Adaptation measures in complex social-ecological systems challenge their sustainability in Africa

V.H. van Zyl-Bulitta investigates negative externalities of adaptation plans on a conceptual level in the African context through direct engagement with stakeholders in in-depth interviews.


Adaptation is increasingly relevant, with adaptation plans becoming mandatory. Less developed countries are funded through the LDC fund to develop National Adaptation Plans (NAPAs) to communicate their context, needs, and exposure to multiple stressors. These plans then serve as a guideline to implement adaptation strategies. In general, adaptation seeks to reduce vulnerability, but this is not necessarily so. It is also unclear whether, or to what extent, possible negative externalities or unintended consequences are considered in the formulation of those adaptation plans.

Because of this gap, the project investigates negative externalities of adaptation plans on a conceptual level in the African context through direct engagement with stakeholders in in-depth interviews. This stresses the importance of considering negative externalities and implications of climate change adaptation on different levels, fosters awareness, and aids comprehension to enable better decision making, adaptation project implementation, and future policy design. From an integrated and multi-scale perspective we present evidence of negative and positive externalities from Africa and highlight patterns in identified case studies.


Case studies on possible externalities to climate change adaptation were collected through phone interviews with structured as well as open ended questions. The case study identification was guided by the question: who (else) is bearing the consequences?

Climate change has the potential to undermine sustainable development, increase poverty, and delay or prevent the realization of the Millennium Development Goals. An effective way to address the impacts of climate change is by integrating adaptation measures into sustainable development strategies so as to reduce the pressure on natural resources, improve environmental risk management, and increase the social well-being of the poor. It is recognized that climate change impacts do not happen in isolation. Impacts in one sector can adversely or positively affect another. Sectors can be affected directly and/or indirectly by climate change [1].

Cases from South Africa and other African countries exemplify how decision-making outcomes impact across different local and temporal scales and on to different stakeholders and what lessons can be learned. We look for evidence on possible transfers of vulnerabilities  to another community, province or country or to other stakeholders in the same jurisdiction or context, or across time (to future generations). We differentiate intended and unintended consequences, and whether these have been considered before or during implementation, as well as whether monitoring has been done after the end of a project.

Conclusion and Discussion

Case studies were classified as follows according to a template for different types of adaptation: windfall (unexpected win-win, lucky shots), win-lose (maladaptation), lose-win (maladaptation) and lose-lose (perverse, maladaptation). Furthermore, using an adapted version of the framework from [2] and [3], we discuss a possible correlation between the identified typologies and the following perspectives: short- (relief aid) versus long-term (strategic and sustainability-oriented), and considering broader societal benefits versus selfish benefits on a limited scale, as well as the context, values, and interests, local knowledge and feedbacks between local and global processes.


[1] Madzwamuse, M. Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation Preparedness in South Africa. (2010). Heinrich Boell Stiftung Southern Africa
[2] Brown, K., Westaway, E. Agency, Capacity, and Resilience to Environmental Change: Lessons from Human Development, Well-being, and Disasters. (2011), Annu. Rev.Environ. Resour. 36:14.1-14.22, doi: 10.1146/annurev-environ-052610-092905.
[3] Eriksen et al. (2011), When Not Every Response to Climate Change Is a Good One: Identifying Principles for Sustainable Adaptation. Climate and Development 3 (1):7-20.


Christo Fabricius, Sustainability Research Unit, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa
Anthony Patt, Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program (RPV), IIASA


Verena H. van Zyl-Bulitta of the University of Leipzig/University of Stellenbosch is a German citizen, resident in Germany and South Africa. She was funded by IIASA's German National Member Organization during the YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.

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Last edited: 23 March 2015


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