Int. J. Global Warming, Vol. 5, No. 4, 2013 367
Copyright © 2013 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
Loss and damage from climate change: local-level
evidence from nine vulnerable countries
Koko Warner* and Kees van der Geest
Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS),
United Nations University,
Platz der Vereinten Nationen 1,
D-53113 Bonn, Germany
Abstract: Loss and damage is already a significant consequence of inadequate
ability to adapt to changes in climate patterns. This paper reports on the first
ever multi-country, evidence-based study on loss and damage from the
perspective of affected people in least developed and other vulnerable
countries. Researchers in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, the
Gambia, Kenya, Micronesia, Mozambique and Nepal conducted household
surveys (n=3,269) and more than a hundred focus group discussions and open
interviews about loss and damage. The research reveals four loss and damage
pathways. Residual impacts of climate stressors occur when: 1) existing
coping/adaptation to biophysical impact is not enough; 2) measures have costs
(including non-economic) that cannot be regained; 3) despite short-term merits,
measures have negative effects in the longer term; or 4) no measures are
adopted – or possible – at all.
Keywords: loss and damage; climate change; adaptation; adaptation limits;
coping strategies; vulnerability; food security; livelihood security.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Warner, K. and
van der Geest, K. (2013) ‘Loss and damage from climate change: local-level
evidence from nine vulnerable countries’, Int. J. Global Warming, Vol. 5,
No. 4, pp.367–386.
Biographical notes: Koko Warner is a Section Head (Environmental
Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation) and Executive Director
(Munich Climate Insurance Initiative) at the United Nations University,
Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS). Her research
interests include limits of adaptation and consequences for loss and damage,
human mobility, and risk management.
Kees van der Geest is a Senior Researcher at the United Nations University,
Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in the
Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation Section. His
research interests include impacts of climate change, vulnerability, adaptation,
livelihoods, environment, development and human mobility.
368 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
This paper is a revised and expanded version of a paper entitled ‘Evidence from
the frontlines of climate change: Loss and damage to communities despite
coping and adaptation’ presented at United Nations University Scientific
Conference: ‘Perspectives on Loss and Damage: Society, Climate Change, and
Decision Making’, Bonn, Germany, 25–28 February, 2013.
Science points to widespread current and future biophysical impacts of anthropogenic
climate change (IPCC, 2007a, 2007b, 2012; Fung et al., 2011; Thornton et al., 2011).
Current trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions call into question whether targets to
keep global temperatures within 2°C can be met (Meinshausen et al., 2009; van Vliet et
al., 2012). This in turn raises issues about a ‘safe operating space’ (Röckstrom et al.,
2009) for humanity, and the consequences for human society of crossing interacting
biophysical boundaries of Earth systems and social dimensions of limits to adaptation
(Adger et al., 2009a; Preston et al., 2013; O’Brien, 2010; O’Brien and Wolf, 2010).
Negotiating these boundaries is, in part, a task of adaptation, the success of
which may lie in the ability to keep systems from exceeding these boundaries
(Moser, 2009; Patt and Schröter, 2008; Adger et al., 2009b). Preston et al. (2013)
introduce the concept of an ‘adaptation frontier’, which they define as “a socio-ecological
system´s transitional adaptive operating space between safe and unsafe domains” and
relate it to vulnerability and resilience, which determine how well a system can continue
to exist within a ‘safe operating space’ before reaching a limit [Preston et al., (2013),
While systems will continually change and adjust to stressors (Adger et al., 2003),
‘adaptation deficits’ (Burton, 2009), barriers, and limits to adaptation exist and can
impede sustainable development (Preston et al., 2013; Kates et al., 2012; Schipper, 2007;
McGray et al., 2007). A key question – and the focus of this paper – is what happens to
key development goals when efforts to adjust are insufficient or not possible? What
patterns of loss and damage emerge in human systems around these barriers and
constraints to adaptation?
Some of the following gaps have been identified in the literature (see Berrang-Ford et
al., 2011): which climate stressors are of greatest concern to human systems; how do
climate stressors affect (sustainable) development objectives like food and livelihood
security, poverty and health; what adaptive actions are undertaken proactively or
reactively to manage these climate stressors; and what are the consequences of
inadequate adaptation for actors. Evidence is needed about how society functions in the
context of barriers and limits to adaptation, and what the consequences of exceeding
limits at different scales might be, including residual loss and damage (the focus of this
This article provides an overview of the nine case studies presented in this special
issue of the International Journal of Global Warming. The case studies focus on loss and
damage, and help address these gaps at household and community levels in developing
countries. The results illustrate the circumstances under which households manage
climatic stressors and resulting societal impacts, and the consequences of not being able
to adjust sufficiently to negative impacts.
Loss and damage from climate change 369
1.1 Understanding loss and damage around constraints and limits to
For the community-based field research introduced in this article the following working
definition of loss and damage was used:
Loss and damage refers to negative effects of climate variability and climate
change that people have not been able to cope with or adapt to.
