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date: 28 April 2017

Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Community-based adaptation (CBA) to climate change is an approach to adaptation that aims to include vulnerable people in the design and implementation of adaptation measures. The most obvious forms of CBA include simple, but accessible, technologies such as storing freshwater during flooding or raising the level of houses near the sea. It can also include more complex forms of social and economic resilience such as increasing access to a wider range of livelihoods or reducing the vulnerability of social groups that are especially exposed to climate risks. CBA has been promoted by some development nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international agencies as a means of demonstrating the importance of participatory and deliberative methods within adaptation to climate change, and the role of longer-term development and social empowerment as ways of reducing vulnerability to climate change. Critics, however, have argued that focusing on “community” initiatives can often be romantic and can give the mistaken impression that communities are homogeneous when in fact they contain many inequalities and social exclusions. Accordingly, many analysts see CBA as an important, but insufficient, step toward the representation of vulnerable local people in climate change policy, but that it also offers useful lessons for a broader transformation to socially inclusive forms of climate change policy, and towards seeing resilience to climate change as lying within socio-economic organization rather than in infrastructure and technology alone.

Keywords: adaptation, development, vulnerability, resilience, deliberation, institutions, villages, community


Community-based adaptation (CBA) to climate change aims to allow local people to determine the objectives and means of adaptation practices. It emerged as a policy concept during the early 2000s and has led to a variety of pilot projects and programs in developing countries involving collaborations between local development groups and international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, or international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Practical Action or ActionAid.

The objectives of CBA are to increase the relevance of adaptation practices to vulnerable people by including affected people in the design and implementation of adaptation. CBA also aims to integrate adaptation with the longer-term objectives of foreign assistance by seeking ways to build socioeconomic resilience to climate change by enhancing the ability to diversify livelihoods away from those threatened by climate change. By so doing, CBA also offers a template for integrating different actors and forms of expertise within adaptation planning by aiming to achieve local, and inclusive, discussions about how vulnerable people can respond to the predictions of future climate change made by climate scientists.

Critics, however, claim that CBA faces significant challenges in representing poorer people fairly or in building long-term social resilience. In particular, critics allege that CBA appeals to the agendas of development organizations that wish to demonstrate local engagement, but it can offer little long-term challenges to structural causes of social vulnerability such as inequalities in land tenure or deeply entrenched gender imbalances. There is a potential for CBA to emphasize the more colorful stories about poorer people in developing countries—such as how Bangladeshi women use floating rafts of water hyacinths to grow vegetables—rather than more important, but less eye-catching, structural changes such as increasing access to new labor markets or other forms of inclusive development.

This article reviews CBA from the point of view of its contribution to development planning and inclusive local development within developing countries. In particular, the article considers the possibility for CBA to be used as a new and deliberative form of institutional design within environment and development policy by increasing the participation of local people within climate change policy. Much debate within environment and development policy focuses on institutions as shared behavior and practices that can reduce environmental risk or scarcity or provide a successful framework for identifying solutions to environmental problems. CBA might be considered a new form of institutional design by providing a means for development agencies and climate modelers to work side by side with vulnerable, local people, in order to identify more relevant forms of adaptation. By so doing, CBA offers important lessons for integrating responses to the immediate impacts of climate change such as storms and floods, with long-term development objectives such as greater socioeconomic resilience. CBA can therefore offer lessons for designing similar institutional processes that can consider local needs and global climate changes simultaneously.

Community-Based Adaptation—Background


CBA emerged as a specific debate during the 2000s (Ayers & Dodman, 2010; Ayers & Huq, 2009). Its rise is often attributed to three trends, although each is debated. The first trend was the growth in public discussion about the significance of adaptation. Until the 2000s, adaptation was a controversial topic in climate change policy debates because many analysts saw it as a local and expensive option that was a distraction from the more important objective of mitigating climate change. For example, in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote, “Believing that we can adapt to just about anything is ultimately a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time” (Gore, 1992, p. 265).

These views began to change, given the slow progress in mitigation coupled with evidence of greater and more rapid impacts of climate change than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had expected. Signaling this change, Gore stated in an interview with the Economist magazine: “I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention. But I’ve changed my mind . . . Poor countries are vulnerable and need our help” (Gore, 2008).

Second, there was a growth in the debate about how adaptation could be achieved. Climate analysts as well as development agencies began to appreciate that adaptation should not just address immediate physical impacts of climate change such as flooding or droughts, but also needed to understand the drivers of social vulnerability, and the local contexts of poverty, especially in developing countries (Anderson, 2015; Christoplos et al., 2009; Murphy, 2006; Reid et al., 2007; Sperling, 2003). There was a growing appreciation that adaptation could succeed in reducing the risks posed by climate change only if it acknowledged that some social groups or locations were more vulnerable than others. A more community-based approach to adaptation could therefore allow local inputs on how different people were vulnerable and offer insights into how these might be addressed.

