Adaptation strategies vs adaptive capacity – the difference is crucial to effective climate resilience policies

The most effective way to foster resilience in the face of climate challenges is by supporting people’s capacity to adapt – rather than pushing specific adaptation strategies which dictate how people respond. 

Two herders with a group of animals
Photo: ILRI Livestock CRP/Kabir Dhanji CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is my central argument in a new report commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the IGAD Centre for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development (ICPALD). Based on a review of the most recent literature on pastoralism, mobility and climate change in the East and Horn of Africa region, the report highlights the climate hazards faced by pastoralists and the ways that mainstream development approaches sometimes undermine their capacity to adapt. It also identifies evidence-based strategies for promoting pastoralists’ resilience and preserving their ability to adapt to unpredictable changes – an ability crucial not only to their own wellbeing, but to sustainability in the region.  

An inherent adaptation potential 

Across the 10 Member States of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), there is growing recognition that pastoralism offers an economically viable and ecologically sustainable form of livestock production. Pastoralism is especially important in light of climate models that predict an expansion of dryland areas in the decades ahead, with increasingly unreliable rainy seasons and reduced crop yields in many parts of the region. 

In 2014, the World Bank estimated that the region held 12-22 million pastoralists, defined by the strategic movement of their herds in pursuit of transient water and pasture resources. Having thrived for generations in environments defined by variability and uncertainty, they are uniquely positioned to adapt to the hazards of climate change. Most climate hazards amplify existing challenges with which pastoralists have long grappled, including disaster events such as droughts and floods; ecological changes that may reduce seasonal reliability of fodder; exposure to heat stress; shifting geographical distributions of livestock disease; and ever-evolving risks of violent conflict.  

Pastoralists’ extant adaptability in the face of these challenges makes them crucial contributors to regional food security. But they face unprecedented threats – not just from climate change, but also from legal, economic and political trends that undermine their capacity to adapt. 

Keeping options open 

Pastoral adaptability has long relied on “optionality” – maintaining a range of potential strategies to contend with challenges and embrace opportunities. Seasonal mobility is central to this optionality. By moving livestock flexibly across extensive rangeland ecosystems, herders can track the shifting availability of pasture and water, while avoiding transient hazards such as floods, disease outbreaks and conflict risks. Optionality increases when there are more extensive rangeland ecosystems, and thus more potential places to move.

Another source of optionality is the wide range of ways that a herd can be altered, by shifting the composition in terms of species, breed and sex, or splitting it into multiple sub-groups. In areas where the rainy seasons have become less reliable, herders who previously focused on cattle have incorporated more drought-resilient species like camels and goats into their herds. Pastoralists also enjoy optionality in the form of supplementary livelihood activities, which can provide temporary income during drought, or even a longer-term livelihood alternative if a herd is diminished or lost.  

Maintaining a wide range of potential responses to hazards is the foundation of pastoralists’ “adaptive capacity” – their ability to successfully respond and adapt to evolving challenges and emerging opportunities.  

However, a growing list of factors is constraining pastoralists’ optionality. Their freedom to move is increasingly restricted by land and resource privatisation, as well as fragmentation of rangelands due to large-scale infrastructure projects, extractives industries, conservation zones and international borders. Even where communal land rights are legally recognised, they often involve fixed boundaries and formal titling to a designated group based on ethnic identity, without regard for the more flexible arrangements through which grazing rights are negotiated.  

Policies to strengthen adaptive capacity 

Resilience policies and programmes often promote specific adaptation measures, rather than strengthening the adaptive capacity of pastoralists themselves. While such measures may be beneficial in the short term, changing contexts can render specific adaptation measures less suitable or even maladaptive over time. For example, as noted above, herders in some areas have been urged to switch to more drought-tolerant species, such as camels. But this transition can also bring new epidemiological risks, as camels are uniquely prone to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. 

Rather than following pre-selected adaptation measures, pastoralists must be able to adjust their adaptive strategies in response to ever-shifting environmental, economic and epidemiological circumstances. This means climate resilience policies should focus not only on promoting specific adaptations, but on providing long-term support for adaptive capacity. By building this capacity, policies can help enable pastoralists to contend with both predicted and unforeseeable challenges, climatic or otherwise.   

There are opportunities for states and their development partners to support pastoralists’ adaptive capacity – but this will require political will and coordinated implementation across local, national and regional scales. Essential interventions include: 

  • Preserving extensive rangeland systems via legal land governance frameworks that support pastoral land tenure. National legislatures should develop communal land bills for pastoral areas, based on consultation with experts in law, ecology, resource governance and pastoralist land use, and recognising the important role of local customary authorities.  
  • Supporting cross-border transhumance. Regional initiatives such as IGAD’s Protocol on Transhumance aim to facilitate cross-border pastoralist movements, thereby restoring rangelands currently fragmented by border restrictions. These initiatives should support the flexibility required for pastoral mobility. For example, restricting border crossings to designated points will constrain pastoralists’ movements, but alternative systems using pre-crossing registration and mobile technology could provide greater flexibility. Social services for borderland areas could also be managed by regional rather than national systems. 
  • Supporting supplementary livelihoods. Fundamental to pastoralists’ adaptive capacity, livelihood diversification requires the physical, economic and social capital to successfully pursue new options. Policies should support supplementary livelihoods, such as dryland agriculture, ensuring these options are accessible to all. 
  • Empowering pastoralists for political participation. Pastoralist parliamentary groups have helped to bring herders’ interests into legislation, but their efforts require greater civil society and media support. Governments must also involve customary pastoralist institutions in policymaking, to ensure they can access the information, technologies and development actors needed to respond to climatic hazards, and are not undermined by top-down administrative systems.  

Pastoralists can be crucial contributors to regional food security in the face of climate change, but only with political support and sustained investment in measures – such as those listed above – to protect and support the foundations of their resilience. By strengthening pastoralists’ capacity to adapt, rather than simply promoting particular adaptive measures, policies can best prepare for both predicted and potentially unforeseen challenges. 

Further information

Rodgers, Cory (2022) Equipped to Adapt? A Review of Climate Hazards and Pastoralists’ Responses in the IGAD Region, Nairobi: IOM & ICPALD.