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Planning and Implementing Rural Adaptation Initiatives in the Lower Mekong: Integrating Climate Science and Local Knowledge

This comprehensive report demonstrates an integrative process for combining climate science and community knowledge to support climate change adaptation planning in the Lower Mekong Basin.
Salam Salloum


The USAID Mekong Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change (USAID Mekong ARCC) project is a five-year project (2011-2016) funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Regional Development Mission for Asia (RDMA) in Bangkok and implemented by Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) in partnership with International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM), World Resources Institute (WRI), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Asian Management and Development Institute (AMDI), and World Food Programme (WFP).

The project focuses on identifying the environmental, economic, and social effects of climate change in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB), and on assisting highly exposed and vulnerable rural populations in ecologically sensitive areas to increase their ability to adapt to climate change impacts on water resources, ecosystems, agricultural and aquatic systems, livestock and other livelihood options.

This legacy report* has two primary aims:

  1. To demonstrate an integrative process for combining climate science and community knowledge to support the development of climate change adaptation plans; and
  2. To present the adaptation strategies applied in target communities of the LMB along with lessons learned through their implementation and monitoring.

Adaptation projects implemented in the USAID Mekong ARCC pilot sites spanned a range of strategies that generally fit into six broad categories: Water Infrastructure and Management, Climate Smart Agricultural Techniques, Livestock Management, Aquaculture, Forest Restoration and Management, and Community Organization and Capacity Building. Details of the activities implemented at each site are presented in detail in the main report*.

The comprehensive report should be useful to those working with communities on climate change adaptation including, but not limited to, non-governmental organizations, international aid organizations, government agencies, and research institutions.

*Download this document from the right-hand column of this page. An overview of this document is provided below; please see the full text for much more detail.

Figure 1 from page 6 of the report: USAID Mekong ARCC community adaptation sites

In the report

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Overview of Pilot Sites
  • USAID Mekong ARCC Decision Making Framework
  • Desk-Based Vulnerability Assessment
    • Climate Projections
    • Livelihood Threat Assessment Tables
    • Scientific Vulnerability Matrices
    • Gender Vulnerability and Specific Vulnerable Groups Assessment
    • Disaster Risk Assessment
  • Community Climate Story
    • Community/Village Mapping Exercises
    • Prioritization of Livelihood Activities
    • Seasonal Livelihood Calendars
    • Seasonal Hazard Calendars
    • Historical Timelines
    • Community Vulnerability Matrix
  • Scientific Climate Story, Shared Understanding, and Scenario Development
    • Climate Education and Awareness-raising
    • Comparative Analysis
    • Developing a Community Vision
    • Outcome Mapping
  • Implementation of Adaptation Plan
    • Adaptation Implementation by Site
  • Lessons Learned from Adaptation Implementation

Method: The USAID Mekong ARCC Decision Making Framework

The USAID Mekong ARCC Integrated Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Decision Making framework was used with the target project sites to ultimately select and design context-specific technical solutions for strengthening livelihood resilience in the face of climate change.

The framework merges the best available climate science research with communities’ local expertise and knowledge. Under this framework, science-based and community-based assessments are initially conducted as two distinct processes. Knowledge sharing ensues where results from both the top-down and bottom-up assessments are evaluated and compared. A more holistic understanding emerges, which accounts for the longer term trajectory of climate provided by the scientific projections, along with the on-the-ground observations of how climate change is unfolding to date and specific effects on people, their livelihoods, and community resources. This merged understanding serves as the basis for developing adaptation solutions that fit the context and needs of individual communities.

The generalized process is depicted in the main image above, and emcompasses several steps, each of which is described in detail in the report:

