OXFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In northern rural areas of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, men own the cattle and women the goats and chickens. But men also control use of the water in local dams, so when drought hits it is the cattle that get the water – and the goats and chickens that die.
“The men block access to the dam for the women, saying there’s not enough water to ensure the survival of goats and cattle, so that means goats have to stay away,” said Ronald Wesso, who leads research and policy for Oxfam South Africa.
But goats are hardier animals in times of drought, so protecting them makes more efficient use of limited resources, Wesso said.
And because a greater number of people own them – particularly women, who are often more financially vulnerable – giving goats priority in access to water and emergency fodder programs during drought spreads the benefits more widely.
So a push by Oxfam to have more government and other drought relief directed to goat owners makes sense – except that, as it turns out, it could undermine a traditional system of cattle owners helping their neighbors and relatives in times of drought.
“In times of stress, neighbors turn to (cattle owners) as a source of support. These male cattle owners are key to the resilience of the community in responding to drought,” Wesso said.
“So what you’re trying to do in essence is put in place a new system of resilience counter to an existing one that you might have problems with but that is there and that people depend on,” he said.
Building better resilience to the greater shocks and stresses that climate change is bringing can be a complicated and confusing task, researchers said this week at an Oxford conference aimed at exploring resilient solutions to growing problems.
Often efforts to build resilience can produce losers as well as winners, or are built assuming government will make choices for the good of greater numbers of people, when in fact political alliances, corruption, nepotism and other problems mean that is often not the case, they said.
“Issues like corruption stand in the way of planning working as it should, and we have to acknowledge that,” said Richard Friend, a human geographer who has worked extensively in Asia and now lectures at the University of York.
“Everybody knows it doesn’t work the way it should on paper,” he said.
In other cases, time frames are the problem: If sea level rise is slowly flooding fields, when is it right to switch to salt-resistant crops and when is it time to encourage farmers to move on to other jobs?
Some efforts to build resilience – the “no regrets” options, such as giving people better education – work regardless of what is coming. In other cases delaying decisions or hedging them can be effective, said Lisa Horrocks, a climate change consultant with Mott MacDonald, a management consultancy group.
But when it comes to deciding where to put a new city, whether to build a large dam or what kind of energy system to invest in, decisions “need to last well into the future and we don’t know what the future will be”, she said.
“For shorter-term decisions, incremental adaptation may be appropriate,” she said. But for longer-term issues, really different ways of doing things may be needed, she said.
Nick Brooks, the director of Garama 3C, a climate change and development consultancy, said that working to understand where thresholds lie – the point at which an existing way of doing things ceases to work, for instance – is crucial to building resilience that lasts.
“Normally we talk about building resilience for existing systems, to allow them to be sustained in the face of shocks. That’s appropriate in some cases,” he said.
“But there may be cases where trying to build the resilience of existing systems doesn’t work,” he said.
He also questioned the frequent aim of helping people “bounce back” after shocks, such as a drought or flooding. That may not always be the right approach for really poor people, who were struggling to survive even before the crisis hit and who need to become “more resilient than they were before the shock”, he said.
Eva Ludi, a senior researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think-tank, warned that projects to improve resilience often start with basic assumptions that can be wrong.
One such assumption is that herders who see their animals die during droughts should diversify their sources of income into things like growing a few crops – something most don’t want to do.
Instead it’s best to look at what’s already starting to happen on the ground – such as new ways of trading livestock or processing livestock products – for ideas, she said, and to remember that informal networks may have ideas as good or better than governments and more formal organizations.
Arabella Fraser, a specialist in urban climate adaptation and resilience at the Overseas Development Institute, said one way to try to make resilience building efforts work more effectively is to keep a few principles in mind.
They include working hard to really understand who has power and how the economy works, taking the time to build long-term trust with partners, and acknowledging that there will be trade-offs and not everything will succeed as planned, she said.
Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Alex Whiting:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate