Integrating Sustainability and Adaptation with Development

Sustainable Development, Sustainable Livelihoods, Uncategorized

August, 2018

Integrating Sustainability and Adaptation with Development

By Upasana Koli

The period between 1800 and the first few decades of the 20th century are known for their years of great invention and innovation, major social events, world wars, and many more. The inventions made in the 1800s were applied to enhance the nation’s reserves and political dominance in the world. The majority of the support was seen coming from industrialization that started in the century’s second half. In the 1900s, countries faced heavy human, environmental and wealth losses due to frequent wars. To overcome this destruction all nations had to work towards development. They believed accumulation of wealth, mainly through industrialization, was the trajectory to development.

However, it proved to be somewhat counterproductive in the sense that though it did improve the global economy but it disregarded the environment, human livelihoods and their wellbeing, etc. So, the pressing need to address these indicators introduced sustainable development to the international agenda. It worked towards securing the ecological development and human wellbeing, which reflected growth across various development indicators, an improvement of quality of life. However, it was affected by yet another severe problem of anthropogenic climate change and global warming and sustainable development wasn’t ready for these challenges. This required that countries and communities, world over, adapt to the changing landscape of erratic weather events exacerbated by the changing climate.

A little while later, it was realised that adaptation may have certain unintended outcomes in the context of changing ecosystem services, the rising population of the world and the extent of damage that climate change could cause. These unintended outcomes of adaptation interventions were called maladaptation and to avoid such consequences, it was necessary to plan adaptation interventions in a manner that they would avoid maladaptation. This led to what we call effective adaptation. Albeit partly, this transition from traditional development to effective adaptation has tried to save and enhance ecology and human lives and aims to preserve the earth for future generations.

What has “Development” traditionally meant?

In the post-World War II period, the nations were categorised in two development stages with indicators showing their current economic and social status, namely Developed and Underdeveloped. The developed countries were those who had a high Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, Industrialization dominated by tertiary and quaternary sectors, and a high Human Development Index. In contrast, the nations who were known as Underdeveloped or Developing Countries had a low industrial base, a high agrarian dependency and a low human development index. The Developing countries were highly dependent on the imported manufactured goods for consumption. Hence, the huge outflow of capital caused a shortage of reserves to address their internal economic scarcity.

It was thought that applying the model of the Developed countries, more investment in industrialization would bring wealth and progress. So thereon, Industrial development became a part of every strategic development planning. The countries saw a rapid growth in their per capita gross national income, which implied a rise in livelihoods. It was believed that the growth would provide for a trickle-down effect to the masses by providing jobs and economic opportunities. However, the growth showed a superficial image of the progress, with barely a portion of the population benefiting and the rest yet struggling for their basic livelihood. (Todaro & Smith, 2015).

BrazilBrazil’s Economic Divide – The Rocinha Favela (slum) in Rio de Janerio  Photo: World Economic Forum

The example of Brazil

Brazil saw an extraordinary growth of 9% from 1960’s to 1980’s, after adopting industrialization. Throughout the period, the country engaged in exports oriented and import substitution industrialization in which industries were created across the country to garner greater economic independence. (Smith, 2003) The industries were mainly into machinery and chemical, textiles, food/beverages, electrical equipment. However, in the following years the manufacturers started leaning towards heavy industry, consumer durables and chemical industry to cater to the increasing international demand for these products. The country was transforming rapidly from a rural to an urban economy, with urbanisation increasing to 85% in 2004. Brazil was flourishing in every space of material and energy intensive production, making it one of the fastest wealth accumulating countries. However, in-spite of the economic achievements Brazil still remained a less-developed country. It was lagging behind in terms of income distribution, equitable access to resources and welfare of its citizens. In the early 2000’s, the income disparity was so high, that the average income of a family in the top 10% of the income distribution was 60 times higher than the income of a family in the bottom 10%. (Baer, 2008) Due to increasing income variation the poverty level was worsening, putting a burden on the livelihood of the most vulnerable.

Many regions faced uneven distribution of general water supply system, with the urban getting the highest. The agricultural output had declined due to land degradation and loss of fertility caused industrial waste contamination. An imbalance in the degree of distribution of wealth, poverty and exposure to health risks stagnated the growth rate in the subsequent years. (Gutberlet, 2009)

Why Sustainability Development became the need of the hour?

During the Economic Development stage, there was an increasing gap between the economic growth rate and the social and environmental factors. The countries were expanding and diversifying their production units into wealth multiplying industries at the cost of its natural resources and social wellbeing. So, to preserve the eco-system from future damages Sustainable Development was formulated. It allows all stake holders to use the resources without compromising its ability to regenerate for future generations. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an agenda “2030-Agenda for Sustainable Development, a set of 17 Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) to achieve sustainability till 2030.

The goals includes eliminating poverty and hunger, bringing good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, a robust climate action plan and more. Complying with these goals will bring an unbiased, equitable and inclusive approach for economic, social and environment protection (UN-GeneralAssembly, 2012). Every nation who ratified the agenda pledged to accommodate the goals by in their national strategies and planning for development.


Afforestation in Bhutan – Paro Taktsang monastery in the midst of Himalayan forests

Bhutan-A role model

Bhutan a country in the eastern Himalayas has a fragile eco-system and is susceptible to earthquakes, landslides, floods, river erosion, and glacial lake outbursts. Also, climate change causes the glaciers in the Himalayas to melt which can cause short term floods. Even though, during 1990-2010 the growth rate tripled, Bhutan still fell short on other developmental indicators like their literacy rate, which was only 53% in 2005. The country’s per-capita gross national income also was below $1900.

