Developing countries are not yet well adapted even to current climate risks: floods, droughts and storm.  Yet those risks are becoming harsher as the world warms, climate extremes become more intense, and the oceans rise – the consequences of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

This evaluation draws lessons from World Bank Group experience with adaptation to both current levels of climate variability and ongoing climate change. It reviews the impact of longer-standing efforts to deal with climate variability, for instance via drought relief, sustainable land management, and flood control. The evaluation also looks at how, and how well, the World Bank Group has incorporated climate change risks into the design and appraisal of long-lived infrastructure. It assesses early lessons from a new crop of activities that explicitly grapple with climate adaptation at the national level.

Two kinds of climate risk, three kinds of adaptation

People need to be resilient both to today’s climate risks and those that are emerging. There are three ways to do this: two of them desirable, one not.

  • Closing today’s adaptation gap. The first is to help poor countries adapt to today’s challenges in a way that makes them more prepared for tomorrow’s. While there’s a role for dams and seawalls, building up institutions will be critical for this. Agricultural research and extension, disaster risk management systems, river basin management organizations – improvements in all of these will help right now, and will lay the foundations for the sophisticated organizations that will be needed to confront the unprecedented climate situations of the 2030s and beyond. In Sub-Saharan Africa it is particularly important to build up the hydrometeorological data systems that can help people manage agriculture and disaster risks today, while providing a more solid basis for planning long term investments in hydropower and irrigation systems as the climate changes.
  • Maladaptation. The second kind of adaptation is a trap to be avoided. Well-meaning efforts to cope with today’s climate variability can backfire in the longer run. Planting exotic trees in China’s Loess Plateau, for instance, succeeded in boosting farmers’ incomes and reducing terrible erosion problems – but is now recognized as having drawn down scarce groundwater.
  • Anticipatory adaptation. The third kind of adaptation involves acting now to avert severe but long-term threats, and to keep options open for the future. Shaping land use patterns will be critical for this. Urban populations will swell by hundreds of millions this century, and it would be better if settlements expanded away from the coastal lowlands and floodplains most exposed to risk. To conserve biodiversity, plants and animals will need to be able to migrate upslope and polewards to cooler ground, and it would be better if their escape routes are not blocked by swathes of intensive agriculture. 

Avoiding these undesirable outcomes is doubly difficult – first, because it is hard for political systems to exercise such foresight, and second because past experience with land use planning and zoning is not encouraging.

A review of World Bank activities found that the Bank and its clients indeed focused much more on here-and-now climate variability adaptation than on anticipatory adaptation. But there are exceptions. The South African Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development Project helped the Western Cape Province develop a sophisticated approach to long-term spatial development planning in order to maintain the region’s rich and globally distinctive floral biodiversity. A technical assistance project in the Indian Sundarbans– a low-lying delta facing the Bay of Bengal -- outlined a generation-long plan to reconfigure development patterns threatened by the rising sea.

  • Guidance is lacking on when and how to incorporate climate risks into project design and appraisal.
  • Current procedures are ad hoc. Climate risks are sometimes neglected. At the other extreme, climate projections based on complex global models have not been useful for many project-level applications.
  • Current results frameworks on resilience are not outcome-oriented and risk emphasizing spending over results. It is not possible to meaningfully measure spending on adaptation.
  • Costs and impacts of presumed adaptation-oriented activities are not well understood.
  • Hydromet systems potentially offer important benefits, but are poorly maintained in many countries especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Anticipatory actions, including spatial planning, are critical for some aspects of long run climate change adaptation.
  • National adaptation plans have spread themselves too thin across too many topics and locations.