This includes the inability to respond adequately to climate stressors and the costs and
adverse effects associated with the adaptation and coping measures themselves. Such
costs and adverse effects can be both economic and non-economic. Loss and damage is
also related to mitigation, as the potential costs of future climate change depend to a large
extent on the intensity of climatic disruptions, which in turn depend on mitigation efforts
The empirical research on loss and damage aimed to enhance understanding of how
the interaction of climatic variability and climate change with livelihoods and social
vulnerability creates particular patterns of loss and damage today in least developed and
To understand patterns of loss and damage in nuanced social-ecological contexts
across the world, the case studies gathered data in four research domains:
1 Climate stressor: Manifestations of climate variability and climate change in specific
ecosystems (for example, rainfall variability, droughts, floods, cyclones and tropical
storms, glacial melt, sea-level rise, etc.). This could involve extreme weather-related
events and more gradual changes.
2 Societal impact: Societal impacts related to climatic drivers of importance in a
particular ecosystem (for example, impact on food production, livelihood security,
health, damage to physical assets, etc.). Some impacts – like coastal erosion and
salinity intrusion – result from both social and physical/climatic factors and their
3 Responses: What is done to adapt to changes in the frequency and severity of
extreme weather-related events and slow-onset climate changes? And what is done to
cope with societal impacts? The terms ‘coping’ and ‘adaptation’ are often used
synonymously. This is problematic because they involve different types of responses
to different types of stressors (van der Geest, 2004; Birkmann, 2011). In the loss and
damage case studies, coping strategies were defined as short-term responses to the
impacts of sudden events. Adaptation was defined as longer-term responses to more
gradual changes (Warner et al., 2012b). We acknowledge that adaptation measures
are adopted “in response to actual and expected impacts of climate change in the
context of interacting nonclimatic changes” [Moser and Ekstrom, (2010), p.22026]
and that such measures “aim to meet more than climate change goals alone” (ibid).
4 (Residual) loss and damage: What are the effects of climate variability and climate
change that people have not (yet) been able to avoid? What are the limits and costs
of adaptation to climatic changes? What happens to a household when its coping
strategies are not effective enough to avoid or manage the impacts of extreme
events? Loss and damage can result from an inability to respond to climate stressors,
370 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
insufficient coping and adaptation measures, the costs associated with coping and
adaptation strategies, and adverse long-term effects of adopted measures. These costs
and consequences often elude quantification but cause severe harm and impede
2 Methods of community-based assessment of loss and damage
To generate evidence that helps fill gaps in the literature, field research was undertaken in
nine vulnerable countries to determine how loss and damage is incurred by households,
based on the interaction between climatic variability and factors such as livelihoods,
health, and social/physical assets. The research approach explained in this section was
developed as a prototype for community-based assessment of loss and damage.
2.1 Research objective
Each of the nine case studies addressed the same type of research questions, while
focusing on different climatic stressors and societal impacts. Societal impacts could
involve negative effects on livelihood sources, physical assets and other aspects of human
well-being, such as housing and health. The central research question was as follows:
How does the impact of [climate variable] on [societal impact] lead to loss and
damage among households in [location]?
The central research question was addressed through several sub-questions, focusing on
1 local changes in weather variability and climate patterns
2 societal impacts of these climate stressors
3 household vulnerability
4 existing coping and adaptation measures
5 residual losses and damage, defined as impacts that could not be avoided through
coping and adaptation.
The research presented here generated primary data providing a people’s perspective on
loss and damage. Research was conducted in districts in nine countries especially
vulnerable to loss and damage due to climate variability and climate change (Bangladesh,
Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Micronesia, Mozambique and
Nepal). National research teams in these countries gathered quantitative and qualitative
data through household surveys (n = 3,269) and more than a hundred focus group
discussions and interviews with key informants about their personal experiences of
climate change impacts and about their responses. Researchers further compared local
meteorological and other relevant data with local perceptions of changes in climatic
Table 1 provides an overview of the climate stressors and societal impacts on which
each of the nine case studies focused.
Loss and damage from climate change 371
Table 1 Overview of the case studies: research area, climate stressors, societal impact and
stressor Societal impact focus* Sample
Bangladesh Sathkira Salinity intrusion Rice + drinking water 360
Bhutan Punakha Changing monsoon Rice production 273
Burkina Faso Sahel Drought Livestock + crops 465
Ethiopia Gambella Flooding Habitability + livelihood 431
Gambia North Bank Drought Millet production 373
Kenya Budalangi Flooding Crops, livestock + fish 400
Micronesia Kosrae Coastal erosion Housing, livelihood 363
Mozambique South and central Drought and flood Staple crops 304
Nepal Udayapur Flooding Agricultural livelihood 300
Note: *Each case study focused on one or more particular impact sectors, but also
registered impacts in other sectors.
