How did I learn 'community-based adaptation'?

by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah, Practical Action | Practical Action - Bangladesh
Wednesday, 30 October 2013 15:50 GMT

A farmer dries stacks of jute in Manikganj, Bangladesh, on September 19, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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It's on the ground and it's happening now

Recently, a young researcher doing a PhD on climate change policy at a British university asked me, “How did you learn about ‘community-based adaptation’?” A very simple question, but it took me by surprise.

‘Community-based adaptation’ could be explained as the way communities adjust themselves to the changing situations posed by climate change and variability – with or without external help.

Because of my profession, I have been widely listening to, reading and using ‘community-based adaptation’ – or CBA - over the last few years. But I never thought of how I learned it.

When you learn something in an organized way, you may remember how and when you learned it. But we often learn evolving concepts, like community-based adaptation, by listening to experts or reading their notes or trying things. As far I know, not many universities yet offer courses on adaptation per se, let alone community-based adaptation.

To find the answer to my researcher friend’s question, the first thing came to mind was the workshops on Community Based Adaptation organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. The first conference was a small one held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2005. Over the last eight years, it has become a much anticipated annual event. Nepal will be hosting the eighth one in April 2014.

I also thought of the Reducing Vulnerability to Climate Change (RVCC) project (2002-2005), organised by CARE. It is often branded as the first climate change adaptation project in Bangladesh. Although it worked with rural communities, this project did not use the term ‘community-based adaptation’ per se. But community-based adaptation was all over it.


Community-based adaptation’s position in national policies has become firmer over the years. In 2009, for example, Bangladesh’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) and the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) mentioned ‘community-based adaptation’ as an approach to tackle climate change. But, three years later, Bangladesh made community-based adaptation its top priority out of 11 to address climate change.

Academics and practitioners have played a significant role in changing policy-makers’ minds by capturing the adaptive capacities of communities around the globe. Their effort is paying off. Community-based adaptation cannot be found in the four IPCC assessment reports published so far. But a recent special report of IPCC indicates that this concept would be part of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report due in early 2014.

Community-based approaches are hardly new in development. What is now clear, though, is that climate change is a development concern, not just an environmental concern.

No matter how it was originated, who first defined it, who is now studying it or who is promoting it − community-based adaptation is happening around the globe. It is happening to address the reality on the ground – and it offers us plenty to learn.

Some may find sporadic, unorganized and weakly-defined adaptation attempts by climate-affected people to deal with the growing problems they face insignificant or chaotic. But didn’t life itself – and mechanisms as complicated as DNA - evolve from chaos on our planet?

Can the desperate adaptation attempts by climate-vulnerable communities around the world help bring all countries together in the climate negotiations? Will the upcoming UN climate talks in Warsaw be remembered for such togetherness?

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at

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