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Event Summary | Water and climate change: Adaptation at the margins

On 11 April 2024, leading researchers and practitioners at the forefront of climate adaptation reflected on the social and political barriers to producing, sharing and using climate information.
Multiple Authors
Credit: Oxfam East Africa


On 11 April 2024, SEI and weADAPT co-organised an event in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s REACH programme at the Museum of Natural History. The event was part of the Fair Water? exhibition, hosted at the Museum of Natural History in collaboration with REACH.

This article provides an overview of the event, including the recording, and takeaways from the panel discussions. 

About the event

The impacts of climate change will largely be felt through water. Droughts, floods, storms and extreme events are becoming more frequent and more intense. The entire water cycle is becoming more unpredictable, impacting people’s daily lives and livelihoods, especially those of poor and marginalised communities.

What is the role of climate science in supporting adaptation to climate change for poor, vulnerable and marginalised communities? Leading researchers and practitioners at the forefront of climate adaptation reflected on the social and political barriers to producing, sharing and using climate information and on how it should be interpreted, accessed and applied. They discussed the needs and challenges faced by marginalised communities and how to ensure these communities have a say in adaptation decision making.

Introductions by:

Panel discussion moderated by Alice ChautardweADAPT Platform and Content Manager, SEI Oxford:

You can replay the event here:

Key messages from speakers

Dr. Ellen Dyer, Postdoctoral Researcher in African Climate Science, University of Oxford

Climate change affects water security in multiple ways, including by causing hazards such as floods, flash floods and drought as well as affecting the quantity and the quality of water available.

Adapting to these changes means planning ahead, rather than reacting. Climate information is essential to adapt effectively and can take many forms, such as forecast information but also includes traditional forms of information, indigenous knowledge and people’s experiences.

In order to support climate adaptation at the margins, it is essential that we address the norms around the production of and access to knowledge. Key questions include, for example:

  • Who produces the information?
  • Who is it made for?
  • Who can/has the power to access it?
  • What is it made for?

Dr. Sukaina Bharwani, Senior Research Fellow and weADAPT Director, SEI Oxford

SEI Oxford’s research has been blending different research methods (from modelling to social sciences and ethnographic work) and approaches, including a strong focus on co-production, to support adaptation for marginalised groups. Some featured projects include:

  • FRACTAL project – this 7-year collaboration co-explored the value of climate information using innovative knowledge co-production processes to strengthen urban climate resilience in Africa in nine southern African cities.
  • Development of the Tandem Framework, supporting information providers, intermediaries and users to collectively co-design climate services for policy, research and practice.
  • DIRECTED aims to foster disaster- and climate-resilient societies through the co-production approaches developed through FRACTAL and Tandem to test and establish good practice using a new framework – Risk-Tandem – in four Real-World labs across Europe.
  • weADAPT recognises the barriers to production of and access to knowledge for marginalised groups and welcomes content from all. In March 2024, we launched a new Water Security Theme, shedding light on the links between water security, climate change and adaptation, highlighting challenges and opportunities.

Dr. Dorice Agol, Visiting Fellow, LSE

Climate and climate change affect socio-ecological and political landscapes, creating vulnerability and affecting people in many different and complex ways. For example:

  • Many marginalised and vulnerable communities live in remote and challenging environmental conditions, where infrastructure (road, electricity, water services) is limited, low and/or poorly maintained. As a result, when a disaster strikes, people’s ability to cope is limited.
  • Those communities might live in areas where the political and social environment is very unstable, with widespread conflicts, underinvestment in social services, and limited access to markets and resources. An environmental crisis will exacerbate these challenges.
  • Many marginalised communities suffer from human rights violations and injustices, such as insecure property or tenancy rights.

Adaptation planning critically needs to take these factors and vulnerabilities into account, through efforts to build meaningful partnerships in the co-production and provision of climate information services.

Bettina Koelle, Associate Director, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

A critical starting point when planning adaptation is to understand what matters at the community level, as well as how resilient a community already is and where limits exist to its ability to adapt. Most communities have developed strategies to address uncertainties, and we should work to support their resilience. When considering drought for example, we should question what might pose problems to a community: is it drought over a specific year or month, or over consecutive years or months? Is it not having enough water or the poor quality water? This will help us consider how resilient a system is and where we might support.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre thinks about adaptation at different time scales:

  • Anticipatory Action entails using climate information to act before disasters strike rather than investing in humanitarian response afterwards.
  • At the seasonal scale, extreme events will become more frequent and severe. These events are already having catastrophic impacts on communities.
  • We cannot omit thinking about adaptation at longer term time-scales – those that span over several generations. It is challenging as the uncertainty is high, but we need to consider innovative ways of planning for the future. For example, the Climate Centre uses storylines and climate narratives to explore and conceptualise future options.

Dr. Alice Odingo, Associate Professor, University of Nairobi

Groups marginalised due to poverty, segregation, discrimination and disease are the first to bear the brunt of water insecurity. They have the highest adaptation needs.

There is a lot of climate information being generated and we need to ask ourselves: does it benefit marginalised communities? Does it reach them? Do they use it? With this in mind, Dr Alice Odingo invites us to consider political barriers at the global and national level limiting adaptation at the margins.

At the global level, the voices of low- and middle-income countries and marginalised communities are poorly represented through UN and COP processes. The focus on mitigation is also still in many ways eclipsing the urgency of adaptation, and there is a tendency to focus on extreme events, at the expense of slow onset events, like droughts, which can have devastating impacts.

At the national level, the lack of accountable leadership, poor resource allocation and low institutional capacities all contribute to the neglect of marginalised communities. As per the global level, these communities also lack representation in decision-making at the national level.

How do we move forward? Dr Odingo proposes a new adaptation treaty with three core pillars to strengthen UN processes:

  1. An Environment Assembly ensuring representation from low- and middle- income countries which would also play an advisory role to financial institutions on green investments;
  2. An Environmental Court to prosecute environmental crimes;
  3. A Research Network to cascade research from UN level to local communities so that information on adaptation becomes accessible to all.

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