Changing climates, changing lives: the need to focus on processes of change for adaptation

The report’s focus is on perceptions of changes among pastoralists and agropastoralists in Borana, Ethiopia and Gao and Mopti, Mali. Perceptions of changes in climate patterns were compared with response patterns and changes in the availability of support to tackle various shocks and stressors. Despite considerable differences between the two countries, there are common features from the case studies that can help inform adaptation support strategies of governments and non-government actors.

The report makes three main points. First, Respondents in both Ethiopia and Mali tell of changing patterns of risks, and the emergence of new ones. There is a clear perception of more uncertainty in rainfall patterns. This echoes other work of perceptions of change found in other parts of Africa. It is important to look at these perceptions in context, however. High climate variability is very much part of life in the case study areas. Indeed, pastoral and agro-pastoral systems exhibit important features that make them well suited to climate uncertainty and variability, including being adaptable and flexible. At the same time, the perceptions expressed by respondents suggest they are becoming more vulnerable to shocks and stressors.

This draws the attention to a second point, namely changes in the ability to respond to stressors. Some responses ‘lock’ households into patterns of depleting assets, with knock-on effects on people’s options to adapt over the long term. People have considerable knowledge and skills to adapt, often using innovative new solutions, but their ability to respond depends on a host of non-climatic factors that increases people’s vulnerability, such as conflicts that restrict mobility and access to key resources, as well as lack of access to markets and volatile food prices. These factors compromise responses to climate changes – both ‘normal’ variation and shocks as well as new variability and increased uncertainty.

Third, local support systems are changing, and so is people’s ability to make use of them. The report shows that changes in locally available support systems – traditional as well as formal – give constraints as well as opportunities. The poorest groups often do not benefit from support available through traditional structures, such as gifts of livestock and food, and there are few vertical linkages that can help to lift people out of a state of chronic vulnerability. At the same time, institutional and cultural changes have, in some cases, given more opportunities, such as the emergence of local women’s associations providing increased access to credit and markets.

What do these points mean for adaptation support? A key recommendation is the need to learn from current local level processes of change – the changing risks, changing responses and changing support structures – that together make up people’s resilience and ability to respond. It is not enough that people simply can access new knowledge, technology and financial resources to adjust their livelihoods. People’s responses, innovations and ability to adapt are often constrained by a range of structural and historical factors. The report makes a number of recommendations for NGOs, governments, donors and academia to ensure policy coherence and balancing development goals with the aims of increasing the resilience of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Ethiopia and Mali.

Read full Changing Climates Changing Lives report