2.2 Site selection
The sites were selected to cover a wide range of ecosystems, geographic regions
(drylands, mountains, a small island, a delta) and climatic stressors (droughts, floods,
cyclones, sea-level rise, glacial melt, desertification, changing rainfall patterns) as well as
dependence of livelihoods on climate conditions (e.g., rainfed agriculture, fishing,
herding). Other important considerations included exploring cross-cutting issues related
to climate stressors, such as food production, human and livelihood security, social
justice and cohesion, and human mobility.
2.3 Mixed methods research approach
The methods developed for this project build on prior empirical research methods at UN
University, such as the ‘Where the Rain Falls’ project (Warner et al., 2012a;
Rademacher-Schulz et al., 2012), supplemented with insights from fieldwork-based
studies of livelihood vulnerability, coping and adapting, particularly in rural agricultural
environments emerging from the late 1990s onwards (Davies, 1996; Ellis, 1998; Scoones,
1998; Bebbington, 1999). This methodology is described below and the research
instruments are available at http://www.ehs.unu.edu and http://www.lossanddamage.net.
In preparation for each case study, a desk-study was conducted to collect and analyse
existing regional and thematic literature and secondary data serving as an input to final
decisions about research design and on the selection of climate stressors and impact
sectors on which to focus. The survey instrument (sample size: 273 to 465 households per
case study, with a total of 3,269 households) aimed to generate reliable estimations of the
numbers of people in the research areas experiencing different climate change impacts
and their strategies to deal with climate pressures and shocks. A template questionnaire
was designed and later adapted for each case study to suit its thematic focus and the
characteristics of local livelihood systems and environments. The first section of the
survey instrument enquired about household socio-economic and demographic
372 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
characteristics and about sources of food and income. The information gathered in this
section can be used to create vulnerability profiles, comparing households in one location
or across case study areas. Sections 2 and 3 dealt with extreme weather events and slow-
onset processes with a focus on impact, coping, adaptation and residual loss and damage.
Open questions were combined with closed question to optimise the balance between
listening to the voices of vulnerable people and being able to quantify how widespread
different impacts and responses are.
In each case study area, open interviews were conducted with five to ten
questionnaire respondents to hear their personal stories of impacts, responses and residual
loss and damage. These stories complement the somewhat de-personalised analyses of
the survey instrument. Focus group discussions were organised to gather more qualitative
information on the complex dynamics between the key concepts of this research –
climate variability and changes, societal impacts, vulnerability, coping, adapting, and
residual impacts. The focus group discussions also allowed researchers to detect
differences in the experiences of men and women, young and old, and different
occupational groups (e.g., crop cultivators, pastoralists, labourers, traders) and wealth
The limitations of the research objective and methods include:
1 attribution of local climatic changes and extreme events to global warming is beyond
the scope of this research
2 no attempt was made to estimate total monetary loss and damage at local, national or
3 the local case studies are not necessarily representative of entire countries.
Findings do not support or negate any particular political position on loss and damage.
Rather, they offer evidence that support policymakers in discussions about underlying
needs that inform solutions. The study and its methods should be treated as points of
departure for further research on loss and damage in vulnerable communities.
3 Summary of findings presented in special issue
This section gives an overview of findings from the nine case studies. More in-depth
analyses of the situation in individual case study areas are published in separate papers in
this special issue, and Section 4 discusses four ‘loss and damage pathways’, illustrated
with examples from the field. Table 2 shows the percentage of households in each
research site experiencing particular climate-related stressors and impacts on their
household economy, the proportion of households that adopted coping or adapting
measures, and the proportion of households incurring residual loss and damage. The large
majority of survey respondents across study sites indicated they adopted coping or
adaptation measures to counter adverse effects of extreme weather events and slow-onset
changes (median: 88%, see Table 2).
Loss and damage from climate change 373
Table 2 Stressors, impact, responses and loss and damage (% of households)
(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
related stressor Experienced
99 99 81 70 74
91 89 88 87 72
Burkina Faso Drought 98 99 79 72 76
Ethiopia Flood 100 100 98 96 96
Gambia Drought 100 97 93 66 66
Kenya Flood 100 98 93 72 72
Micronesia Coastal erosion 87 80 60 92 66
Mozambique Drought/flood 100 99 93 69 70
Nepal Flood 97 74 72 78 60
Median 99 98 88 72 72
Note: Column (b) is a proportion of the households in column (a); column (c) is a
proportion of those in column (b); and column (d) is a proportion of those in
column (c). ‘Loss and damage’ in column (e) is calculated as: e = (a * b * c * d) +
((1 – c) * a * b), where the letters stand for the percentages in the corresponding
columns. In words, it is the proportion of the whole survey population that
experienced adverse effects despite adopting measures to cope or adapt plus those
who were affected but who did not adopt any measures in response.
Table 3 provides more detail about the impacts per sector. Table 4 details the coping
strategies adopted to deal with impacts of floods and droughts in six of the case studies.
For the other three research sites, with more diverse and slower-onset climatic stressors,
the most common adaptation measures are listed in Table 5. Households in these areas
had to deal with reduced availability of water for rice cultivation (Bhutan), coastal
erosion (Micronesia) and salinity intrusion (Bangladesh), related to changing monsoon
patterns, sea-level rise, cyclones and tropical storms.
