03 November 2017

Working together to adapt to changing climate

Options Winter 2017/18: Sea level rise, fiercer storms, heat waves, fires, and droughts: the effects of climate change are increasingly being seen around the globe. Adapting now is essential to survival, but it requires careful coordination and cooperation.

© STILLFX | Shutterstock

© STILLFX | Shutterstock

Dealing with drought

Currently around a third of the world’s population is coping with water scarcity, which is defined as more than 40% of available water being used. The largest population living with water stress is concentrated in Asia and the Middle East, but water shortages are also occurring in the USA and many other countries around the world. Climate change is expected to worsen this situation, through an increased number of extreme weather events such as droughts, making it harder to implement and maintain secure water supply systems.

In a recent paper, IIASA Water Program Deputy Director Yoshihide Wada and coauthors give six clear adaptation strategies that could be implemented to relieve water stress. The strategies include infrastructure projects to increase supply, such as building more reservoirs and increasing sea water desalination, as well as more plausible socioeconomic interventions such as improving irrigation efficiency, which would reduce water demand.

The researchers created models for each country and water basin, based on projected climate, population, and water security issues. They then used the models to predict how different combinations of the six technologies or practices in each area would affect the fraction of the global population under water stress, and found that a reduction is possible by 2050.

“I am an optimist,” says Wada. “Before this project, there wasn’t much research on how we could adapt to reduce water stress, and many thought the situation was untenable. Now at least we know that something can be done.”

However, unsurprisingly, the research shows that improving this situation would take an unprecedented effort: “If every country under water stress employed four of the six strategies at the same time,” explained Wada, “the proportion of people in the world who are facing water stress would stabilize rather than continue to grow.”

“The problem is that although water scarcity is a regional issue, water stress is exacerbated by global processes, including climate change, population and economic growth, and food production and trade. Stabilization and even a significant reduction in the number of people suffering water stress are possible by 2050, but strong international commitment and strategic efforts are required.”

Fighting hunger

Food security is another pressing issue, especially in developing countries. IIASA researcher Esther Boere has been focusing on smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, who are especially vulnerable to the threats of climate change. Boere and her team in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program found that by taking appropriate adaptation measures at targeted locations across the country—namely expanding irrigation, providing subsidies for fertilizer, and investing in infrastructure—policymakers could improve smallholders’ income and food security.

“In some regions we found that there are currently no irrigation systems in place, but the biophysical conditions would be suitable for it, leading to a large untapped production potential,” explains Boere. “In other areas we saw that there is a lack of infrastructure, making it difficult to get products to market.” The researchers used a new methodology to map each farm according to factors including its size, activities, and intensity, as well as climate and environment. They could then model which policy measures would be most effective in each area.

Systems focusing on high-value products rely on a strong infrastructure for trade purposes. “Our research suggests that mixed crop-livestock systems would be beneficial,” explains Boere. “They can pool their risk and are less prone to food insecurity.”

The results are being used to provide support to Ethiopian policymakers, as well as helping the International Fund for Agricultural Development implement effective irrigation projects in the country.

Public and private

When implementing local climate policies, one major question is how public authorities could share responsibility for adaptation with private companies or individuals.

“Public authorities play a central role in climate change adaptation,” explains IIASA researcher Mia Landauer, who works in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program and Arctic Futures Initiative. “However, engaging the private sector and shifting responsibility towards them would be beneficial for adaptation.” Landauer’s recent case study of Copenhagen and Helsinki with colleagues from Aalto University, indicates that more attention needs to be paid to how local authorities engage private actors.

“So far, regulations and market-based mechanisms with strong public ownership have been used to foster adaptation and to involve and steer private actors,” says Landauer. “However, in practice this provided little motivation for the private sector to take responsibility for implementing adaptation actions.”

Landauer’s research recommends focusing on questions such as who bears the consequences of climate change, and who should carry the residual risk? “Public authorities should assess the ‘problem ownership’ of adaptation policies and measures, and hence identify in which contexts adaptation is a public or private good,” she says. “This would clarify citizens’ and companies’ motivation and capacities to adapt.”

The City of Helsinki, for example, offers a highly energy-efficient district cooling service, which private actors can buy: centrally-cooled water can be pumped directly into private ventilation systems, in order to regulate indoor temperature in the case of extreme heat events. Here, the public healthcare service carries the residual health risk of exposure to heat.

Unfortunately, coordination between public authorities and the private sector is also often lacking in planning and implementing national climate policies. In a Nordic study comparing national climate and tourism strategies, Landauer found that important details, about how snow-based tourism can adapt to shifting seasons, for example, were absent from the national climate strategies. The same was true the other way round: tourism strategies did not state how the sector could implement climate adaptation actions. “There was hardly any mention of one in the other,” explained Landauer. “There must be more collaboration in order to build coherent and effective strategies across scales and sectors.”

These concrete policy and action recommendations, made through evidence-based understanding of how sectors, countries, and individuals’ actions affect each other, are essential for humanity to adapt to our changing climate. 

Text by Natasha Little

Further information

Landauer M, Goodsite ME, & Juhola S (2017). Nordic National Climate Adaptation and Tourism Strategies – (How) Are They Interlinked? Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism: 1-12. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/14658]

Klein J, Landauer M, & Juhola S (2016). Local authorities and the engagement of private actors in climate change adaptation. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy: 1-20. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/13956]

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Last edited: 14 November 2017


Yoshihide Wada

Deputy Program Director


T +43(0) 2236 807 241

Esther Boere

Research Scholar

Ecosystems Services and Management

T +43(0) 2236 807 463

Mia Landauer

Guest Research Scholar

Risk and Resilience

T +43(0) 2236 807 587

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