Communities around the world are looking for approaches to deal with extreme weather and climate shocks – whether that is a farming community struggling with drought or a coastal community facing severe storm surge. Conventional “hard infrastructure” approaches, such as installing irrigation pipes or building a sea wall, can be expensive and limiting in terms of providing lasting, sustainable solutions. Increasingly, ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) approaches are gaining traction as a complement or substitute for hard infrastructure to help buffer communities against climate change while also delivering development co-benefits.
EbA uses biodiversity and ecosystem services to help people adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change as part of an overall adaptation approach. Mangrove restoration, for example, can reduce the impacts of typhoons, and other extreme events, by protecting shorelines against storm surge, high waves, flooding and coastal erosion. Additionally, mangroves provide a multitude of co-benefits, such as fish habitat that strengthens food security and wood products that are important for local communities. EbA approaches are often based on traditional or indigenous land and natural resources management practices.
Recognizing the potential for EbA as a cost-effective approach to help governments and communities adapt to weather and climate variability, USAID has developed several evidence summaries and case studies to capture best practices and help staff, partners and implementers apply EbA more effectively. These resources were featured at April’s Adaptation Community Meeting, where USAID and implementing partners, DAI and Relief International, shared their experience applying EbA in a variety of contexts.
In Peru, USAID is supporting EbA approaches that help address the country’s water insecurity, specifically the challenge of having too much water during the rainy season and too little water during the dry season in some areas, resulting in both flooding and water scarcity over the course of a year. To increase water storage during the wet season and make stored water available during the dry season, USAID projects promoted a complementary set of EbA and non-EbA approaches. EbA approaches included rotational grazing to reduce soil compaction and allow excess water to percolate to aquifers as well as reforestation with native Peruvian plant species that use less water and maintain or rebuild soils. Non-EbA approaches, such as the establishment of infiltration ditches, were used in tandem with the EbA interventions as part of an overall adaptation approach to stabilize water resources for local communities.
In the Northern Mindanao area of the Philippines, a USAID-funded project supported EbA approaches to increase the resilience of a range of stakeholders – from high-mountain indigenous communities looking to protect their culture and forests to large-scale agribusinesses operating plantations in the foothills and downstream communities concerned with water scarcity and flood risk. EbA approaches included hands-on ecosystem management activities, such as reforestation with native species and planting forest shelter belts. In addition, the EbA approaches integrated environmental governance activities like support for water councils, water management plans, and payment for ecosystem service schemes that allowed diverse stakeholders to rally around a central concern – the impacts of climate variability and change on forests, crops, and water supplies – and take steps towards improving the resilience of these resources.
There are a variety of entry points for those looking to integrate EbA approaches within existing USAID programs and analyses. For example, EbA approaches can be used to respond to climate risks identified through the climate risk management process in a variety of sectors and to help meet the resilience objective of Feed the Future programming by improving food security. Other sectors at USAID such as WASH, humanitarian assistance, and biodiversity offer opportunities to program nature-based approaches that may deliver climate resilience co-benefits.
While there are often clear benefits to EbA, Jonathan Cook of USAID does caution against implementing these approaches without due diligence, saying “you can’t just assume communities want interventions like mangrove restoration; we have to get to these kinds of approaches the right way, through stakeholder engagement, and ensure the approaches make sense given the context.” However, in the right enabling environment, including providing incentives, institutional structures, and adequate expertise and timeframe, an EbA approach can be a cost-effective and sustainable approach that, as Jenny Kane of USAID points out, “is a useful tool we can use across sectors…not just for climate resilience but also for meeting [other] development goals.”