As aid agencies have become more adept at thinking about climate change in their work, the burning question is how to expand successful programmes that help local people cope with climate shifts or develop in a green way.
Last month, scientists, development practitioners and policy makers gathered in Dhaka for an international conference to review existing efforts by communities to adapt to more extreme weather patterns and rising seas. Participants explored how to take the lessons emerging at the local level and scale them up.
They concluded there's a need for better communication of what works, and stronger engagement with a wider range of players, as well as more scientific analysis of community-based adaptation.
"We need to identify incentives for the private sector to support adaptation at the community level and we need to involve governments, youth groups and faith-based organisations," said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which co-organised the conference.
Participants plan to publish a peer-reviewed book of their findings to help raise the profile of community-level adaptation in the next major scientific report from the U.N. climate panel, due out in 2014.
"The final element is to spread our knowledge," Huq said. "We have to be better at communicating from what non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other practitioners learn on the ground, and better at supporting communities and drawing out lessons from their activities."
This month I was at another conference in the British city of Oxford, organised by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), which also aimed to encourage climate experts to make a bigger impact in poor countries.
High-fliers who've worked on successful initiatives in areas ranging from ethical finance and fair trade to deforestation, farming and sanitation delivered a series of case study presentations to give participants some food for thought. I listened to two of them.
The first covered a community sanitation programme in Indonesia, called SANIMAS, which has been rolled out to several hundred towns and cities across the southeast Asian nation. It also has been expanded to include climate change aspects such as the production of biogas, and solid waste management through composting and anaerobic digestion. The organisations running it are now applying to sell carbon credits under the U.N.'s Clean Development Mechanism.
The second looked at an agricultural production system in Brazil's semi-arid northeast, which has put drip irrigation into the hands of local farmers, helping them cultivate organic fruit and vegetables amid increasingly unreliable rainfall patterns. Before, they had been using government grants to buy cattle, which contributes to deforestation as trees are cut down for grazing.
Under the Adapta Sertao scheme, irrigation technology is sold to farmers through cooperatives which offer competitive prices together with micro-credit from a revolving fund. Tested in 50 pilot projects, the approach is set to be used as a reference point for climate change adaptation at the national and regional level.
Why have these initiatives worked so well? What has allowed them to take on a life of their own and spread beyond their initial testing grounds? I noticed some similarities in how they've been designed and implemented that provide a few clues:
They involve the local community in choosing what they need
In the Indonesian scheme, communities are asked to consider what kind of sewerage system is most appropriate for them, including toilets, piping and waste treatment, and whether they want it to produce biogas. This results in different arrangements and designs, producing a sense of ownership and some colourful artwork. In one boarding school, a sanitation system for 625 students also provides fuel for 10 biogas stoves. Pupils no longer have to buy kerosene, helping them overcome their reservations about cooking with the residue from their loos. In Brazil, the idea of introducing irrigation technology sprung from a long-established network of women working on community radio programmes, who said they were fed up of using buckets to water their food crops.
They ensure local people make a financial investment in the project
For every 100 million rupiah ($11,500) invested in a SANIMAS sewage system, Indonesian communities contribute around 6 to 12 million rupiah, giving them a financial stake in making it work. The rest comes mainly from local governments and international contributions. In Brazil, farmers purchase their own irrigation equipment from cooperatives - a cheaper alternative than buying direct from retailers - with small loans to help them out.
They provide job opportunities and a boost to the local economy
Thais Corral, who coordinates the Adapta Sertao project, says increased profit opportunities have attracted younger people back into farming, giving them a reason not to migrate to urban areas. Surplus fruit and vegetables are being sold on local markets, boosting the economy too.
They train local people to manage the technical aspects, and create a sense of commitment and excitement
The Indonesian scheme trains local people to act as project facilitators in their own communities, and has developed a certification process which involves taking tests. It also hands out awards, as does the Brazilian initiative, bringing the winners to ceremonies and forums in cities where they can share their experiences with politicians and the like. "It creates energy," says Corral. "People really need to be involved in the learning process."
They bring in local authorities but don't compromise
Environmental engineer Yuyun Ismawati of the Basic Needs Services network, which coordinates SANIMAS, said some local governments in Indonesia have tried to cut corners after realising they had to cough up $25,000 to $40,000 for a sanitation system, because they are used to allocating only small amounts of money for community projects. "We said, no, we need a proper standardised construction, and these specifications have to be followed," she said. "For local governments, it was a bit shocking for them because this NGO is asking for something expensive, and for the poor. How will the poor manage those kind of fancy things? We managed to reassure them that we will do proper training, and we will accompany and assist the community until they can run this facility in a sustainable way."
They use external funding to establish a model but local financing to keep it going
Ismawati says backing by international donors was needed to formulate the SANIMAS project and launch pilots to refine it into a successful model. But once tried and tested, local government funding has been essential to rolling it out across the country. Some of the community organisations that run the sanitation systems charge a monthly fee and others charge according to use. Any profits they make are reinvested in other projects. In Brazil, Adapta Sertao has partnered with local financing institutions to set up revolving funds that provide micro-loans enabling farmers to acquire irrigation technology. After five years, the initiative requires very little external funding, according to Corral.
They monitor the results and learn lessons
Adapta Sertao monitors 15 of its more than 50 pilot projects on a continuous basis, and analyses them according to socio-economic and environmental indicators. The results are fed back into the process, to improve the model and contribute to wider climate change policy.
They are pragmatic and accept a small level of failure when scaling up
In rolling out the Indonesian sanitation initiative, 10 to 20 percent of local projects have not worked out, in some cases because they were run by outside consultants rather than the community, Ismawati said. To keep failure to a minimum, local enthusiasm, ownership and involvement in decision making are essential, she said. But pragmatism is also necessary. For example, it's no use trying to set up a community sanitation system in an illegal slum because it needs to be maintained by people who are settled and not at risk of being kicked out of their homes.
These are encouraging initiatives, but many development organisations are only just beginning to work out how to "scale up" climate change projects that have worked well in the communities where they've been tested.
They now have the tough task of boosting momentum on the ground and at national level without a clear lead from U.N. climate negotiators who are still struggling to patch together a new international agreement to tackle global warming.