And third, some analysts have drawn connections between the growth of CBA and the long-standing preexisting analysis of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) in developing countries (Ayers, 2011; Dodman & Mitlin, 2013). CBNRM is an approach to environmental management that focuses on the local institutions or shared rules that determine access to natural resources, or protect threatened resources and environments (Batterbury & Forsyth, 1999; Johnson, 2004). For example, CBNRM has provided examples of how local people have devised rules for governing fallow periods for forest recovery under shifting cultivation in Asia (Kunstadter et al., 1978), or the different rules governing access to water in rural societies in Africa (Cleaver, 2001). The connection between CBA and CBNRM, however, has been questioned. On one hand, CBNRM provided a source of reference for debates about community-based perceptions and responses to climate change. On the other hand, CBNRM has also been widely criticized for romanticizing the agency and homogeneity of communities, rather than being sources of inequality and exclusion (Aalst et al., 2008). In addition, community responses to anthropogenic climate change also offer more interaction with new forms of climate science and modeling than previously required under CBNRM. Accordingly, some analysts have suggested that the main connection between CBA and CBNRM is simply the reference to “community.” These matters, and the potential lessons between CBA and CBNRM, are discussed later in this article in the sections entitled Can CBA Be Upscaled? and How Is CBA Used in Policy Approaches?

In addition, CBA was carefully promoted by organizations that undertook research and advocacy on themes of international development and climate change. These groups included the NGOs, Practical Action and ActionAid; the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS); and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and its director of work on climate change during the 2000s and 2010s, Saleemul Huq. One key step was to establish annual international conferences on CBA and to hold these meetings in locations where attendees could see CBA in action. The first conference was held in Bangladesh in 2005; subsequent meetings have been held in Tanzania, Vietnam, Nepal, Kenya, and Uganda. Conferences have also attracted a growing number of attendees each year, including representatives of donors and international aid agencies.1

Web-based discussions have also grown. The UK’s Institute of Development Studies hosts a specific Community-Based Adaptation Exchange for online debate,2 as well as CBA-specific information on the “WeAdapt” Web portal concerning all adaptation to climate change.3 The first internationally published field-guide to performing CBA was published in 2013 (Magee, 2013).

Advantages of CBA

CBA, unlike other forms of adaptation to climate change, seeks to engage with poorer, and more vulnerable, people and allow them to identify and help shape responses to the risks posed by climate change. These ambitions, of course, imply that the term “community” is an acceptable way to represent local people living under risks of climate change and that they have the agency to respond to risks together. Indeed, according to two analysts, CBA is “based on the premise that local communities have the skills, experience, local knowledge and networks to undertake locally appropriate activities that increase resilience and reduce vulnerability to a range of factors including climate change” (Dodman & Mitlin, 2013, p. 2).

Typically, CBA aims to use culturally sensitive participatory research methods that have become the norm within development work since the 1990s. These methods comprise interviews, group discussions (sometimes gender specific), and observation of affected people, aiming to identify how current lives and livelihoods might be affected by climate change—and how different forms of adaptation might address these risks and reduce vulnerability. These actions are intended to ensure that adaptation is more attuned to local needs.

In principle, CBA also aims to achieve outcomes that are better attuned to the social drivers of vulnerability to climate change, including the social, economic, and political contexts of poverty. This work aims to diversify the understanding of risks posed by climate change and provides a more socially sensitive form of risk assessment that relies on predictions of physical changes such as floods and droughts alone. Reid et al. (2009, p. 13) have explained that because “climate change is only one of a range of natural, social, and economic problems that may face poor people . . . so it is unlikely that interventions focusing only on climate-related risks will reflect community priorities.”

Accordingly, the optimistic view is that CBA interventions are designed to include local people in decisions concerning the location and purpose of climate-resilient infrastructure such as sea walls or cyclone shelters—and to provide a basis for finding approaches to address underlying social vulnerability as well. Some studies suggest that these objectives have been achieved in some interventions. In Fiji, for example, CBA work involved collaboration between different experts to devise ways to increase access to freshwater in times of scarcity by using dams and boats for local needs (Dumaru, 2010). Other CBA work has identified local practices that can protect and enhance well-being, food security, and livelihoods. A well-known example is the use of a common weed, the water hyacinth, as a way to build rafts for food production in Bangladesh. For example, in the locality of Gaibandha in northern Bangladesh, farmland is crisscrossed by the Brahmaputra and Tista rivers, and threatened by flash flooding and soil erosion (Ahmad, 2010). In response, villagers have adapted water hyacinth plants, which are usually found floating on rivers and ponds, into floating gardens as a way to grow food on waterlogged or flooded land. Typically, farmers accumulate different water hyacinth plants to make floating rafts measuring about 8 meters long and 1 meter wide, and then place soil and compost onto these platforms for growing crops. This approach allows farmers to grow limited numbers of vegetables for food or sale during times when their rice fields are flooded, and consequently permits some access to food and livelihoods despite flooding. Rafts can also be used for compost afterward. Rafts are particularly helpful for people who have either temporarily or permanently lost their homes because they are mobile.

