Intense seasonal rains caused severe flooding that affected millions of people last August in the Bihar district on the India-Nepal border. Chatti Devi’s home was one of the few that withstood the floodwaters and their silent aftermath: the spread of waterborne diseases caused by water contamination and the lack of sanitation facilities. Chatti and her family managed to avoid waterborne illness because of the EcoSan toilet constructed on a raised platform at their home. Since their effectiveness was proven during the flooding, interest in the toilets has been mounting among community members and at the policy level.
But how can this success story lead to similar solutions that help individuals and communities adapt to climate change and its associated risks?
The role of communications in climate change adaptation
Climate change is an increasingly urgent issue. Current estimates indicate that globally we will exceed a 2⁰C warming by the end of this century. The impacts of climate change are already being felt in many parts of the world. Adaptation is crucial, yet people’s ability to adapt is critically influenced by the types of information available to them.
Until recently, climate change communication was largely perceived as a top-down approach whereby scientific information was relayed to the public with the assumption that it would result in behavioural change. But the presentation of facts is insufficient. Even the proven effectiveness of pilot adaptations, such as the EcoSan toilets in Bihar, are no guarantee of acceptance and uptake.
Scientific language tends to be exclusionary, therefore messaging must be refined and accessible for the general public. It has become increasingly clear that who communicates, how they do it, and with what intentions are crucial factors that must be considered if we hope to elicit change. Increasingly, co-produced knowledge and two-way forms of communication are recognized as being effective in developing country contexts where populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change communication has emerged as a body of work in its own right. Now the focus is shifting from communicating about climate change to communicating about adaptation to climate change. This change in approach poses its own unique challenges that considers not only spatial and temporal factors but also diverse local conditions, differing worldviews, long time frames, and high levels of uncertainty.
Diversity and collaboration
The Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) program is a seven-year consortia-based model focused on researching adaptation options in various climate change “hotspots” in Africa and Asia. These hotspots are geographic zones with high sensitivity to climatic change and inhabited by billions of poor and vulnerable people. Chatti Devi and her community are just one example of CARIAA’s multiple research sites across 17 countries in Africa and South Asia.
Adaptation is a pressing need in these hotspot areas, and a common lesson throughout the life of the program and the diverse research sites has been the need to contextualize communication approaches to different audiences, with different partners, and for different purposes. This has ranged from the co-creation of materials for literate and illiterate participants to identifying economic priorities to channel climate change information to decision-makers in various sectors.
An additional communication challenge (and opportunity) is CARIAA’s collaborative approach. We work with more than 40 partner institutions and in excess of 400 researchers and practitioners that are aligned around a common purpose, but with very different backgrounds. From co-producing targeted communications at the state or national level, we have learned that while collaborative synthesis may have high transaction costs (in terms of time, cost, and building trust and relationships), these shared visions, processes, and learning are what have led to real outcomes.
However, even more important than diversifying communications is the need to explicitly integrate communications into the program from the outset, as opposed to it being an afterthought of our research processes.
Now in its final year, CARIAA consortia are continuing to bring the results of our research on semi-arid regions, deltas, and glacial-dependant river basins to the relevant audiences. At the program level, we are trying to ensure that important stories such as Chatti’s are heard and that our work on climate science, effective adaptation, migration, gender and social equity, and research for impact will ultimately reach the communities that will be the most greatly affected by the rapidly changing climate. We hope that others can learn from our experiences and build on them to design new and impactful climate change adaptation initiatives that recognize the importance of communication through all phases of a project or program, from design through to implementation.
Sarah Czunyi is a program management officer in IDRC's Agriculture and Environment program.
 See Swanepoel, 2018. Communicating climate change. Summary report from Adaptation Futures conference, African Earth Rights; and Tschakert, 2007. Views from the vulnerable: Understanding climatic and other stressors in the Sahel. Global Environmental Change 17, 381-396.