How to adapt to climate change

25 Feb 2009

Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London, is a pioneer of adaptation to climate change.

Nature News caught up with Huq in Dhaka, Bangladesh, at the Third International Conference on Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change, which ran from 18–24 February, and asked him about the new centre that he plans to start in the country.

What is the goal of the new International Centre for Climate Change and Development?

The pitch is to make Bangladesh the laboratory for adaptation to climate change. We want to switch the current perception of Bangladesh from the iconic vulnerable country — where all these journalists fly to to see vulnerability — to make it the iconic adaptive country, so everyone flies there to see how they are coping.

It’s a very, very resilient country, and the people manage in the most difficult of circumstances. That’s a strength we will build on in dealing with the adverse impacts of climate change.

When will the centre begin work?

We will start this year with short courses on climate change and development broadly, but specifically focusing on climate change adaptation. Hopefully by the end of 2010, we can start the first cohort of master’s students. In the longer term we hope to get accreditation to offer PhDs, but in the meantime, we’ll be a PhD-hosting institution.

The centre is a joint venture of the IIED, the Independent University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, also in Dhaka. We don’t have the funding in hand for this yet, but the IIED will do the fund-raising.

Why base the centre in Bangladesh?

There are other courses on climate change and development being started up. We feel our comparative advantage is the setting in a developing country, where people from other countries — say, from Africa — come and do their Master’s degree.

We hope they would learn the equivalent level of theory, but they would also be able to observe activities, all the way from community-based to higher scales — national water-planning authorities doing adaptation, the national government doing adaptation, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing adaptation.

Bangladesh is pioneering in terms of things happening on adaptation. It’s still at a very early stage, but they are several steps ahead of most of the other least-developed countries.

How can people adapt to climate change?

One example already adopted in Bangladesh is rainwater harvesting to deal with increasing salinity on the coasts. People capture rainwater on their roofs and put it in large containers, to ensure they have drinking water. In the flood plains, people are raising their homes on stilts or earthen platforms. This is traditional, but they’re doing it more now. They’re also growing vegetables — rather than crops like wheat — on floating gardens. They use a bamboo frame and load it with water hyacinth, which rots and makes a bed for vegetables to grow. Then when the flood water rises, they can still harvest food.

What kind of research will the centre carry out?

The idea is to set up 12–20 field sites for community-based adaptation to Bangladesh in what Terry Cannon [a social scientist at the University of Greenwich, London] calls archetypal ecosystems and livelihood systems — so coastal, farming, fishers, people living near forests, drylands, floodplains and so on.

We’ll choose large NGOs as partners, for example Oxfam in Bangladesh. The centre’s researchers would be able to use the NGOs’ experience of doing community-based adaptation and bringing partners from elsewhere in the world where Oxfam operates — so we get replicability out of this.

Pilot projects, done so far elsewhere, are too context-specific. But with a larger, systematic project, we hope to pull out some generalizable information, and we hope for much higher scalability.

You’ve spoken about the need for ‘action research’ when studying adaptation. What do you mean by that?

You have to go out there and get your feet dirty, get wet and find collaborators to work with. In what used to pass for adaptation science, you’d run models and say that “this place is going to be impacted”. But that’s not adaptation; that’s just an impact scenario.

It is a very young science, we’re at a very early stage and we don’t have all the answers. We’re going to have to feel our way through it. And the only way to feel our way through it is by doing things, learning from them, and then doing them better next time. There is no way we’ll find the solution by some theoretical exercise of working it out in a blueprint.

© 2009 Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Photo credit: Lila Mead/IISD


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