These examples of CBA are often cited as illustrations of successful local involvement in reducing the impacts of environmental hazards such as flooding. They are questioned, however, in terms of whether they can challenge deeper-set causes of poverty and vulnerability; and in terms of how they represent communities and climate-related risks. These concerns are discussed later in this article in the section entitled Community-Based Adaptation: Challenges.

Methods for CBA

CBA is typically based on two complementary forms of analysis. The first is a combination of participatory approaches to development that seek to understand how local people experience climate risk and vulnerability. The second is a more deliberative interaction with development workers and/or climate scientists in order to seek ways of integrating local needs with projections about future climate change. Tensions between these approaches can sometimes arise because of their different insights on risk and potential adaptation strategies.

Participatory development is a form of development practice that has been discussed since the 1980s, which aims to allow local people to frame the objectives and styles of development interventions (Cannon, 2014). Frequently, participatory research means challenging external predictions of risk on the grounds that local people are better able to state how they are vulnerable or how their livelihoods might be affected. It requires analysts to seek ways to question their own assumptions about the causes and likely effects of problems and instead to find ways to ensure that relatively marginalized people can be heard. It is then hoped that this information can help redirect development interventions onto more relevant pathways.

For example, the Action Research for Community Adaptation in Bangladesh project (ARCAB)4 was conducted during the late 2000s and early 2010s within a form of participatory research known as action-based research. This style of research seeks to empower marginalized people affected by climate change by aiming to uncover what local practices are successful in coping with risk and then assessing if and how these practices can be replicated and adopted at wider spatial scales (so-called scaling up). This project collaborated with local NGO partners, who conducted longitudinal studies of the lifestyles and livelihoods of vulnerable people in zones where there are reported or projected slow- and sudden-onset climate changes (for example, salinization and flooding, respectively).

In Papua New Guinea, different researchers used climate projections and local perceptions of risk to encourage local discussion about how to identify and respond to climate changes (Kelman et al., 2009). This research indicated that one of the key innovations of CBA is the intended integration of global projections of climate change (such as information concerning floods, storm intensity, and sea-level rise) with local understandings of risk (such as when and how these physical changes impact land-use systems such as agriculture). In addition, social science analysis can provide information about who is vulnerable and why (for example, whether lower-caste people are more vulnerable because they have reduced access to land or employment off land; or because of differences based on gender, age, wealth, etc.).

CBA research can also conduct assessments of current local systems of livelihoods and natural resource use, such as cropping systems, soil health, and land and water use in affected areas. It can also assess which people might be more or less vulnerable to change in terms of who is, or is not, able to access alternative livelihoods or safety nets provided by the state or informal mechanisms such as extended families.

CBA interventions can also include building local awareness and capacity to respond to climate risks by discussing or demonstrating predictions of future climate shocks with local people via public information campaigns or public discussions. In Bangladesh, for example, local development groups employ singers and dancers to demonstrate a sequence of posters that explain the connections between cyclones and anthropogenic climate change, and then follow these up with public debates and question-and-answer sessions.

Most significantly, CBA can also seek to build socioeconomic resilience to climate change by building new livelihood opportunities for land or jobs outside of zones that are predicted to be damaged by climate change. This work includes working with farmer associations to increase market opportunities for agricultural products; diversifying agricultural crops and training; but also working to reduce social barriers for household members from affected areas to gain employment in other locations. This work might also include reducing barriers between genders for access to new labor markets or livelihoods (Ensor, 2014; Ensor & Berger, 2009).