Climate-related stressors are widely experienced in the research sites. For example, in
Punakha District in Bhutan, 91% of the households surveyed experienced changes in
monsoon patterns that affected water availability for irrigated rice farming. In Satkhira
District in Bangladesh, 99% experienced saltwater intrusion. In the African case studies,
98 to 100% had experienced droughts or floods (see Table 2). The proportion of
respondents for whom the climate stressor had a negative impact on household economy
was also high, especially in Bangladesh and the African study sites (>97%). Impacts on
crop cultivation and food prices were most common (see Table 3). As the large majority
of respondents practise subsistence agriculture, with often limited access to non-farm
income, crop failures often result in food insecurity. This is aggravated when food prices
rise in the aftermath of, for example, a drought. In drought-affected areas, many
households also reported severe impacts on livestock; and in study sites with frequent
flooding, damage to physical assets, particularly houses, was common.
374 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
Table 3 Impact sectors (% of households)
Impact sector 1
Impact sector 2
Impact sector 3
Bangladesh Salinity intrusion Crops (98) Drinking water (90) N/A
Bhutan Changing monsoon Crops (97) Trees (23) Livestock (12)
Burkina Faso Drought Crops (96) Food prices (90) Livestock (87)
Ethiopia Flood Crops (94) Health (92) House (79)
Gambia Drought Crops (99) Food prices (89) Livestock (74)
Kenya Flood Crops (98) Food prices (95) Phys. assets (66)
Micronesia Coastal erosion Trees (70 Crops (69) Phys. assets (53)
Mozambique Drought/flood Crops (100) Food prices (83) Livestock (35)
Nepal Flood Crops (86) Food prices (61) Phys. assets (33)
Note: Percentages calculated over the households that experienced the climate threat
(see Table 2).
Table 4 Coping measures adopted in response to impacts of floods and droughts
(% of households)
Coping strategy BUR/
Rely on aid 51 76 48 76 45 58 54.5
Seek other income to buy
food 33 58 69 36 67
Support from social network 29 50 47 35 31 49 41.0
Sell assets/livestock to buy
food 79 42 55 19 34
Migration/relocation 41 18 25 59 12 24 24.5
Modify food consumption* 87 78 64 82 79 40 78.5
Notes: *Modifying food consumption may not be considered a coping strategy, but rather
a consequence of limited coping capacity
• Percentages calculated over households that reported impacts of climatic
stressors (see Table 2).
• BUR = Burkina Faso, ETH = Ethiopia, GAM = The Gambia, KEN = Kenya,
MOZ = Mozambique, NEP = Nepal.
The questionnaire used in the fieldwork contained open as well as closed questions about
coping and adaptation strategies. In the case of coping strategies that households adopted
to deal with impacts of droughts and floods (Table 4), the closed questions actually
covered almost all the coping mechanisms people used. Reliance on aid was particularly
important where people had to deal with flood impacts (Ethiopia, Kenya and Nepal). In
the case studies that focused on droughts (Burkina Faso and Gambia), selling livestock to
buy food when harvests fail was a common coping strategy. Many households across the
research sites also tried to cope by engaging in non-farm income-generating activities
when their usual, more climate-sensitive, source of food and money was affected by
drought or flood. Social networks played an important role in people’s coping behaviour.
The people who supported with money to buy food and other essentials in the aftermath
Loss and damage from climate change 375
of a drought or flood were often migrant relatives. The least frequent, but still important,
coping strategy involved movement of whole households or individual household
members to areas that were safe (in the case of flooding) or that provided opportunities to
earn an income to buy food when their own harvests failed.
The last row in Table 4 shows the proportion of households that modified food
consumption to deal with the impacts of drought or flood. One could wonder whether
reducing the number of meals per day or portion sizes is a ‘coping’ strategy or a sign that
available options to cope are failing. The high proportion of households that indicated
they had to modify food consumption (median: 78.5%) is a first sign that the threats
posed by climate-related stressors are beyond people’s capacity to cope.
Table 5 lists the most common adaptation measures adopted in the study sites where
interacting climate extremes like cyclones and tropical storms and slow-onset climatic
stressors, such as sea-level rise and changing rainfall patterns, were more prominent.
Contrary to the coping strategies used to deal with drought and flood impacts, adaptation
measures were much more diverse across the study sites. The most common adaptation
strategies involved preventive measures that aimed to avoid or minimise the impacts of
climate stressors. For example, in Bangladesh many farming households affected by
salinity intrusion adapted by reducing livelihood dependency on agriculture. Many also
adapted by planting new rice cultivars that are more tolerant to salinity (Rabbani et al.,
Table 5 Adaptation measures adopted in response to slow-onset climatic changes
(% of households)
Adaptation strategies adopted to reduce future impacts or to
deal with current impacts
Reduce dependence on crop cultivation (60%), plant
salt-resistant rice cultivars (39%), on-farm measures to reduce
Water-sharing arrangements (48%), more intensive
maintenance of irrigation channels (37%), shift from rice to
other crops (31%)
Micronesia Coastal erosion Build sea walls (29%), land filling to protect coastline (29%),
plant trees along coastline (15%), raise houses (11%)
Note: Percentages calculated over households that reported impacts of climatic stressors
(see Table 2).
