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Adapting to threat

Where a threat cannot be reduced or eliminated, adapting to it can be an effective response. Adaptation refers both to physical adjustments or technical measures (such as constructing a higher sea wall) and changing behaviour, economic activities and social organization to be more compatible with existing or emerging conditions or threats. The latter requires adaptive capacity, including the ability to develop new options and to deliver them to vulnerable populations.

Some environmental changes, such as expected climate change from global warming, have such long lead times that some degree of environmental change is inevitable even if measures to control the situation are implemented rapidly. Some adaptation measures may then be essential. Efforts to predict the probable impacts of climate change should help to determine the adaptive actions that are necessary and the speed with which they should be implemented.

Various investments in adaptive capacity have been made following advances in early warning. Several countries have tried to change patterns of agricultural practice so that crops more suited to periodic changes in growing conditions can be grown in years affected by climate fluctuations associated with El Niņo and La Niņa events (see box). The risk of crop failure is thus reduced.

Breakdown of traditional coping mechanisms: Kenyan pastoralists

Pastoralists' coping strategies for drought include migration to available water and pastures, setting aside dry grazing pastures and splitting herds to minimize risks. In the past, there were fewer pastoralists and they had large herds to survive droughts. During extreme droughts, animals would graze unused swamps, forests and areas remote from water. These ancient drought responses, however, are often no longer available to pastoralists, either because land has been sold or because of barriers erected by farmers, ranchers, industry and city residents. Other traditional drought responses, such as raiding neighbouring cattle and killing wildlife for meat, may be both illegal and no longer appropriate.

In 2000, Kenya experienced its worst drought for 40 years. Its effects were severe because of the:

  • breakdown of traditional coping methods;
  • increasing population pressure due to development of land formerly used as dry season grazing;
  • land tenure system which restricts access to essential resources;
  • extension of the drought to areas usually not affected;
  • poor security, especially in arid and semi-arid land areas, that restricts animal and human movement;
  • inadequate preparedness due to lack of access to or ignoring of weather forecasts;
  • scepticism about traditional early warning systems and weather forecasts; and
  • lack of an effective marketing infrastructure for livestock.
Source: UNEP and Government of Kenya 2000