It is worth noting, however, that development practitioners usually define CBA in ways that address future, projected climate changes, rather than preexisting practices that allow people to live with climate variability. This distinction is intended to define CBA in terms of the overall objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Moreover, much analysis of climate risk within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focuses on the immediate impacts of additional atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations—or what Burton (2009) calls the “pollutionist” approach to risk. These representations of risk focus on physical impacts such as floods and droughts rather than development deficits such as lack of adaptive capacity or diversity within economies that are better able to cope with such shocks. Accordingly, it is common for CBA projects to focus on new and additional activities that have been designed to adapt cognitively to projected future changes in climate. By so doing, these projects do not consider existing social activities of reducing climate risks to be CBA because they are not connected to future and anticipated anthropogenic climate change. These preexisting activities are sometimes called Adaptation to Climate Variability (ACV) and could be called a form of CBNRM because they are based on local customs that have been learned over years; these customs can include practices such as moving livestock to sheltered areas during rainy seasons or diversifying crops on steep slopes to anticipate losses arising from storms from time to time (Cannon, 2014; Kienholz et al., 1984).

Community Based Adaptation—Challenges

Despite the optimism, CBA has also experienced a number of criticisms and challenges. This section addresses these concerns by asking four questions: does CBA represent local people fairly?; how does CBA represent risk?; can CBA be “upscaled”?; and are new policy approaches adopting or replacing CBA?

Can CBA represent local people fairly?

CBA faces a number of challenges for representing marginalized people and the risks they face. In terms of representing local people, various scholars in international development have argued that the term “community” is simplistic and potentially damaging because it implies that local people act as a homogeneous unit. In fact, many villagers or local groupings of people contain internal divisions as well as cases of exploitation, or even oppression, which can be a significant cause of poverty and vulnerability. Customary practices within communities, for example, can replicate exclusionary practices such as forbidding women to own land or prescribing social roles that can be considered disempowering. Indeed, some analysts in Africa have noted that adaptation practices can sometimes depend on maintaining historically unequal gender relations in labor markets, land ownership rules, or the roles that women are expected to play (Arora-Jonsson, 2011; Carr, 2008; Smucker & Wangui, 2016).

Moreover, communities rarely have the ability to challenge deeper political, social, and economic driving forces of poverty, such as the role of the state in controlling investment and access to services, or the reliance of poorer countries and regions on international trade flows (Aalst et al., 2008; Cannon & Muller-Mahn, 2010; IFRC, 2014; Sekine et al., 2009). Indeed, this challenge might be more difficult in urban or peri-urban locations where conceptions of “community” are more transient (Conway & Schipper, 2011; Dodman & Carmin, 2011).

These concerns have added to the fear that participatory research and policy in the context of CBA is difficult to achieve (Dodman & Mitlin, 2013). Some challenges include potential elite capture of CBA initiatives, village safety nets and food security on farms with the most land, or larger families with greater ability to access diverse labor markets. It is still acknowledged that participatory work in general is still somewhat of an ideal rather than something that has been adopted broadly (Hickey & Mohan, 2004).

How does CBA represent risk?

The earlier section Methods for CBA described how many practitioners in CBA distinguish between adaptation to new and additional atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and so-called Adaptation to Climate Variability (ACV), which refers to preexisting practices that have allowed people to manage risks of changes in weather and climate in the past. This distinction between CBA and ACV, however, has implications for identifying which risks local people respond to and, consequently, what actions can be called CBA.

For example, much of the official adaptation work done on the coastlines of Bangladesh has focused on constructing cyclone shelters or strengthening river banks and coasts in the face of storms and tidal surges. These activities are important means of protecting lives during extreme climatic events. At the same time, however, some farmers can also engage in activities that can diversify their livelihoods and access to food during less extreme events. In the district of Khulna, on the southern coast of Bangladesh, farmers with access to land have learned to use their fields in different ways according to whether the underlying water is fresh or salty. During the dry season, rice fields tend to have freshwater, and accordingly farmers use land to grow irrigated rice. During the rainy season, the water underlying the fields turns salty. Under these conditions, some farmers switch from working on rice fields to raising crabs or shrimp in specially dedicated ponds (gher), or they may convert rice fields into ponds that can be used for raising crabs and shrimp. Salinity comes mainly from groundwater percolation, tidal and storm surges, and the deliberate flooding of fields by businesses involved in shrimp production.

The ability of some farmers to switch production from rice to crabs or shrimp is an example of ACV that can also be used as a proactive adaptation strategy to gain access to livelihoods under certain scenarios of future climate change. However, the UNFCCC and some development organizations would not identify this kind of activity as CBA because it is not new5—although some organizations and scholars dispute this interpretation.6

A similar challenge relates to the treatment of limited forms of migration in adaptation strategies (Warner, 2009). UNFCCC negotiations are dedicated to avoiding displacement of people due to damaged land and livelihoods as the result of climate change. But at the same time, long-standing debates within international development organizations have emphasized that migration for new employment or agriculture—by one or more household members—can be an effective means of building economic resilience, or so-called Sustainable Livelihoods (Carney, 1999). Debates within climate change policy, however, have represented migration as a sign of failed adaptation or the abandonment of land usable in the face of climate change (Dun & Gemenne, 2008; IOM, 2007). Instead, migration can be both a source of adaptive capacity and evidence of adaptation failure (Black et al., 2011).