Among the people who adopted coping and adaptation measures, most were not fully
successful in avoiding residual impacts. For example, in the Bhutan study area, 87% of
households that adopted measures to deal with changing monsoon patterns and reduced
availability of water for rice cultivation reported that they were still experiencing adverse
effects despite the adaptation measures (Kusters and Wangdi, 2013). Similar results were
found, albeit with a variety of different coping and adaptation measures, for all the other
case studies (see Table 2). The last column of Table 2 shows the proportion of the survey
population that incurred loss and damage, which was calculated as the sum of those who
still experience adverse effects despite adopting measures to cope or adapt plus those
who were affected, but did not adopt any measures in response (reasons for non-adoption
are mentioned in Table 6). In eight of the nine study sites, this proportion was between 60
376 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
and 78% (median 72%). In Ethiopia, up to 96% of the households had incurred loss and
damage from flooding.
The nine case studies help build our understanding of how households in affected
communities attempt to manage both climatic stressors and societal impacts associated
with extreme events and incremental climatic processes. The case studies illustrate that
often the measures adopted by households are only partly successful in avoiding adverse
effects of climate stressors.
Figure 1 Household potential for loss and damage (see online version for colours)
Source: Warner et al. (2012b)
4 Four pathways to loss and damage: current evidence and patterns
The nine community-based case studies synthesised in this paper illustrate four pathways
via which vulnerable people incur loss and damage. Despite efforts to cope with impacts
of extreme weather events and adapt to slow-onset climatic changes, many households
across the research sites were not able to avoid adverse effects. Residual impacts of
climate stressors occur when:
1 measures to cope or adapt are not enough to avoid loss and damage
2 measures have costs (economic, social, cultural, health, etc.) that are not regained
Loss and damage from climate change 377
3 measures are erosive and make people more vulnerable
4 no measures are adopted, due to:
a lack of capacity to respond to climate threat (constraints)
b coping/adaptation not possible (limits).
Figure 1 illustrates the potential of households to incur loss and damage, showing factors
that affect how pathways to loss and damage can unfold. Loss and damage pathways 1
(adequacy of adaptation), 2 (costs of adaptation), and 3 (relationship of adaptation
measures to sustainable development) relate particularly to opportunities and constraints
to adaptation affected by economics, political decision-making, and other social choices
that affect vulnerability and resilience to climate stressors. Loss and damage pathway 4
(no measures adopted) relates to constraints in capacity to adapt as well as social and
physical limitations on adaptation at different scales.
In the rest of this section, we highlight key findings of the case studies, structured
around the four loss and damage pathways we identified.
4.1 Measures are not enough to avoid loss and damage
The empirical research, conducted in nine vulnerable countries, indicated that the vast
majority of households across the study sites undertake autonomous adaptation to
climatic stressors. Yet efforts to cope with impacts of extreme events and to adapt to
climatic changes are often not enough to avoid loss and damage to household economies,
livelihoods, health, and cultural assets.
The findings from Rabbani et al. (2013) in Sathkira, Bangladesh exemplify a case
where seemingly successful measures to adapt to slow-onset processes are insufficient to
avoid loss and damage when the situation is aggravated by an extreme weather event.
Sathkira is a coastal district facing sea-level rise and frequent cyclones. Both result in
saltwater intrusion, which has a severe impact on rice cultivation, the mainstay of the
local economy and the principal source of food for the majority of the population. Eighty-
one per cent of the survey respondents reported sharp increases in soil salinity levels,
compared to just 2% 20 years ago. To adapt, many farmers have planted new, saline
tolerant-rice varieties. This strategy worked reasonably well until 2009, when
cyclone Aila hit the area and caused a drastic increase of soil salinity. Almost all farmers
in the area lost their complete harvest that year. In the two subsequent years, salinity
levels remained high and rice yields were miniscule. Between 2009 and 2011, the total
loss of rice harvest was US$1.9 million for the four villages surveyed (Rabbani et al.,
The Gambia case study (Yaffa, 2013) looked at the drought-prone area of the North
Bank Region. Meteorological data since 1886 show a significant decrease in average
annual rainfall. In 2011, the region experienced a severe drought once again, resulting in
very low crop yields for some and total crop failure for others. Ninety-seven per cent of
the survey respondents experienced adverse effects of the drought on their household
economy. Most households tried to survive by finding alternative sources of money to
buy food. Food prices rose and there was tough competition for scarce jobs. Other coping
strategies, such as reliance on food relief and selling properties, were only partly
378 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
successful or endangered future livelihood security. Despite coping measures, 64% said
they had to modify their food consumption because of the drought and low harvests.