  1. Desk-Based Vulnerability Assessment: In the first step of the USAID Mekong ARCC implementation workflow, project implementers develop a desktop vulnerability assessment (VA) to gather data and conduct preliminary analyses around projected climate impacts and contextual factors influencing local adaptive capacity.
  2. Community Climate Story (CCS) activities are a next step to understanding vulnerability from the community perspective.Through a participatory process, this aspect of the USAID Mekong ARCC framework elucidates stakeholder concerns regarding their own experience and observations of climate change at the ground level. It also helps to characterize the community’s biophysical and socio-economic context, livelihood options, and decision-making processes. As a result, CCS activities facilitate community-based analysis of climate vulnerabilities at the village level, and provide a platform to engage people in the process of understanding and preparing for climate risks.
  3. Scientific Climate Story, Shared Understanding, and Scenario Development: The third stage of the community adaptation planning process in the USAID Mekong ARCC framework involves three distinct sets of activities: 1) the Scientific Climate Story (SCS), 2) Shared Understanding and 3) Scenario Development. In conducting these workshops, implementing partners (IPs) draw on the same pool of villagers that participated in the CCS activities so as to build off prior sessions and to continue engaging with participants who had already committed time and energy to the process.
  4. Implementation of Adaptation Plan: The USAID Mekong ARCC participatory framework to integrate top-down climate science with bottom-up local knowledge results in an increased awareness of climate impacts, and locally developed strategies to avoid, minimize, mitigate or otherwise prepare for those impacts. Based on the community assessments, project facilitators develop adaptation plans that are filtered through external technical expert analyses to ensure adaptation initiatives are both good development and increase the climate change resilience of a community.

Lessons Learnt

USAID Mekong ARCC’s field-testing of integrative adaptation decision-making followed by implementation of pilot activities across five at-risk sites in the LMB revealed a number of important lessons (see the full text for details from the individual cases):

  1. In order to be successful, community adaptation options must show an economic gain. This could take the shape of lower input costs into production systems and/or higher market value of products.

  2. Co-benefits related to increased food security and nutrition are also important. For example, pilot farmers participating in chicken and small-scale aquaculture projects gained an additional and steady protein source through eggs, meat, frogs, and fish. Home gardens were also quite successful in some communities, enhancing the nutrition of diets at the household level.

  3. Small shifts to existing systems are more likely to be replicated as they generally involve less risk and are therefore more attractive to neighboring farmers and/or other communities. Larger scale infrastructure projects may in some cases may have significant positive impact on community adaptive capacity but involve more substantial technical and financial assistance from outside sources, for example, from government agencies or international aid organizations.

  4. Training and capacity building are critical for enhancing community knowledge and adaptive behaviors. Farmer field schools and other educational platforms allow for continued adaptation following project closeout. Involving “model farmers” and influential community members to help facilitate on-going training and dissemination of knowledge post-project enhances longer-term sustainability.

  5. Project cycle is a key factor influencing success. In the case of USAID Mekong ARCC, the adaptation implementation component of the project occurred in large part during the 2015 El Niño event, which resulted in drought and extreme heat across the region. Because most of the activities lasted for roughly one year, some of the projects failed due to the extreme weather scenario. A more suitable timeframe for many of the projects would be three years.This would also allow for continued monitoring and supervision of many of the shorter-term projects that would be good to follow-up on in order to enhance their sustainability.

There are many other important co-benefits from the adaptation activities that were implemented in the target villages. For example, the sustainable land use practices applied in many of the pilot sites reduce reliance on monoculture systems and the associated impacts to soil fertility and agro-biodiversity. Examples of these sustainable practices include: the introduction of native rice species, the system of rice intensification, and the creation of organic pig pits that generate compost to fertilize fields. Monocultures require large inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, leading to soil degradation, and thus reduce the value and resilience of land for agriculture. It is therefore critical to maintain healthy soils through sustainable land use. Integrated and organic agricultural practices, such as those promoted in many of the pilot sites:

  • Build soil structure and soil fertility;
  • Rehabilitate poor soils and bring degraded soils back into productivity;
  • Reduce the financial risk of farm operations as farmers are less dependent on external inputs; and
  • Increase agro-biodiversity, which builds resilience to storms, heat and increased pest and disease pressure.

There are also substantial long-term benefits provided by maintaining healthy forests related to their role in providing critical ecosystem services such as provision of food, fresh water and fuel, watershed protection, air quality maintenance, storm protection, and cultural aspects of recreation, spirituality, and aesthetics.

From the front cover of the report: In Nakai District of Khammouan, Lao PDR, the pilot villages locations are remote and fall entirely within the highly biodiverse Phou Hin Poun National Biodiversity Conservation Area of the Annamites Ecoregion.

Suggested Citation

Dugan, S., Gustafson, S. and Lichtefeld J. (2016) Planning and Implementing Rural Adaptation Initiatives in the Lower Mekong. USAID Mekong ARCC Legacy Report. U.S. Agency for International Development Regional Development Mission for Asia: Bangkok, Thailand.

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