In order to meet its SDG goals, Bhutan would have to manage its natural resources efficiently and mitigate the environmental risks.  So, the country integrated sustainable development in its national policy framework and gave environmental sustainability a priority in their development planning and welfare schemes. As a part of the national policy, the Bhutan government in its Constitution: Article 5, included an obligation on every Bhutanese citizen to protect the natural resources, conserve its rich bio-diversity and prevent all forms of ecological degradation. To ensure conservation of forest area every citizens needs to maintain a minimum 60% of land under forestation. Following this obligation, the protected areas including the biological corridors and conservation areas reported an increase in its coverage. This increase in coverage has since been contributing to the environment by acting as a carbon sink, reporting a negative net greenhouse gas emission.

These measures have benefitted the human settlements and their livelihoods by enhancing their food security and reduced poverty through the restored environment and increased tourism. There also was a rapid progress in extending improved water and sanitation services to the lowest strata of the society. Along with equitable socio-economic development the cultural values of locals too are safeguarded. In this way, different measures were and are being taken to address the SD goals that Bhutan has committed to. Bhutan has proved to be a role model for sustainable development which any lower-middle income countries can adopt for its successful outcome. (UNDP, 2012)

Adaptation is regarded as the key to increase resilience.

As we know, Sustainable Development aims to enhance the economic-social-environmental capacity of communities. However, there is always a constant threat to its sustainability from externalities. The major one coming from anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, there is a need to reduce their vulnerability by working towards increasing their resilience capacity. Adaptation helps to identify these areas and advice what steps needs to be taken to reduce their exposure to future shocks and stresses. A few examples of adaptation measures include changes in the large scale infrastructure, improving the quality of road to withstand hotter temperatures, adopt climate tolerant crops, taking insurances to replace financial losses, etc. As the resilience capacity builds stronger, through adaptation measures, the community may focus more on productivity thereby leading to a growth in the economic and social factors.

Thames Estuary

A perfect example to illustrate adaptation measures is the one that the government of London has taken up for continued protection from flooding from the river Thames and its estuary. The floods in London, earlier, were caused by an increase in the inland water flow sourced from heavy rainfalls and the tidal waves from the North Sea. It severely affected the human settlements and also posed a threat to vital institutional, business centres and heritage in the area.

Thames_Barrier_raised (1)

So, the Government of London designed and implemented an organised system of flood risk management i.e. tidal flood defence barriers, industrial flood gates, walls and embankments, etc. to protect from future floods. However, increasing anthropogenic climate change threats induced them to study the durability of the existing flood management plans and the floodplains. The study outcome said that as year pass, the embankment and defenses would not be as strong to withhold future flood impacts. So, they concluded on upgrading the current flood management plan to help adapt to the future changes.

So, the Government Environment Agency of The Thames Estuary in 2002, established The Thames Estuary 2100 Project in the year 2002, to manage and reduce tidal flood risk over the next 100 years. The objective behind this plan was to arrange interventions that will address the ageing flood defence, climate change, and the change in the physical and socio-economic environment.

The project is being implemented in 3 time horizons with 3 themes. In the first 25 years i.e. from 2010 to 2034, the theme being “Maintaining confidence and planning together” there will be a continuation in the maintenance, operation and essential improvements of the existing defences or barriers. Also, they will create new spaces for intertidal habitats and safeguard them in partnership with other organisations. Then, in the middle period of 15 years, i.e. from 2035 to 2049, the theme being “Renewal and reshaping the riverside”, a majority of the existing walls, embankment and smaller barriers will be raised, refurbished or replaced as required. And at last, from 2050 to the end of the century, the theme being “Preparing for and moving to the century”; as per the government’s climate change guidance, new intervention plans will be decided upon. This will be followed by preparation to implement the new interventions. By 2070, a flood risk management plan, potent enough to take on future risks will be in place that will extend to the end of the century and beyond. (EnvironmentAgency-UK, 2012)

How effective are the adaptation actions?

As we know, adaptation actions, taken out with the help of proper knowledge, planning, coordination and a foresight, addresses the resilience power. However, many times the actions are not able to deliver to the intended results because of ineffectiveness of any of these processes. The ineffectiveness could be due to insufficiency or unsuitability of knowledge and planning, or they may have taken place at the wrong time which causes maladaptation. Maladaptation is any adaptation action that proves unsuccessful in reducing the vulnerability but instead stagnates or increases it.

To avoid maladaptation, national governments and agencies have come up with monitoring systems to evaluate adaptations efforts in periods. In the monitoring process different approaches of assessment are being utilized.  Such as, assessing when the adaptation is under way .i.e. when implementing watershed development or any other adaptation plans, and/or at the end outcome using development indicators like mortality, income, education, and health access. In this, assessment during the implementation process is advisable as it helps detect the flaws in advance and re-produce the corrected ones thereby negating the losses before the next implementations.

Periodical evaluation is essential to locate any loopholes in the strategy and implementation process, detect untraced minor or major problems which could overturn the adaptation efforts. Also, it could help in identifying the causes that slow down or stagnate the adaptation process. This detection process will help the policymakers to create innovative techniques and technologies to reduce the impact of future climate change, and many more.



Baer, W. (2008). The Brazilian Economy: Growth and Development, SIXTH EDITION. Lynne Rienner.

EnvironmentAgency-UK. (2012). Thames Estuary 2100 – Managing flood risk through London and the Thames estuary. Thames Estuary 2100-Environment Agency.

Gutberlet, J. (2009). AREA STUDIES – BRAZIL (Regional Sustainable Development Review) – The Impacts of Industrial Development in Brazil.

Smith, S. C. (2003). Case Studies in Economic Development, George Washington University- Department of Economics.

Todaro, M. P., & Smith, S. C. (2015). Economic Development – 12th Edition. Pearson.


UN-GeneralAssembly. (2012). Future We Want – Outcome document – Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 27 July 2012 . United Nations.



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