Some purchased cheaper, less nutritious food, others had to reduce portion sizes or the
number of meals, and the worst-off did both.
The case studies in Ethiopia (Haile et al., 2013) and Nepal (Bauer, 2013) focused on
flooding. Both case studies looked more closely at preventive measures, such as digging
ditches, erecting boundary walls and moving property and livestock to unaffected areas.
Just as in Bangladesh, these measures were quite effective in minimising impacts from
moderate floods, but fell short when the areas were hit with more severe floods.
4.2 Measures have costs that are not regained
The measures that households adopt to cope with impacts of extreme weather events and
to adapt to slow-onset climatic changes often have costs themselves. These costs can be
both monetary and non-monetary.
In Bhutan, Kusters and Wangdi (2013) looked at the impact of changing monsoon
patterns on rice cultivation. The monsoon rains are starting later and the total amount of
rain has reduced sharply over the past two decades. Rice farmers in the study area
(Punakha District) have tried to adapt by modifying water-sharing arrangements between
villages and by intensifying irrigation canal maintenance in drier years. Information from
focus group discussions and expert interviews suggest that labour input for maintenance
is up to ten times higher in years with poor or late rains than in years with adequate
rainfall. There are significant costs attached to this, particularly because labour is scarce
during the rice cultivation season. When measures to convey enough irrigation water to
fields are not enough, farmers cultivate crops needing less water, such as maize, instead
of rice. This has substantial costs, too. Crop yields and income from maize are 2.5 to 8
times lower than for rice.2 Eighty-seven per cent of the respondents using such measures
said these involved extra monetary and non-monetary costs.
In our study areas in Mozambique, households had to deal with the double threat
of droughts and floods (Brida et al., 2013). Many of the households surveyed
had been resettled from lowland areas to upland areas after repeated severe
flooding in 2001 and 2007.This adaptation made them less vulnerable to flooding, but it
came with a very significant cost. In the upland areas, many are unable to produce
enough food for their families because upland soils are less fertile and crop yields
significantly lower. Some households moved their fields back to more fertile lowland
areas, while living in upland areas. That gives them better yields, but valuable time and
energy is wasted commuting the large distances between upland and lowland areas.
Moreover, when a flood hits again, they are at risk of losing their entire harvest from
In our study areas in Burkina Faso and Micronesia, there were clear manifestations of
cultural losses. On the island of Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia, there was
severe damage to a cultural heritage site because the big stones of an ancient fortress had
been used to erect sea walls (Monnereau and Abraham, 2013). In Northern Burkina Faso,
many former pastoralists have lost their herds in recurrent droughts and have had to take
up other occupations. Besides the material losses, many of these former herdsmen feel
they have lost their cultural identity (Traore et al., 2013).
Loss and damage from climate change 379
4.3 Erosive coping: short-term merits, adverse long-term effects
People who live in risk-prone areas and who are confronted with certain climate stressors
try to avoid adverse effects through preventive or proactive measures (e.g., risk spreading
in agriculture and livelihood diversification). If adverse effects cannot be avoided through
preventive action, but the impact is not very severe, people first employ ‘non-erosive’
coping measures, such as drawing on any buffers they have created. If the crisis is more
severe, for example when an area is hit by drought in several consecutive years, or when
several hazards strike simultaneously, the set of non-erosive coping strategies may
become exhausted and people will have to take more drastic action. For instance, they
may need to sell productive assets, eat into their seed stock, or take children out of school
so they can seek work to support the household. These measures are ‘erosive’ because
they can seriously jeopardise people’s future livelihoods and food security (de Waal,
1989; van der Geest and Dietz, 2004).3 Across the nine case study sites, many households
are forced to employ erosive coping strategies to deal with the impact of climatic
stressors. These strategies allow them to survive in the short term but weaken household
resilience in the longer term.
Opondo (2013) examined the coping strategies that households adopted after River
Nzoia in Western Kenya broke its dykes in December 2011 and caused havoc in
Budalangi Division (a low-lying area on the shores of Lake Victoria). Floods have
become more frequent and intense in recent decades. The December 2011 flood drowned
people and livestock, washed away crops, severely damaged houses and spawned an
outbreak of water-borne diseases. Some of the coping strategies that people adopted to
gain access to food or reconstruct housing have severe implications for future livelihood
security. For example, some households were forced to sell their bullocks to buy food
after the flood had washed away their crops. The following season, the bullocks were not
available to plough the fields and the households’ situation became even more precarious.
Also, able-bodied household members had to invest much of their time in non-farm
activities or migration to urban centres to solve their households’ urgent food needs. This
meant that they had much less time to spend on the household farm, which undermined
food security in the next cultivation cycle. Lastly, some households withdrew their
children from school so they could help generate income, mostly through non-farm
The case study in the Gambia, which focused on drought impacts, yielded similar
findings (Yaffa, 2013), and on the Micronesian island of Kosrae examples were found of
maladaptive measures. Sea walls that were built – both by individuals and government
agencies – to protect people and their properties, actually exacerbated coastal erosion,
especially on the edges (Monnereau and Abraham, 2013). Lastly, the case study in
Ethiopia found that when preventive measures are not enough to avoid severe flood
impacts, households often rely on their social networks for survival. However, repeated
floods erode this social capital, overburden social networks, and leave affected
households in a more vulnerable position with each subsequent flood (Haile et al., 2013).
