions already underway within a landscape.
In summary: ‘real world’ EbA is more messy, multi-faceted and mixed up – not to mention infinitely more interesting – than the textbook mangroves would have you believe.
If a picture tells a thousand words, a field visit tells a whole lot more.
For a snapshot of some of the EbA work being carried out in Uganda – both by Nature Uganda (in Echuya Forest, near Kabale) and by IUCN (in the Mount Elgon region) – check out this short video.