Accordingly, various development organizations and scholars have argued that CBA should not be seen simply as applying predefined models of risk to predefined ideas of social vulnerability. The purpose of CBA is to gain more local insights into what constitutes risk and into who bears that risk (Jones & Boyd, 2011).

The representation of local communities can add to this challenge of understanding risk. One common concern among development scholars is the tendency for some policy debates or popular discussions to identify risk in predefined ways according to social status. For example, it is common to assume that some social groups such as women, children, or low-caste people are more vulnerable than others (Cutter, 1995, 2003). Clearly, these social groups might portray different elements of vulnerability and might lack political agency when compared to other groups. But it would be simplistic to assume that such groups are universally more vulnerable; in addition, it would diminish attention to the roles of social context or adaptation planning to reduce that vulnerability (Pelling, 2011; Pelling et al., 2015). Adopting a predefined idea of how climate change presents risk, or who is at risk, can sometimes blind policymakers to how risk occurs.

Indeed, a good example of this problem can be the well-cited example of CBA involving water hyacinths in Bangladesh (cited above in the section concerning advantages of CBA). On one hand, this is an easily understood example of how local people have innovated to reduce the risks posed by flooding. On the other hand, this is also a colorful story that speaks to somewhat stereotypical images of women, poverty, and flooding in a remote country, rather than highlighting the political or economic reasons why certain sections of that population are more vulnerable to flash floods and waterlogging than others. In other words, the existence of water and the availability of water hyacinths are not the only explanations of risk and adaptation; and the photographs of women tending floating rafts while standing in water possibly romanticize the image of community adaptation.

Another example concerns the perceived risks of sea-level rise. In a coastal village near Khulna in southern Bangladesh, the author took a photograph of village men placing fresh mud on a roadway in order to raise the level of the road (Ayers & Forsyth, 2009). Various analysts, including a magazine in Washington, DC, wanted to use this photograph to demonstrate how local people in Bangladesh were perceiving and responding to the imminent threat of rising sea levels by raising the level of the road. But this simple representation of risk and presumed adaptive response were simplistic for various reasons. First, the road-building activities were not linked to local perceptions of climate change, but instead were a regular dry-season activity to improve the road surface. Second, the risks posed by climate change in this region of Bangladesh cannot simply be summarized by sea-level rise. Indeed, both local villagers and Bangladeshi experts explained that the most prominent problem in the village was a gradual increase in the salinity of water, which made it more difficult to grow crops such as rice. Moreover, salinization was also connected to reductions in river flow that can push saltwater out to sea, and the factors underlying changes to river flow can be a complex mixture of changes in rainfall and extraction of water for irrigation. The implication of this story—and many like it—is that CBA needs to incorporate local people in identifying and responding to risks, but that achieving this incorporation can be difficult when there are predefined ideas about the nature of risk and who is at risk.

The challenges of defining risk—and how this definition might influence the identification of local agency—are also relevant to upscaling CBA to wider scales.

Can CBA be upscaled?

“Upscaling” is the process of taking lessons or institutional designs of good CBA practice and using them at wider spatial and temporal scales (Ayers et al., 2014). Upscaling might be done by national governments that wish to draw lessons from CBA for national adaptation planning. The aim of upscaling CBA is to apply the lessons of a more participatory approach to adaptation at more influential levels within policy processes and adaptation planning. Analysts, however, have pointed out various considerations in this context.

First, the prospect of upscaling CBA might seem paradoxical because CBA is, by definition, contextual and place specific. The objective of upscaling CBA, however, is not to take place-specific adaptation practices to other locations, but instead to transfer the deliberative and participatory processes that allow adaptation planning to be more inclusive and connected to the local drivers of vulnerability. In this sense, upscaling CBA implies that CBA can be seen as an institutional design that can enhance local participation within development planning.

Second, upscaling CBA in this way can also raise tensions with existing frameworks of understanding risks posed by climate change. In particular, a participatory and socially embedded approach to adaptation can emphasize different experiences and potential responses to risk than those based on the so-called pollutionist approach that identifies risk as arising from each incremental unit of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (Burton, 2009). CBA instead emphasizes a so-called development approach to risk, which refers to adaptation as part of wider development planning and reduction of social vulnerability. Indeed, various analysts have criticized the principle of additionality for diverting attention from the driving forces of vulnerability to climate change within social, economic, and political factors in developing countries and consequently as part of an adaptation solution (Lemos & Boyd, 2010). Moreover, tensions also exist between different development practitioners concerning whether CBA should also include preexisting ACV, or the predicted additional impacts on physical factors such as storms, floods, temperatures, and rainfall arising from changes in greenhouse gases alone. (See the preceding section, Methods for CBA).