4.4 No measures are adopted – or possible – at all
Although the vast majority of respondents in the case study areas indicated that their
households adopted measures to prevent or cope with impacts of climatic stressors
(median: 88%, see Table 2), there were always some households that did not adopt such
380 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
measures. Most of these households faced constraints or limits that made it impossible for
them to adjust at all. Table 6 shows reasons for not adopting coping or adaptation
measures. Lack of knowledge or skills was the most common reason, followed by lack of
financial means or other resources. These households did not know what do or were not
able to do anything. Very few households indicated that it was not their task to do
anything or that it was not a priority.
Table 6 Reasons for not undertaking coping or adaptation measures (% of households)
Country Lack knowledge
Lack means or
resources ‘Not my task’ No priority
Bangladesh 68 30 0 2
Bhutan 68 16 4 12
Burkina Faso 79 22 2 0
Ethiopia n/a n/a n/a n/a
Gambia 58 28 3 2
Kenya 40 31 10 4
Micronesia 47 74 3 0
Mozambique 64 40 0 0
Nepal 47 88 9 5
Note: Percentages calculated over households that did not adopt coping or adaptation
measures (see Table 2)
Monnereau and Abraham (2013) studied loss and damage from coastal erosion and storm
surges on the island of Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia. Kosrae has much
higher levels of human and economic development than the other study sites. However, a
relatively high proportion (40%, see Table 2) of respondents did not adopt any adaptation
measures to prevent impacts of coastal erosion and storm surges, and 74% indicated that
the reason for that was lack of financial means or other resources. This is because the
most common adaptation options they have are too expensive or seem inefficient. For
example, people may refrain from building a sea wall to protect their house, land and
other property because they lack resources and because they have seen from neighbours
that building a sea wall is no guarantee that impacts are avoided.
When faced with such adaptations limits or constraints, households and communities
have to make difficult choices: changing their objectives, accepting loss and damage, or
undertaking more significant transformation (see Preston et al., 2013; Kates et al., 2012).
Changing objectives often involves a deteriorating standard of living, the loss of cultural
values, and the disintegration of commonly held values and practices in the community.
Accepting loss and damage often means falling incomes, assets, education levels and
social status, along with greater poverty, lower food consumption, and diminished future
prospects. Undertaking more significant transformation can involve more permanent
migration out of one’s home area, leading to other significant changes in livelihood and
Loss and damage from climate change 381
5 Conclusions and policy implications
This concluding section points to implications for policy and research. As the evidence
presented in this special issue shows, loss and damage is already a significant
consequence of inadequate mitigation of, and adaptation to, climatic changes across the
world. The research presented here tells a story of community efforts to adjust to the
negative impacts of climatic stressors, and the consequences when communities approach
barriers or limits to successful adaptation.
The research presented here tells household stories of ‘just getting by’, suggesting
that at some scales and in some regions human societies already exist precariously
between the borders of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ operating spaces at the adaptation frontier (cf.
Preston et al., 2013). Such households and communities face barriers that erode
livelihoods, food security and asset bases and that prevent them from accessing
appropriate, sufficient adaptation options to manage climatic risks. Resulting loss and
damage patterns can be seen in all the case studies.
The case findings in this special issue suggest that some of the most notable current
impacts are on household food production and livelihoods. A minority of households in
the study areas have a great diversity of assets and access to a variety of adaptation and
risk management options. Such households have diverse livelihoods, strong social
networks, access to community or government support programmes and often a high
level of education. This enables them to cope with adverse weather events without
becoming more vulnerable, and to adapt to climatic changes in ways that enhance
resilience. Of concern, however, are the more numerous vulnerable households that have
the least access to such options. They have few or no viable livelihood diversification
opportunities, not enough land, limited access to support programmes and little
education. To survive when a climatic stressor strikes, they are often forced to use erosive
coping measures, which can trap them in a downward slope of declining well-being and
security. Such households experience diminishing coping and adaptive capacity and
increasing loss and damage.
Our findings suggest that current loss and damage patterns strike at the very purpose
of climate policy – and especially the purpose of the UNFCCC (Article 2): “to achieve
(…) stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that
would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a
level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt
naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable
economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner” [UNFCCC, (1992), p.14].
Loss and damage patterns revealed in the case studies illustrate that people in vulnerable
countries already appear to be approaching the biophysical and social boundaries of
adaptation, beyond which climate change compromises sustainable development. The
case studies show how climate-related losses relate to the central policy objectives of
many countries: economic development, poverty reduction, livelihood and food security,
health, education, access to usable water, and overall human welfare.
