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We Have to Be on Guard About False Solutions for Climate Change

What role does adaptation have to play in countries vulnerable to climate change impacts, and does the recent international focus on adaptation offer a real cause for optimism?

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Some early adaptation projects run by a Bolivian NGO, Agua Sustentable, are helping the communities to plan for a future with less water. The projects include improvements to the efficiency of irrigation systems so that available water stretches further, and the development of new water storage capacity to help harvest rainfall and reduce dependency on the glacial melt water.

While Hugo is grateful for the help he knows that these initiatives will have to be an order of magnitude larger if they are to offer a viable response to the loss of the glaciers. “The projects help us a lot. They are useful projects,” he tells me, “but we need bigger ones. Reservoirs that hold the water- a big reservoir. That is why we hope for help.” But, bigger projects will mean finding more resources than Agua Sustentable currently has.   

The extent of Bolivia’s adaptation needs becomes apparent when you consider that this valley represents just five of at least 200 communities which rely directly on Illimani’s glaciers alone, not to mention the thousands of other communities in similar situations across the country. If you then include the countless other villages and towns which do not rely on glaciers but are vulnerable to increases in floods and droughts (that climate change is likely to bring), then the adaptation task looks formidable. In these circumstances adaptation can take many forms, from disaster-response planning, to the introduction of drought resistant crops, or more conventional poverty-reduction and health projects which help reduce levels of vulnerability. As Adriana Soto, who works for Agua Sustentable, puts it: “There are many distinct realities [across Bolivia]. In the end everyone is exposed to the changes in climatic conditions.” With this situation replicated around the world the scale of necessary adaptation investment is hard to fathom.  

Everyone I speak with says that the municipal authority here in La Paz, and the national government in general, should be doing more to help prepare for climate change. But it is difficult to see how Bolivia will be able to afford such levels of investment without significant international support. Adriana explains that, “Bolivia needs to have a very clear adaptation policy which would generate resources. But I do not know if they would be enough for everything which needs to be done, because each reality is different and some measures will be very expensive.”

This suggests that it is essential some of the $100bn per year by 2020 pledged by developed countries finds its way to Bolivia. However, not everyone is convinced that the rise of the adaptation agenda in international negotiations offers much reason for optimism.

Sceptical voices

Back in La Paz I meet with Martin Vilela from the Bolivian Climate Change Platform. He has been at the last three COPs and could talk all day about the intricacies and mysterious workings of international negotiations. He says that the warming which is now inevitable means that “adaptation is a reality” and that developed countries must “pay for their historic climate debt.” However, he cautions against placing too much hope on progress with adaptation finance.

Martin is sceptical about how much international finance will really be provided by developed countries. He points out that the pledge of $100 billion by 2020 is in reality highly vague, open to a lot of interpretation, and offers little guarantee that significant adaptation finance will be delivered. Many donors have simply relabelled pre-existing development aid as adaptation finance, making it easier to meet their targets. Adaptation finance may even fall in the coming years with developed countries citing the economic crisis as a reason for them not paying more. While headline grabbing, Martin says that the pledges of adaptation finance have in reality been “empty promises”.

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