This tension is also shown in another distinction made by the IPCC between “planned adaptation,” which results from deliberate interventions, and “autonomous (or spontaneous) adaptation,” which is “adaptation that does not constitute a conscious response to climatic stimuli but is triggered by ecological changes in natural systems and by market or welfare changes in human systems.”7 According to this definition, autonomous adaptation might include practices such as altering agricultural inputs, introducing water-managing technologies, altering cropping cycles, or diversifying economic activities. These practices can be based on preexisting “risk-management or production-enhancement activities,” but may “have substantial potential to offset negative climate change impacts and take advantage of positive ones.”

This distinction is relevant to debates about CBA because CBA can include various forms of autonomous adaptation. However, some approaches to planned adaptation can shut down opportunities for autonomous adaptation, or even exacerbate social and economic drivers of vulnerability. For example, government policies in Thailand have sought to reduce the risk of climate change to villagers by planting trees on agricultural land to reduce the biophysical threats posed by floods, even though doing so reduces the villagers’ economic livelihoods (Forsyth & Evans, 2013). The implication is that upscaling CBA can proceed only if it also creates space for broader and more contextual analyses of the social, political, and economic drivers of environmental risk than predictions based on additional greenhouse gases alone. This objective does not deny the important knowledge provided by climate models about projected changes in climate over periods of 5 to 100 years. Rather, it requires local consultation or deliberation about how projected changes might affect local vulnerabilities, and identify which social processes and conditions cause different social groups to be vulnerable at different times.

Accordingly, proponents of CBA have argued that upscaling CBA requires two key realizations. First, there is a need to acknowledge older debates about CBNRM as a form of adaptation. These debates include understanding how people have responded to scarcity in the past (Boserup, 1965; Head, 2010) and acknowledging that adaptation planning “should be done with a deeper awareness of the social, economic, cultural, and political factors that frame [people’s] actions, incentives, opportunities, and limitations for action” (Christoplos et al., 2009, p. 3), because “adaptation always has, and arguably should, refer to more than just responses to climate change” (Sabates-Wheeler et al., 2008, p. 53).

The second realization is that acknowledging historic approaches to CBNRM are not sufficient. There must also be an element of deliberation, or social learning, between different forms of expertise comprising climate projections from models and regional planners, and the information about local development needs and ACV that comes from participatory research and consultation. For example, locally grounded forms of adaptation planning can include taking projections of long-term environmental changes arising from climate change, but considering these simultaneously with existing and expected social, economic, and political changes at the local scale within communities (Tschakert & Dietrich, 2010). In essence, this is a form of institutional design for adaptation planning that creates arenas within policymaking for generating knowledge about risks and vulnerability in ways that are framed by local people, but that also use information provided by other forms of experts. This type of inclusive policymaking can also be critical of the local elites who can sometimes dominate local adaptation planning within villages—or the romantic images of risks and communities sometimes projected onto localities by outsiders.

Or, as one World Bank analyst wrote, “scaling up CBA isn’t a question of simply stitching together a “patchwork quilt” of local initiatives . . . the real contribution of the CBA movement in recent years has been to show that top-down approaches to adaptation will also founder if they fail to connect with the felt priorities of those most vulnerable to climate change” (Mearns, 2011, p. 1). But also, as the development organization, ActionAid, has stated, “it is important not to portray poor people simply as victims, but as people who, with the right support, can assume a degree of responsibility for, and find solutions to, local environmental degradation. Science should help people understand themselves as both part of the problem and part of the solution” (Rahan et al., 2010, p. 10).

How is CBA used in policy approaches?

Upscaling focuses on managing risks at ever wider scales. A related question is how the lessons of CBA can be adopted within broader policy approaches, or indeed be mainstreamed within climate change policy. Can CBA make the transition from a largely conceptual and localized approach to more formal policy approaches such as the UNFCCC Adaptation Fund, or National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPAs), aimed at the world’s least developed countries?

Part of this question is to ask how climate change policy and international development can become more usefully and coherently linked. Some analysis of climate change and international development, for example, has tended to focus on projected linear impacts of climate change on existing livelihoods strategies, rather than on how socioeconomic changes can mediate those impacts. The Up in Smoke coalition of environmental and development organizations, including ActionAid, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Practical Action, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, for example, has listed various ways in which projected physical changes to rainfall or temperature might reduce current livelihoods, rather than understanding ways that adaptation can redefine how we can see those impacts (Reid, 2014).

