Climate Adaptation

Adapting to climate variability

Coping with short term climate variability through seasonal prediction and building social resilience

Duration: May 2010 to April 2012

Funding: Marine Science for Management program, WIOMSA

Link to external Google Site here (restricted access)


Coastal societies are particularly vulnerable to climate change, and their ability to adapt will be critical to their future and to that of the marine systems upon which they rely.

One of the principal effects and indicators of climate change, increased levels of short term climate variability, is affecting people on a daily basis. Since 1997 East Africa has suffered multiple severe climate fluctuations (temperature, floods, and droughts, with consequences such as coral bleaching and livestock disease outbreaks), some of which were intensified by progressive climate change.

These variations particularly affect the poor, who lack the resources to prepare for and recover from changes. For the poor, it is unrealistic to plan for the long-term impacts of climate change until strategies for dealing with short-term climate variability are in place.

On an ecosystem basis, coral reefs are one of the first global systems to be impacted by climate change, both long term warming and intensified short term variability.

In 1997-8 alone, 16% of the world’s coral reefs were severely impacted by a combination of a strong El Niño and the warmest year on record. Since then, scientific understanding of the dynamics of coral bleaching and mortality influenced by warming sea surface temperatures is well enough advanced to enable predictions of bleaching risk on time scales from 3 months to weeks, and from regional to local levels.

The goal of this project is to develop tools for building social adaptation to climate change, on time scales relevant to peoples’ daily lives (weeks to seasons), based on predictions of the risk of climate impacts on this time scale. We focus on coastal communities in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, stretching from the Tana River in the north to Tanga District in the south.

This region is consistent geomorphologically, and the coastal climate outlooks developed for the Kenyan coast will be relevant to the adjacent coast in Tanzania. The coastal settlements and communities are similar, with a mix of fishing, farming and small business livelihoods.


Predicting risk – from a foundation of existing seasonal climate predictions (quarterly) and coral bleaching alerts (weeks to months) the project will develop a “coastal climate outlook” for key indicators of climate variability (e.g. sea surface temperature, coastal rainfall) that impact on ecosystems, resources and rural communities in the coastal zone.

Assessing social vulnerability – vulnerability assessments of coastal people and their livelihood systems to climate and other threats will be conducted, focused on short-term seasonal risk. We will use existing and tools, and identify a package that that can be replicated more broadly among East African coastal communities in the future.

Opportunities for adaptation – actions for building adaptive capacity will be identified, and tailored to the livelihood and socio-economic settings of the study sites, identifying those that can be implemented locally without additional investment vs those that may need significant government or external support. 

Supporting adaptation – the coastal climate outlook and adaptation recommendations will be incorporated into a coastal climate adaptation response plan focused at the local level, that will include actions before, during or after a severe climate event. Supportive policy and institutional issues will be identified to enable this, and will include national and local level institutions for natural resource and ecosystem management, disaster preparedness and risk reduction, sectoral ministries and other relevant offices.

Background and rationale

Climate adaptation is a practical problem of immense magnitude because of the scale and rate of change to which coastal people and communities will be exposed.

The human suffering that has always been associated with extreme climate events in a variety of contexts suggests that human populations are not only ill-prepared for more frequent and extreme events, but are already mostly unable to cope and adapt to short-term climate variations.

People living and working in developing countries are especially vulnerable to suffering from an extreme climate event because of their lack of financial and human capital to adequately prepare and implement climate adaptation actions.

Adaptation is a necessity, and the challenge is to determine how to do this most effectively within short-term frames, in ways that are accessible to the poor and to developing country governments and stakeholders.

This project sets aside the intractable problems of dealing effectively with long term climate change to address the immediate problems of short term climate variability and impacts. These undermine peoples’ livelihoods on a daily, monthly and seasonal basis, particularly for the poor.

