Ecosystem-based Adaptation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region: A Review of the Current Challenges, Best Practices and Innovations in Various Sectors in the GMS Region

Report / Paper

Ecosystem-based Adaptation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region: A Review of the Current Challenges, Best Practices and Innovations in Various Sectors in the GMS Region

AUTHORS: Asia Pacific Adaptation Network (APAN)


March 2012


The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 4th Assessment Report notes that the Asia-Pacific region is expected to see significant environmental changes over the coming decades, which will almost certainly pose major challenges to not only the maintenance and restoration of current socio-political and environmental conditions, but also to the ability of the countries in the region to effectively implement their long-term national environmental and economic development plans. The IPCC assessment report further warns that the poorest are expected to suffer the most from the effects of climate change, with those living in remote and marginal areas likely to be worst hit.

Of particular concern to the still largely-rural Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) is the continued heavy focus on agriculture, a sector that will be acutely affected by climate change with the existing socio-economic and environmental challenges in the region whose condition is further exacerbated by the ever-increasing demand for food and cash crops. A report by the Asian Development Bank expects a serious decline in agricultural production potential of the region over the next 40 years due to the impacts of climate change, making agriculture a riskier and more challenging sector, particularly for the poor. Fisheries are also expected to be severely impacted by the effects of climate change, particularly along coastal regions where rural populations heavily depend on small-scale fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. Adapting to these challenges will be crucial for meeting future poverty reduction and livelihood security efforts.

This study aims to understand the current status of Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) practices in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) countries and at a regional level, with a focus on noting the key gaps and opportunities for (a) encouraging the private sector to invest more in these areas and (b) donor agencies to better invest their grants and loans in adaptation activities in the region.

Resulting outputs of this study include:

• An assessment report summarising the EbA efforts in the GMS countries, with recommendations on how the private sector and donor agencies can better invest in expanding and/or scaling up these efforts.

• Twenty-nine case studies about key innovative EbA efforts from around the region, with five case studies expanded upon in the main assessment report.

The countries chosen for this study (Yunnan province in China, Cambodia, Laos PDR, Thailand and Vietnam ) comprise both land-locked and coastal regions, lowlands and mountainous areas. Furthermore, besides all being a part of the ASEAN community (except for China), they are made up of a variety of socio-economic and political systems, development agendas and ideologies. In spite of these differences, all the GMS countries share a common dependence on agriculture and aquaculture, sectors that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, especially in view of the prevailing industrial production model.

This study focuses on those adaptation measures that: (a) exhibit overlap and integration of adaptation and mitigation efforts (e.g., community forestry sequesters carbon, while also improving local micro-climates and providing alternative sources of food, timber, medicines, fibres, etc.), and (b) neither help, nor hurt mitigation per se (e.g., early warning systems)

By far the greatest number of EbA cases were found in Vietnam (n=13), followed by Cambodia (8), Thailand (4), China (2) and Laos and Myanmar (both 1). In terms of sectoral approaches, food security was addressed most often (13 times), followed by coastal zones and marine ecosystems (10 times), terrestrial ecosystems (8 times), early warning and disaster management and cross-sectoral approaches (both twice), and water resources and tourism (both once). The causes of these imbalanced investment and implementation patterns are complex and beyond the scope of this study; however, several general regional issues and gaps were identified in the course of this study:

• Inadequate integration of climate change efforts into policies, planning, and operations; adaptation and mitigation efforts are still largely implemented in isolation, with poor understanding of the interaction and co-dependency on each other to meet global, regional and national climate change goals.

• There remains an on-going critical need for national and regional decision makers to prioritise and allocate financial and human resources to address the adverse effects of climate change in all sectors, including the development of proper tools to measure the impacts of adaptation efforts, and actions related to them such as financing, technology transfer and capacity building.

• Public sector funding tends to focus mostly on large-scale infrastructural projects, with small-scale and ‘soft’ interventions usually being poorly executed, monitored and followed-up.

• Technology transfer must urgently be enhanced, including offering economic incentives to the private sector to change over from unsustainable/non-eco designs. Investments in adaptation by the private sector remain low, with greater emphasis being placed on mitigation and other projects that generate high financial returns and/or are heavily subsidised 

• The donor field is relatively crowded in the GMS, especially in terms of rural development (education, health, income generation), although substantial opportunities remain for long-term adaptation work and/or linking existing work to on-going climate change adaptation/mitigation efforts

• Development of awareness-raising programmes for the public remains an on-going need, together with developing climate change education programmes in school curricula.

The most successful adaptation examples found in the region have tended to function as synergistic/holistic models, while being technically simple and readily adoptable/adaptable. With this in mind, the key recommendations for the development and up-scaling of EbA efforts in the GMS include:

• Increase understanding about the critical value of the EbA at all decision-making levels in the GMS, from policy-makers to field practitioners and civil society, particularly in those countries/sectors where the ecosystem-based approach to climate change adaptation is generally absent.

• Enhance public sector investment in scaling up successful EbA practices, as part of national environmental, social, economic development strategies.

• Develop national schemes that reward EbA initiatives which result in positive environmental and social externalities, based upon meeting certain criteria and independent evaluation, while simultaneously reducing direct/indirect subsidies that sustain environmentally-harmful activities.

• Improve regional and national studies on ecosystem-based adaptation practices, especially in marginalised and rural communities that are usually the most heavily dependent on healthy ecosystems to ensure their well-being.

• Encourage civil society involvement in scaling up EbA initiatives through the use of the media and knowledge-sharing forums.

Whether climate change is happening or not should no longer be a source of contention. The discussion should now mature to focus on how countries within the GMS can develop in ‘greener’ directions that not only allow their citizens to adapt to changing climatic conditions over time, but also to become part of a rapidly-developing global socio-economic movement to improve our collective wellbeing, ensure food and nutrition security, and enhance prosperity through dignified livelihoods for both the current and future generations without further damaging the already-fragile ecosystems.