Integrating a community-based and deliberative approach to climate change and development is challenging, and still in progress. Various analysts, for example, have argued that there is a need for a more careful distinction of vulnerability to climate change and indicators of poverty at the household and community levels (Ghimire et al., 2010). But a more development-focused form of adaptation remains unclear. One representative of a donor organization voiced his frustrations in a statement at the Fifth International Conference on CBA (2011): “How can we commit to the impact of adaptation interventions when we are still trying to understand what adaptation looks like in practice?”8

In this connection, much discussion about funding for international climate change policy has also drawn lines between funds allocated for international development and those intended for climate change (Klein & Mohner, 2011). The objective here is to ensure that donors do not avoid responsibilities for funding both activities; and that recipient countries do not misallocate climate change funding for economic development. But the results of these tensions can sometimes be an artificial and unhelpful boundary between so-called adaptation and so-called development, rather than exploring or demonstrating the benefits of approaches such as CBA.

One example of drawing a line between adaptation and development is the World Bank’s Pilot Program on Climate Resilience (PPCR). This program explicitly states that it seeks to advance development. It aims to “support countries’ efforts to integrate climate risk and resilience into core development planning and implementation . . . [and] complements existing development efforts and supports actions based on comprehensive planning consistent with countries’ poverty reduction and development goals.”9

Yet, one PPCR study in Nepal indicated that development practitioners saw clear distinctions between “resilience” and “development,” where resilience mainly applied to strengthening infrastructure such as roads and bridges, rather than identifying social drivers and maintainers of vulnerability (Ayers et al., 2011). The Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance was established in 2009 and is another example of a more holistic understanding of social and environmental resilience.10

Similarly, the UNFCCC National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) were introduced after the Seventh Conference of the Parties in Marrakech, as a means of identifying adaptation priorities in least developed countries. Their documentation states that “NAPAs should use existing information; no new research is needed . . . The steps for the preparation of the NAPAs include . . . participatory assessment of vulnerability.”11 This statement seems to support the need for a CBA approach by emphasizing the word “participatory.” Yet the way this statement is phrased suggests—contrarily—that climate risks do not require additional research and that participatory assessment will only serve to implement predefined ideas of where risk and response lie (Anderson et al., 2011).

There are other examples of NAPAs failing to acknowledge local experiences of risk similar to the imposition of so-called planned adaptation on preexisting land use and ACV. For example, the Bangladesh NAPA discussed the topic of “chars,” which are new lands formed by accretion beside rivers or coastlines. Chars quickly become inhabited with poorer people but are exposed to floods and storms. The NAPA process, however, identified the settlement of chars as a source of environmental risk. It stated: “local communities receiving the [char] land begin to build settlements, which lead to the destruction of coastal forest and exposure to cyclones and storm surges” (MOEF, 2008, p. 12). Accordingly, one important adaptation intervention in Bangladesh is to plant trees on the chars in order to resist river and coastal erosion, and to maintain physical protection against storms offered by vegetation.

Local research, however, has suggested—similar to the case of Thailand (Forsyth & Evans, 2013) (discussed in the section How Does CBA Represent Risk—that these state-led forms of adaptation interventions do not address local experiences of risk and might even enhance social vulnerability. In particular, measures designed to reduce local fuelwood gathering on chars can restrict the livelihoods of people who have lost land and become displaced. In addition, new monoculture plantations installed by the local government can reduce space for agriculture. Meanwhile, in group discussions, local people defined risks more in terms of access to employment and public services than as simply the presence of river or coastal erosion (Ayers, 2010, p. 135; Huq & Khan, 2006).

The implication here is that even within a supposedly participatory process, NAPAs can sometimes make recommendations about adaptation that are out of touch with the experiences of vulnerable people. This does not imply that NAPAs or other forms of development planning have to choose between supposedly “local” definitions of risk and others; rather, the decisions leading to adaptation on this occasion did not find ways to integrate the needs of diverse stakeholders and might even make the vulnerability of some stakeholders worse.

Some other organizations and policy approaches have adopted a more “development”-oriented form of adaptation. The Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS)12 program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), for example, seeks to integrate climate change mitigation and “pro-poor adaptation” through working to change agricultural practices by increasing food security, diversifying livelihoods, and reducing greenhouse gas concentrations through sequestration of carbon where possible, or reducing emissions from land uses or fertilizers. This program draws on widespread concerns that some approaches to carbon-offset forestry might not support local development objectives (Fisher, 2013; McFarland, 2012). But work conducted by this program seems to be an appropriate de facto platform for CBA, or the objectives of work previously known as CBA. Another example is the Overseas Development Institute in the United Kingdom, which has established a local adaptive capacity framework to assess local innovations and governance within vulnerability to climate change, rather than measuring biophysical changes or assets alone (Faulkner et al., 2015; Jones, 2011).