A shortlist of disasters in East Africa related to severe climate fluctuations and events in the last 10 years include:

Floods – Mozambique (2000, 2001, 2007), Kenya 2009/10, Tanzania (2006), Uganda (2010)

Droughts – Kenya 2006-09, northern Tanzania (1998-2005)

Cyclones – higher frequency in Madagascar (2006/07)

Disease – Rift Valley Fever in Kenya (2007)

It is unrealistic for many people and societies to start planning for the long-term impacts of climate change until strategies have been designed and implemented for dealing with short term climate threats such as these. By understanding and building adaptive capacity in the short term, the project will set a foundation for people to build adaptive capacity for the longer term and the larger but currently intangible threats decades away.

Coral bleaching alerts

Coral reefs may be among the first global ecosystems to suffer irreversible degradation from climate change.

Climate impacts on corals and coral reefs have to date been driven primarily by rising and fluctuating SSTs, causing mass coral bleaching and mortality. The dynamics are now relatively well understood: bleaching events are drive by short term fluctuations in SST on seasonal and inter-annual time scales, compounded by a long term increase in temperature.



The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) publishes a broad range of coral bleaching warning and prediction tools.

In the Western Indian Ocean, this and other global climate information have been synthesized into a regional bleaching alert since 2006 (see and, making the information more accessible to regional practitioners and scientists.

With accurate prior knowledge and preparation, coral reef managers can establish credible “coral bleaching response plans” that start with prior preparation and budgeting, seasonal prediction, an “eyes-on-the-ground” monitoring programme prepared to note the first instance of beaching and then if necessary track the bleaching event, management actions during a bleaching event to try and minimize impacts (e.g. by other interacting threats) and stakeholder communications and involvement at all stages – before, during and after the climate event.

Social resilience and adaptation

Coral reefs support large economies and the livelihoods of 100s of millions of poor people in developing countries.

Their demise from climate change is more than a threat to biodiversity, and is a massive threat to human welfare and the socio-economic and political stability of affected countries. However this threat pales in significance compared to the threat to agricultural, land use and freshwater resources from climate change, in rural and natural resource-dependent societies.


The rural poor depend overwhelmingly on natural resources for their livelihoods (e.g. fishing, medicinal products, etc) and on agriculture that is determined by seasons and rainfall. They are thus highly dependent on the predictability of recurring seasonal patterns, and stability in their environment and climate.

Resource users that are unable to effectively adapt to their changing environment will inevitably place additional pressure on the natural resource such that its sustainability will be compromised.

Inevitably, degraded ecosystems will have far-reaching impacts on human societies.

In many instances, protecting natural resources in the face of climate change will mean that coastal people will also have to contend with new institutional arrangements regulating their use of natural resources, and for many this will be just as disruptive as an extreme climate event.

Adaptation success will depend on how well rural people are able to cope with and adapt to climate variations at a seasonal scale and to resource regulations, without compromising the capacity of the natural resource to sustain people into the future.

People, industries or communities that can prepare for drought or excessive flooding in any one season and cope through diversification, minimizing losses for the longer-term and accessing financial and physical support will be better able to adapt to longer-term climate variations.

However, evidence suggests that rural people are overwhelmingly under-prepared even for seasonal fluctuations, never mind longer-term climate changes.

By providing knowledge of the relative vulnerability of different components of the socio-economic system, vulnerability assessments enable decision-makers to prioritise their efforts.

As in the case of the coral bleaching response plans, similar programmes can be designed to provide a basis for early engagement with communities for effective planning to minimize their exposure to climate risks.

Principal Investigators and organizations:

  • Dr David Obura, CORDIO East Africa
  • Prof. Chris Reason, University of Cape Town
  • Ali Mafimbo, Kenya Meteorology Dept
  • Dr. Nadine Marshall, CSIRO, Australia
  • Innocent Wanyonyi, CORDIO East Africa
  • Jerker Tamelander, IUCN Global Marine Programme
  • Majambo Jarumani, CORDIO East Africa (student)


  • Dr Agnes Kijazi, Tanzania Meteorology Agency
  • Mr. Abdallah Shah, IUCN Tanzania
  • Ms. Katharine Cross, IUCN ESARO, Water program