In Adapting to Drought, It Takes a Village

By Alexandra Williams | December 16, 2019

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Beaver dams naturally increase the water capacity of reservation streams and decrease the impacts of future drought. Photo credit: Jeff Burrell

When it comes to natural disasters, people are often only motivated to take precaution when they have witnessed the impact of such an event. Climate adaptation, however, requires preparing for these impacts in advance — something that does not come naturally to everyone. Community members lacking connections to the natural environment may be unaware there is an issue. Some may understand the science, but do not see the way climate change directly affects their lives.

My colleague Liz Tully notes that it can be difficult for climate practitioners to step back and assess the different levels of climate awareness that stakeholder groups possess. Understanding where your audience is on the continuum — what their capacity is and what their motivations and barriers are — will inform the strategies that work best to promote greater awareness of important climate issues. To determine a given group’s level of understanding and engagement requires time, communication, and trust.

The following real-life examples demonstrate how such trust can be forged and lead to successful adaptation outcomes.

Cape Town’s resiliency proves that even when a government’s climate adaptation and drought responses are slow and bureaucratic, engaging the community produces measurable and sustainable change.

The magnitude and duration of droughts have increased in the past century. From 2015 to 2018, Cape Town, South Africa experienced a drought that nearly depleted reservoirs and provoked a backlash from both citizens and the international community towards government-led water initiatives. In response, local businesses worked with NGOs and other nonprofits to establish city-wide tools for drought mitigation.

Several hotels in Cape Town responded by utilizing rain barrels and compost bins to reduce water and waste, reducing pressure on the food industry while boosting ecotourism. Cape Town farmers had the foresight to practice their water management strategies before the crisis reached its peak. Through farmer associations that own private dams to deter crop loss during periods of extreme drought, the drought management capacity of the farming community increased.

Cape Town’s resiliency proves that even when a government’s climate adaptation and drought responses are slow and bureaucratic, engaging the community produces measurable and sustainable change.

The Climate Adaptation Fund (CAF) of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has spent nearly ten years supporting climate adaptation projects that are conserving wildlife, restoring ecosystem functions, and developing strategic communications plans as part of their overall project goals. A few have benefitted from remarkable community values — building solidarity and trust to produce tangible drought adaptation actions.

Piikani Lands Crew and CLLC staff and interns finish the construction of a beaver dam analog. Photo credit: Angelina González-Aller)

Two projects in particular attribute their drought adaptation success to community outreach and education. The Blackfoot Challenge is a Montana-based nonprofit that, with the help of The Wilderness Society, worked on community drought mitigation long before their involvement with WCS CAF. Key stakeholders include farmers, recreation businesses, and ranchers. These people are key because they face an enormous financial threat from drought and the loss of ecosystem services.

Jennifer Schoonen is Water Steward of the Blackfoot Challenge — a position that involves interacting with community members often. She and her team focus on the community’s concern for changing rain patterns and water availability: This strategy allows the team to take a “ground-up” approach to the broader issue of climate change. For example, public meetings were essential to the awareness of the community regarding water management and its economic impact.

Schoonen says, “we aim for consensus and don’t move forward with anything unless we feel we have community support.” Due to community buy-in, landowners individually volunteered to conserve water — many realizing that to achieve a win-win situation in terms of water intake in the community, they must manage their land to accommodate other community members.

The project has successfully increased water capacity for wetland habitat and slowed fast melting ice — with the added benefit of encouraging beaver re-population.

More recently, the CAF awarded funding to the Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC) for the Ksik Stakii (a Pikuni term that translates to “beaver”) mimicry project with the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. Project member Termaine Edmo, Climate Change Coordinator for the Blackfeet Nation, provided insights on the traditional position of beaver as a sacred teacher symbol for the Blackfeet people.

Community leaders focus heavily on the family unit and educating children through traditional storytelling in hopes that adults will be empowered by the project. Student volunteers participated in the construction of beaver dams to naturally increase the water capacity of reservation streams and decrease the impacts of drought in the future.

The engagement of local households (especially children) was pivotal to the project’s success. The receptiveness from children and adults through the communication of shared narratives has reduced human-wildlife conflict and the project has successfully increased water capacity for wetland habitat and slowed fast melting ice — with the added benefit of encouraging beaver re-population. It’s traditional teaching not taught in a typical classroom setting.

These two drought-related projects have very different target groups, yet they both excelled in their engagement strategies. A key approach was to assess and work with the climate awareness that existed within the community from the beginning. CLLC Deputy Director Melly Reuling notes that the start of the project represents a critical moment to address confusion around climate adaptation methods and build trust with the community.

Clearly, when climate change drives threats across multiple sectors, the longevity of an adaptation project’s response often depends on community participation. Community engagement produces tangible results. Starting now, we should all look carefully at the ways in which all adaptation project outcomes can benefit from community inclusion.

Alexandra Williams is the Climate Adaptation Impact Assessment Intern at Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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