The Social Side of Climate Adaptation

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Brianna Moland, C+S ’17

Although the Atlantic Forest covers 463,000 square miles of Brazil’s eastern coast and supports around 60 percent of the country’s threatened animal species, it is not as celebrated as the Amazon Rainforest. Like the Amazon, it is one of the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems in the world.

As I looked out over São Paulo’s metropolitan area of hundreds of skyscrapers and 19 million inhabitants, I could see why some felt disconnected to the forest. In many areas, São Paulo resembles a concrete jungle not unlike New York City. Yet it is surrounded by a wall of green that is the Atlantic Forest.

View of São Paulo from the Cantareira Watershed in the Atlantic Forest (Source: flickr/gaborbasch)

As a natural infrastructure intern with the World Resources Institute, my supervisor and I had traveled to São Paulo on a mission to engage stakeholders of our watershed restoration project in the Cantareira watershed. This water system is positioned in the middle of the Atlantic Forest and is crucial source of freshwater for the city’s inhabitants.

Four days after arriving in the city, I found myself sitting in a small boardroom with Monica Porto, the Deputy Secretary of Water Resources for the state of São Paulo. After introductions were made and everyone on our team was offered the obligatory cafezinho, the meeting began. I learned from this meeting and subsequent interviews that climate adaptation is as much a social matter as it is a scientific one.

As a water engineer and Deputy Secretary of Water Resources, our restoration team believed that Porto would understand the benefits of investing in a watershed restoration program. By conserving and enhancing the beneficial functions of natural landscapes, natural or green infrastructure can act as a buffer against climate hazards. Sustainably managed natural infrastructure can work as a method of flood control during periods of heavy rainfall, an additional source of water during dry periods, and a water purification system.

I can understand how São Paulo’s citizens could forget that their water was coming from the vital Cantareira watershed, but how could the Deputy Secretary of Water? When we asked about her position, she said that natural infrastructure is not as reliable as gray infrastructure. To her, reservoirs built using concrete and steel provide more protection during droughts.

However, during São Paulo’s last drought in 2014, the reservoir fell below the critical level. The city was forced to purchase water from a neighboring municipality. Studies show that protecting upstream ecosystems can provide water security for downstream users at a reasonable cost. Atlantic Forest restoration could have provided an additional source of water during this detrimental drought.

Skyscrapers fade into the distance of Sao Paolo’s metropolitan area (Source: Brianna Moland)

Another oft-heard grievance about watershed restoration in Brazil is that you need buy-in from landowners whose property overlaps with the proposed restoration work. This becomes even more complicated when the Brazilian Forest Code is considered.

The code is a Brazilian law that was first passed in 1965 to ensure that landowners living in Brazilian forests would maintain 35-80 percent of their property with native vegetation. This law is particularly difficult for farmers who can only use the remaining percentage of their land for agriculture. Our restoration project is requesting that farmers use even less of their land for agricultural purposes in order to preserve a healthy ecosystem.

What I did not realize before this internship is that the Forest Code itself is hard to enforce. There are not enough government resources to check every acre of Brazilian forest and make sure they’re in compliance.

Some forest restoration projects in the past have tried paying farmers and landowners to preserve forested parts of their land to help ensure compliance, but the amount of money they receive is often not a persuasive alternative. During each interview that my supervisor and I conducted, we tried to understand each stakeholder’s side of the story. Combining gray infrastructure with green infrastructure can reduce maintenance costs and enhance water services for cities and municipalities, but if no one is willing to support the project, it will ultimately fail.

Climate adaptation is more than just developing a scientific plan for combating the impacts of climate change. There are other social, legal, and financial aspects of an adaptation plan that must be met before a project is implemented in a watershed or a region. Much like what we discovered in the Climate and Society program, it is not enough to just learn about the science behind climate change. We also need to communicate that science in a way that is credible and salient so that stakeholders can understand the issues for themselves and make decisions based on this information.


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