Date released
29 February 2024

Across South Asia, solar irrigation pumps have been hailed as a low-cost, clean-green technology to advance agriculture. These pumps provide even the poorest farmers with affordable access to groundwater and, subsequently, to more reliable crop production.   

Early in their roll-out, they were described as an example of ‘climate resilient development’ as defined by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The pumps combine strategies to adapt to climate change with actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support equitable sustainable development. 

Unintended consequences

These solar pumps have enabled low-emissions development and eliminated costs to farmers associated with connecting to an electricity grid or purchasing fuel for diesel pumps. But in just a few years, this exciting energy and farming initiative now faces the prospect of becoming a serious driver of further climate risk rather than an adaptation solution.   

In some parts of South Asia region, the high uptake of the pumps is depleting groundwater resources faster than they can recharge. In areas where climate change will further reduce recharge rates, this makes farmers more vulnerable rather than less.  

The unfolding scenario is one of an increasing number of examples of well-intentioned developments being hindered by unintended consequences. In the global climate adaptation research community, this is termed ‘maladaptation’ and it is raising concerns for how to accelerate agricultural development’s response to climate change without such risks. 

Dr Veronica Doerr
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Climate Change Dr Veronica Doerr highlights the need to consider any unintended consequences of climate adaptation initiatives. Photo ACIAR

Maladaptation is an area of special interest for ACIAR Research Program Manager, Climate Change, Dr Veronica Doerr. She describes maladaptation as response strategies that unintentionally worsen the situation for people, particularly as climate change impacts continue to build.   

Dr Doerr noted that often it is because the urgency to include climate considerations in development obscures potential longer-term implications, especially if knowledge of how to assess these consequences is outside the skill sets of those involved in program design.  

Unintended consequences have begun emerging specifically in agriculture and rural development – from irrigation initiatives, flood mitigation projects, and efforts to switch farmers to more climate-resilient crop types. The impacts range from social and economic dislocation of people caught by landscape changes, to deteriorating health and nutrition because of dietary shifts caused by changes to crop types, and the marginalisation of people unable to adapt for a variety of economic, social or other reasons.  

‘It is partly a consequence of the urgency required to adapt food systems to climate change and partly because of what we are beginning to see as too narrow a planning process,’ said Dr Doerr.  

The conversation among researchers working in climate adaptation– for urban infrastructure, biodiversity and now agricultural development – is increasingly about the need for new approaches to the design and planning of development and response programs. 

Partnership imperative

Dr Doerr says that in planning programs and actions to adapt farming systems to climate change, it is becoming clear that a much broader set of skills and voices needs to be at the table. ‘

We need agricultural specialists co-planning with specialists in climate science, mitigation and adaptation, and we definitely need the experience and voices of communities themselves. 

Dr Veronica Doerr,
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Climate Change

From an ACIAR perspective, much of this change-of-approach being discussed in international forums is already in place through the partnering principles and methodology underpinning project planning and implementation.  

‘Our policy of grounded engagement to find effective local solutions is a great starting point for bringing communities to the table for pursuing locally-led adaptation,’ said Dr Doerr.”

‘However, all of the knowledge and actions needed to make climate-resilient development a reality are not something that individual farmers or even collective groups can progress. They require multijurisdictional, multilevel cooperation … the types of broader partnerships that ACIAR fosters.’  

Dr Doerr says that while a locally led partnership approach is essential for effective climate-resilient development, it is not sufficient on its own to avoid maladaptation. One of the promising developments addressing maladaptation risk is the emergence of ‘adaptation science’ or ‘climate resilient development science’ as a distinct discipline.  

Climate expertise

‘Agricultural or development specialists aren’t typically equipped to be climate change experts as well. Bringing climate considerations into development planning and action is highly complex – especially when there are multiple plausible climate trajectories and it’s important to consider the benefits and risks of a development intervention in a future world with continuing climate changes.  

‘Change in the climate itself as well as the global shift to low-emissions economies is ongoing. You can’t just pick a point in the future and know the world will be stable at that point. We need to foster partnerships between adaptation scientists and agricultural scientists to help people anticipate the future and design approaches that are flexible and adaptive as actual impacts emerge.’  

Dr Doerr explains this is partly why the IPCC has begun emphasising climate resilient development pathways – iterative, evolving processes for designing and working towards development that combines mitigation and adaptation. She says this type of research on processes for decision-making is central to the growing field of adaptation science.  

‘Globally we have already seen some integration of specialist climate adaptation expertise in fields such as biodiversity conservation, infrastructure planning and urban design. Agriculture is the next sector realising it really needs to learn how to implement this integration between its traditional specialists and climate science and adaptation specialists.’  

Dr Doerr also emphasises that while it might sound conceptual, it is being driven by real life experiences.  

Man holding a water pump that is spraying water onto crops
Solar water pumps have improved the climate resilience of smallholder farming systems, but groundwater supplies are being overdrawn. Photo: Connor Ashleigh

Collaborative decisions

‘Australia can feel very proud because our researchers played an early, leading role in developing the science of pathways approaches. And we did it by collaborating with local governments, natural resource managers, and many others to figure out what worked and didn’t work for them to make better decisions and avoid maladaptation.’

Aside from the technical challenges and the complexity of any planning that is endeavouring to factor in the impacts of climate change, Dr Doerr also stresses the need for nuance and understanding in how countries and agencies manage this process.

‘Because no matter how hard we all try, we can’t predict the future and there will still be maladaptation. Because we are working with peoples’ lives, we need to ensure there are good learning processes in place so we can detect unintended impacts and correct programs quickly. 

‘ACIAR is committed to fostering collaboration among diverse stakeholders and leveraging expertise to maximise the benefits of adaptation initiatives while minimising the risks of unintended environmental and social impacts,’ said Dr Doerr.

Ultimately, the goal is not to dismiss possible adaptation approaches but to ensure that their deployment is guided by evidence-based, inclusive and forward-thinking approaches. This proactive stance underscores the ACIAR commitment to harnessing innovative solutions for sustainable agricultural development, even in the face of complex challenges posed by environmental change.