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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March/April 2008

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Feeling Stressed: Integrating Climate Adaptation with Other Priorities in South Africa

Adaptation can be understood as an innate and ongoing process of finding ways to respond to stresses that reduce or combat negative impacts and harness potential benefits of change. But as we are faced with new and severe challenges, such as those presented by global climate change, adaptation needs to be explicitly supported and enhanced. Responding to the current and expected effects of climate change on the ground, particularly in places with pressing development challenges, is an issue that is receiving increasing attention and funding. For example, the Kyoto Protocol stipulates that a portion of the money (a 2 percent tax on transactions) generated under the Clean Development Mechanism be spent on adaptation via the protocol’s Adaptation Fund. While the practicalities of managing the Adaptation Fund are still being worked out, two other adaptation pipelines have come onstream in the form of the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund, both managed by the Global Environment Facility. An important concern is that with new money being made available for climate change research, policy development, and practice, people may place too much emphasis on addressing this as an isolated priority to the detriment of other equally pressing social, economic, and environmental issues.

In response to this concern, a growing number of people are exploring how communities have and might respond to climate as one of a number of interacting stresses. Because climate stressors affect many aspects of our socioecological system, it is not difficult to intuitively make the connection between adaptation and development challenges such as combating un- and underemployment; improving access to water and sanitation, health care, and education; and empowering people in decisionmaking processes. Following from this, one can see the potential for climate change to hamper the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals and other important international targets.

The nature of climate change presents many challenges in facilitating adaptation; there are high levels of uncertainty in much of the climate science, and climate is only one of multiple stressors that people are faced with. In many places, changes in the climate affect the nature, magnitude, and frequency of a number of existing stresses experienced, while in others it may present completely new threats, such as flooding caused by rising sea levels and disease outbreaks in areas where they have not previously occurred. Equally likely to affect people are a number of stressors that have little or no connection to climate, but which are perceived to be even more pressing. So the impacts of climate change need to be understood and adapted to in the context of multiple stressors. There is an important time element associated with this, as people tend to be more aware of and motivated to act on immediate, more tangible stresses than  on climate change, which can have slow onset and incremental impacts.

From the perspective that adaptation and development are innate transformational processes to be supported and facilitated, a study was conducted to evaluate what various actors are doing in Sekhukhune, a district in South Africa’s northeastern province, to address important development needs and explore how they relate to climate. Results shed
light on how development might be conceived of and facilitated differently in a context of climate change to foster more resilient and sustainable communities. The study also holds lessons for the policy and funding implications of balancing responses to climate change with other development issues.  

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