Adaptation to environmental variability and change is not a new concept in mountain areas, it is the age-old approach used by mountain communities to survive. Mountain people have a long record of adapting to extreme environmental conditions through multiple livelihood strategies including approaches such as trade, on and off-farm labour, crop diversification, and development of traditional resource management systems for water, irrigation, and soil conservation. However, in the Himalayan region, progressive warming at higher altitudes has been three times greater than the global average, and future predictions indicate a continuation of this trend of disproportionate warming. The existing strategies, which are mostly highly dependent on natural resources, may not be sufficient to respond to the magnitude of future change.
Adaptation to climate change is local and highly context specific; it is not independent of, or isolated from, the influence of other factors including social, political, environmental and economic variables. Adaptation efforts therefore need to take local conditions into consideration. Generally, adaptation is facilitated by reducing vulnerability, and vulnerability in turn is mainly determined by poverty and marginalisation. Mountain communities in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas generally have disproportionate rates of poverty and are usually marginalised from political influence and economic opportunities. Thus, in a mountainous context, adaptation to change needs to focus on reducing poverty and marginalisation, and is thus closely related to the traditional rural development and poverty reduction agenda. The most important task is to gain a better understanding of the risks related to climate change and to mainstream this knowledge into development planning. Furthermore, mountain communities are not homogenous and vulnerability to change differs among different segments of the population. Thus supporting adaptation at the community level means taking into account existing adaptive capacities and vulnerabilities of particular groups in a specific context, and identifying promising and sustainable strategies to enhance community resilience.
ICIMOD has conducted several studies on community-based adaptation to climate change including the project on ‘Too much too little water’, the ‘AdaptHimal’ project on resilience building of the poor to climate and socioeconomic change, and the ‘Himali’ project on high mountain agribusiness and livelihood improvement. These studies have demonstrated that focusing solely on autonomous adaptation mechanisms based on natural resources will not be sustainable in the long term -- given the magnitude of predicted future climate change. There is a need to consider livelihood diversification that goes beyond land-based activities (e.g. access to markets, remittances, skills development, tourism).
Furthermore, adaptation does not occur in an institutional vacuum, and the role of local institutions and the influence of external agencies at community level need to be better understood, for example with regard to the management of natural resources, in particular water.
Finally, having a conducive policy framework is a precondition for both autonomous and planned adaptation.