Community-based adaptation (CBA), therefore, is a form of adaptation planning that has sought to emphasize the needs and participation of local people within development planning. It characterized adaptation intervention during the 2000s and 2010s favored by some intergovernmental organizations such as the FAO and some international and national NGOs that wanted to indicate local relevance to poorer people vulnerable to climate change. Yet, the nature and objectives of CBA have also changed over time, and the challenges it faces are also becoming more apparent and have required organizations to respond to them.

Perhaps the most stereotypical image of CBA is a localized, or community-oriented, series of practices that are affordable and low technology, and that address the most obvious physical impacts of climate change such as flooding and drought. The image of Bangladeshi women wading through floodwater while pushing rafts of water hyacinths that are used to grow vegetables is one image. Another relatively simple solution is the “mokti,” or earthenware pots to store freshwater sunk into the raised floors and foundations of houses next to rice fields and wetlands in Bangladesh.

Such images simplify the kind of risks faced by vulnerable people and the nature of so-called communities. Rather than being homogeneous and potent responders to climate risks, communities often contain deep divisions and inequalities; and even when coordinated can do little to address deep-set drivers of vulnerability to climate change related to poverty and social exclusion. These realizations, rather than destroying the case for CBA, indicate how it needs to move ahead. The point of CBA, in fact, is not to romanticize communities; instead, it is to demonstrate ways that all adaptation planning can acknowledge local context and causes of vulnerability. For this to happen, however, CBA needs to be seen less in terms of romantic ideas of communities and more as an institutional design for adopting deliberative and inclusive understandings of climate risks and adaptation in context (Agrawal & Gibson, 1999). In effect, this means avoiding seeing communities as coherent units and instead seeking to identify the institutions—or types of rules, arenas, and deliberative processes—that can allow marginalized groups to shape adaptation strategies alongside development practitioners, share knowledge about future climate changes, and make adaptation practices more sensitive to these processes.

A key part of this more deliberative and inclusive approach to adaptation is to acknowledge that definitions of risk and local agency often go hand in hand. As this article has shown, one of the main characteristics of adaptation policy is the tendency to represent climate risks in terms of additional atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations; this is the so-called pollutionist approach (Burton, 2009), which attributes risks arising from climate change to each incremental unit of greenhouse gases. Accordingly, analyses of CBA under this framework of risk often give rise to stories of immediate responses to physical impacts of gases such as flooding or drought. A more contextual approach to adaptation, however, emphasizes the deeper social, political, and economic drivers of vulnerability and therefore opens up more diverse options for adaptation, including increasing access to resources, employment, or safety nets. A full implementation of CBA, therefore, would not simply be consulting local people about where to locate cyclone shelters: it would instead seek to understand how and why different sectors of society are vulnerable to different aspects of climate change, and reflect this knowledge in strategies aiming to reduce this vulnerability through transformative change. Achieving this broader outcome, however, requires seeing that the term “community” can misrepresent social coherence.

Implementing a deeper contextual analysis of climate risk and adaptation—whether it is called CBA or a broader form of adaptation planning—can be time consuming and difficult to achieve without investment in time and learning. These concerns, however, also exist for other forms of adaptation. It also blurs the line between activities specifically aimed at targeting the impacts of climate change and development assistance in general, which can worry donors seeking fast results and can be difficult to assess in clearly demonstrable terms.

CBA, therefore, should not be seen as a fixed approach to implementing adaptation based on fixed ideas of community and climate risk. It is perhaps better seen as an initial step in achieving greater context and variability in how development organizations and governments work with local people to address vulnerability to climate change more inclusively. CBA‘s future success, therefore, might not depend on presenting colorful local examples of adaptation, but in demonstrating how participatory and deliberative risk assessment and interventions can reveal the importance of social vulnerability in climate risk and a wider range of possible adaptation options. Through this pathway, CBA can help identify the basis for transformative social change and resilience against climate change, with a special emphasis on local development (Forsyth, 2013; Pelling, 2011; Pelling et al., 2015).

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(1.) See the archive of community-based adaptation conferences at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Retrieved from

(2.) Electronic Development and Environment Information System (ELDIS): Retrieved from

(3.) Retrieved from

(4.) Retrieved from

(5.) Saleemul Huq, personal communication, 2009; fieldwork 2009.

(6.) Terry Cannon, Institute of Development Studies and ARCAB, personal communication, 2016.

(8.) Retrieved from

(12.) Retrieved from