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Lessons on Integrating Scientific and Community Knowledge of Climate Change to Develop Adaptation Plans in Lower Mekong Basin

USAID Mekong ARCC is implementing approaches to build local level adaptive capacity and resilience within rural communities across the lower Mekong basin countries.
Julia Stanley


USAID Mekong Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change project (USAID Mekong ARCC), in partnership with International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Asian Management and Development Institute, and the World Food Programme, is implementing approaches to build local level adaptive capacity and resilience within rural communities across the lower Mekong basin (LMB) countries of Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Adaptation Options

For adaptation plans to be realistic, feasible, and effective, scientists, communities and implementing partners need to all contribute important inputs to the co-design of the plans. They need to ensure that plans include credible information and are salient to those who will benefit from and implement adaptation options generated by the plans. Figure 1 below demonstrates the process in which adaptation plans are co-designed.

Figure 1 from p. 3 in report: Framework for Designing Adaptation Plans

Figure 1 shows that there are three main actors in the process of co-designing adaptation plans. These actors include scientists, implementing partners (inclusive of local and international NGOs), and local level actors who both implement the plan’s and benefit from the co-developed adaptation plan. Read more about these actors in the main document.


WRI designed semi-structured, qualitative questionnaires to understand the process by which scientific knowledge merged with local knowledge to co-design adaptation plans. The first questionnaire helped understand the perceived challenges and enabling factors that could influence the co- designing process prior to IPs merging scientific and local knowledge. Gathering information about perceived challenges helped USAID Mekong ARCC address potential difficulties in merging CCS and SCS before IPs actually merged the knowledge sets. WRI administered the first questionnaire over Skype in May 2014. Building on findings from the first questionnaire, WRI developed a second questionnaire to capture lessons from the actual process of merging scientific and local knowledge to develop adaptation plans based on the 4-step process. Questions focused on the relationship between IPs and local level community members; how they established credibility, salience and legitimacy that led to co-designing adaptation plans; and how context and communication influenced the process. The author administered the second questionnaire in person during the USAID Mekong ARCC annual IP meeting in Thailand in November 2014.

Lessons Learnt

The project engaged World Resources Institute Vulnerability and Adaptation Expert, Moushumi Chaudhury, to capture lessons learned from application of the Community Adaptation Decision Making method (see illustration) developed by USAID Mekong ARCC and implemented by partners across sites. This participatory decision-making approach sought to integrate top-down scientific and bottom-up community perspectives in order to improve resilience and sustainability of local adaptation plans. The Lessons Learned report is intended to help government planners, donors, researchers and practitioners in the LMB region understand how scientific knowledge can be merged with local knowledge, and how this empowers communities to collaboratively develop adaptation plans. Community adaptation plans have since been completed, and livelihood resilience strengthening solutions are now being trialled in target communities.

Summary of lessons learnt

Community Engagement:

  • Community level engagement empowers community members to design their own adaptation plans. One of the reasons why each site was able to co-develop adaptation plans was because knowledge brokers deeply engaged with community members. Knowledge brokers enabled community members to legitimately participate, and therefore, empower them to develop their own CCS by facilitating discussions on climate change.
  • Awareness about local context is key to establishing effective participation and community level engagement. In order to establish effective participation among community members when developing CCS and merging CCS and SCS, knowledge brokers in all sites first acknowledged the local context that could affect participation, such as culture and social tensions. Then, knowledge brokers worked within the context to promote participation. How knowledge brokers encouraged participation when merging CCS and SCS differed among the various sites.

Learning & Communication:

  • Learning about climate change is a process. Knowledge brokers across all sites expressed that learning about climate change and livelihood vulnerabilities does not happen in one session but over time. Repeated visits to field sites and using powerful communication methods remind community members what is climate change and why community members should engage in the process of merging SCS and CCS. This is especially important in areas that have limited access throughout the year. Engaging community members in the learning process needs to be an ongoing activity so that community members do not forget what they have learned.
  • Making SCS credible and salient depends on communication methods.An important part of Step 3 [of the method] is to use the scientific findings from SCS to strengthen CCS and update hazard rankings. In all sites, knowledge brokers found it challenging to make SCS credible and relevant to the community members because the concept of climate change was new to most community members. Although community members deal with weather hazards on a regular basis, they are not used to technical terminology and planning far into the future. In order to overcome this challenge, knowledge brokers worked to localize the scientific information to make the SCS more credible and relevant.


  • Local level climate studies are critical for designing adaptation plans.Although the USAID Mekong ARCC Climate Change and Impact Study downscaled climate science to the provincial level, this SCS was not adequate for communities to develop localized adaptation plans. The SCS provided important information as to how the climate has and will change in the future across the province, and how this will affect key provincial livelihood alternatives and natural systems, but this information wasn’t localized to a site context.
  • It is possible to plan for long-term adaptation if timeframes are broken down.Long term adaptation planning is a challenge. People face difficulties planning 5 years in advance let alone 35 years in advance. One way in which to address adaptation planning is to break down the planning into the present, intermediate future (5 years from now), and long term (35 years from now) when developing outcome maps. Most people are able to plan for the present and possibly the intermediate future but planning beyond 5 years requires people to connect the future with something tangible in the present: their children and immediate climate threats.

Download the Lessons Learned Report.

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