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Resilient recovery: Using climate adaptation plans to build back better

Though focused on climate change, National Adaptation Plans offer important assessments of the risks a country faces and can be valuable in devising comprehensive pandemic response strategies.

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March, several things have become clear: 1) this pandemic has exposed and amplified the structural inequalities and inefficiencies that make our societies fragile; 2) recovering from its impacts will require swift and massive investments; and 3) if we want to come out of this stronger, such investments need to be green, fair, and resilient to a range of shocks and stresses.

Investments also must be identified and deployed quickly—especially in low- and middle-income countries, as we’re dealing with a crisis that is expected to increase global poverty for the first time in 30 years. We’re seeing recommendations from top economists and specialized task forces for designing relief and recovery packages that simultaneously address the social and economic fallout of the pandemic and the ongoing challenges of climate change, social exclusion, food insecurity, and biodiversity loss. But translating these into meaningful action relies on aligning them with national contexts and priorities.

Planning is paramount

This is where vehicles such as NAPs and planning processes can help. Through them, governments have already invested considerable amounts of time and effort to crystallize their medium- and long-term priorities for becoming more climate resilient. Though focused on climate change, these NAPs offer important assessments of the risks a country faces and can be valuable in devising more comprehensive pandemic response strategies. Since climate change interacts with so many aspects of our societies, economies, and ecosystems, preparing for its impacts often involves addressing multiple development objectives, including health. What’s more, NAPs are country-owned, informed by the best-available science, and address the needs of the most vulnerable communities and places—all valuable for informing crisis relief and recovery efforts.

While meant to focus on medium- and long-term priorities, NAPs can provide entry points for immediate action. First, they can identify particularly vulnerable places and populations—those that are disproportionately affected by shocks and stresses, hardest to reach, and too often left behind. Second, they can point to existing mechanisms for delivering support to vulnerable communities. Kenya’s NAP mentions its Hunger Safety Net Programme, and Ethiopia’s NAP mentions its Productive Safety Net Program. These programs, important to building the climate resilience of the poorest and most marginalized, may also provide an architecture for delivering relief during a pandemic. Third, NAPs engage and coordinate actors already working on risk management who could help inform relief efforts. Malawi’s NAP “core team,” for example, has experts from health, environmental affairs, finance, and disaster management, among other agencies. They should be involved in devising sustainable relief efforts.

Looking beyond immediate relief and toward longer-term recovery, NAPs can provide a roadmap for action. Take the example of Fiji. While the country seems to have contained the spread of COVID-19, its economy is expected to shrink by almost 5% this year due to travel restrictions. Tourism—responsible for almost 40% of the country’s GDP—has ground to a halt. On top of this, climate impacts haven’t relented: in early April, Cyclone Harold slammed onto its shores, destroying buildings and flooding towns. This country needs investments that help address both types of shocks.

A closer look at three aspects within Fiji’s NAP—it bears mentioning these aspects are most often cited in COVID-19 recovery strategies—reveals the myriad benefits in adaptation solutions. For its health sector, Fiji’s NAP prioritizes actions to make health infrastructure more disaster resilient, boost diagnostic capacities, and train healthcare workers in disaster medicine. These are investments that would leave the nation’s health system better able to deal with the next crisis, whether climate-related or not. Fiji’s NAP also outlines ways to reinforce its food system by implementing any number of its 23 priorities related to food and nutrition security, such as encouraging agronomy practices, climate-based crop planning, and building more resilient seed and food storage facilities. And in terms of infrastructure—often a central piece of economic recovery packages—we see investment priorities highlighted throughout the NAP across sectors; these will be climate-informed and involve a mix of hard and natural infrastructure, addressing many development objectives.

Fiji’s national adaptation plan is just one example. Other countries have similar “no-regret” actions in their NAPs that should be included in pandemic recovery strategies—such as improving health surveillance systems in Saint Lucia, micro-irrigation schemes in Togo, forest restoration in Guatemala, or climate-resilient school retrofits in Kiribati. The actions listed in these plans are not wishful thinking. They offer a basis for action and important parameters—including time frames and budgets—for getting sustainable and resilient recovery off the ground.

Tackling a complex web of issues

While NAPs aren’t the only documents that can inform recovery, we shouldn’t only look at documents anyway. In the case of adaptation plans, they are underpinned by a larger process that works to change how countries plan their economies and support their citizens. According to the United Nations, over 120 developing countries have launched these processes and established structures for bringing together actors from within and outside of government to assess and prioritize climate risks, and design and implement risk management solutions. The systems being established as part of this effort should be integrated into broader whole-of-government responses to the pandemic. For example, Colombia’s National Climate Change System (SISCLIMA) may provide useful frameworks for collaboration across sectors and levels of government for pandemic recovery.

Adaptation planning processes are also tackling complex issues of gender and social inclusion, ensuring that different social groups are reflected in adaption actions and benefits are shared equitably. Peru’s Indigenous Platform, for example, is a legally mandated mechanism for the country’s Indigenous Peoples to articulate their priorities, as well as share their knowledge and practices, to inform national climate action. The platform may provide a useful basis for identifying climate-friendly recovery actions that address the needs and capacities of these populations across the country.

The current pandemic has brought to light many weaknesses in how we respond to severe shocks and stresses. As we recover from its effects, let’s not mortgage our future by simply recreating the conditions that led to this crisis in the first place or by overlooking the challenges that will shape future crises. Investing in actions that countries have prioritized in their national adaptation plans can be essential to building national systems that prepare a country for dealing with the next crisis, whether it be a viral outbreak or a cyclone.


[This blog originally appeared on the IISD website.]