Questions arise about how to deal with those negative biophysical impacts of climate
change for which no clear, practicable alternatives exist within the boundaries of our
current values, culture and economic systems. Such impacts might be seen as climate
change begins to affect the functionality of some low-lying island countries. Further
questions arise about how to deal with potentially reduced habitability of coastal zones
382 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
and dryland areas – many of which host dense human population concentrations,
including mega-cities. The potential changes that science suggests may be felt as early as
this century raise questions about the ability of environmental systems to adjust naturally.
Further questions arise about whether food production, and the associated livelihoods of
an estimated 2.6 billion people,4 will be able to continue in a sustainable manner.
One striking aspect of this analysis is that only the fourth loss and damage pathway
that we identified (no measures are adopted – or possible – at all) is related to ‘hard
limits’ where no measures are possible. For the other loss and damage pathways, a more
nuanced interplay between climatic stressors and their impacts on societal values can and
needs to be addressed by increasing adaptive capacity, reducing exposure and
vulnerability, and undertaking measures that increase the ability of affected people to
adjust to the stressors they face within their social-ecological systems.
5.1 Policy implications
At the climate negotiations in Warsaw, Poland (COP19) in December 2013, there is a
mandate to establish institutional arrangements to address loss and damage associated
with the impacts of climate change5 (UNFCCC, 2012), including functions and
modalities.6 The work on loss and damage under the UNFCCC is envisioned to
contribute to the formulation of the anticipated international climate agreement at
COP21 (Paris, December 2015).
The four pathways to loss and damage suggest that policies to address loss and
damage must consider:
• Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions (strong influence on all pathways to loss and
damage). Success in avoiding situations in which society faces loss and damage –
particularly under pathway 4b – depends on appropriately ambitious mitigation
• Policies geared towards addressing, restoring or otherwise making up for adaptation
costs that are not regained are especially relevant for pathway 2.
• Policies geared toward increasing resilience (such as reducing exposure, addressing
underlying vulnerabilities that affect the coping and adaptive capacity of affected
people) are relevant for pathways 1, 3, and 4a. The research showed that many
households surveyed employ a variety of approaches to get by, although many of
these have longer-term erosive implications for livelihoods and well-being. If social
vulnerabilities to climatic and other stressors are root causes of loss and damage,
then improving social resilience provides some of the solutions.
• Finally, questions arise about what policies may be appropriate and needed to
address situations where adaptation measures to particular kinds of climatic stressors
are no longer possible (pathway 4b). In such areas, there are already limits to
adaptation due to issues such as the scope of the biophysical impact or the degree to
which a society can deal with the impact. Policy approaches are needed that clearly
set out the consequences of approaching and surpassing hard limits (at all levels).
Tools are needed to identify decision points and define options for decision
Loss and damage from climate change 383
Vulnerable countries like those studied in this research are at the frontline of loss and
damage realities and policy solutions. The case studies conducted for the Loss and
Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative represent a first generation of research
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patterns at household level. The loss and damage pathways, identified in this article,
serve as a point of departure for further research to understand how climate change
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1 The data presented in this paper was gathered in the context of the Loss and Damage in
Vulnerable Countries Initiative. As part of this project, the United Nations University, together
with national researchers conducted nine case studies about impacts of climate variability and
climate change on local communities, their strategies to deal with these stressors, and residual
loss and damage. Fieldwork took place in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, the
Gambia, Kenya, Micronesia, Mozambique and Nepal. Funding for the Loss and Damage in
Vulnerable Countries Initiative came from the Climate Development Knowledge Network
(CDKN). The Africa Climate Policy Center (ACPC) funded three case studies (Ethiopia,
Burkina Faso and Mozambique). For more information about the project, go to
2 The estimation of 2.5 times is based on FAO data for rice and maize yields and prices in
Punakha District, Bhutan (2000–2010). Data from the Bhutanese Ministry of Agriculture and
Forestry suggest an even larger difference (eight times). See Kusters and Wangdi (2013) for
3 Other studies have also found that measures undertaken to cope with and adapt to climate
stressors can actually make households more vulnerable to these and other stressors, and
exacerbate poverty traps (e.g., Di Falco and Bulte, 2009; Barnett and O’Neill, 2010; Hertel et
al., 2010; Hickey and Bracking, 2005)
386 K. Warner and K. van der Geest
4 According to the statistics division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (http://faostat.fao.org), the world’s ‘agricultural population’ amounted to
2,621,037,000 people in 2012. FAO defines agricultural population as all persons depending
for their livelihood on agriculture, hunting, fishing and forestry. It comprises all persons
economically active in agriculture as well as their non-working dependants
5 Paragraph 9 of the Doha Climate Gateway decision reads: “Decides to establish, at its
nineteenth session, institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism, including
functions and modalities, elaborated in accordance with the role of the Convention as defined
in paragraph 5 above, to address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate
change in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of
6 See UNFCC (2012) paras 7 and 10.