IEG's Evaluation of Climate Adaptation at the World Bank Group

By Ken Chomitz*, Sr. Advisor at the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank

As the readers of this blog know, climate change adaptation is a sprawling and confounding concept, challenging both to pursue and to evaluate. IEG has just completed a wide-ranging assessment of the World Bank Group experience with adaptation, and I wanted to share with our fellow evaluators some highlights of how we approached the problem, and what we learned.

For us, the key was to distinguish three ways to adapt. You can do things that reduce vulnerability both today and tomorrow; things that help today but hurt tomorrow; and things that cost you today but make you more resilient to tomorrow's transformed climate.

Most of what the Bank does in adaptation aims to fall in the first category. Poor countries are mostly not well adjusted even to today's climate. The World Bank has been addressing this adaptation deficit since long before the label 'adaptation' was applied. This is a broad area of work, deeply intertwined with development. This makes it amenable to standard evaluation methods. For instance,Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Project has reduced the duration of food insecurity by 0.9 months for drought-affected households, according to a rigorous impact evaluation. IEG's study also reviewed innovations, such as weather index insurance, that appear promising on first principles but whose benefits and broad applicability have not yet been well demonstrated. It also stressed that investing in institutions "such as agricultural research and extension" will help right now, and will lay the foundations for the sophisticated organizations that will be needed to confront the unprecedented climate situations of the 2030s and beyond.

Adaptation to current conditions, though well-meaning, can go awry in the longer run. A case in point: the celebrated regreening of the Loess Plateau, in China. This effort, supported in part by the World Bank, reduced terrible erosion in this water-scarce area and boosted farmers' incomes. But it is now becoming clear that planting large expanses of exotic, thirsty trees has drawn down precious groundwater supplies. Better and longer term monitoring of impacts could help avert maladaptation. More recent work in China points the way, using new remote sensing technologies for measuring actual water consumption by crops and trees.

Anticipatory adaptation, the third option, involves acting now to avert severe but long-term threats as climate goes weird. Shaping land use patterns will be critical for this, in order to divert swelling urban populations from the locations most exposed to risk and to keep open the migration routes that will allow ecosystems to shift to cooler ground. This is the most challenging -- because people and governments have a hard time focusing on the long term, and because the global experience with land use zoning and planning is not encouraging. But evaluation can focus on tracking the progress of innovative efforts -- such as those in South Africa and India -- to create resilient landscapes, assessing the impact of regulations, incentives, and information on land use decisions.

What can be done to advance the right kinds of adaptation? First, the Bank and IFC can better equip their project designers with guidance on how to assess climate risk -- when to worry, when not to, and what tools to use. (One of the study's findings is that elaborate global climate models are not well suited for most project work.) Second, the Bank can help poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, beef up the hydromet systems that will help them navigate through bad weather. Along with that should come help for countries to monitor adaptation results on the ground "tracking whether institutions are becoming more capable, water supplies more sustainable, and households more insulated from shocks. Bank Group and country strategies should focus more on these results and less on trying to track spending on adaptation -- an exercise both quixotic and distracting. Fourth, while here-and-now adaptation is essential, more attention is needed to long-term anticipatory thinking.

Finally, the Bank and IFC can rise to their new president's challenge of realizing a Solutions Bank. They can wire their projects to learn faster and better where the solutions lie to the huge challenge of climate change. There are any number of important, practical questions that urgently need solid answers: Is it better to bundle agricultural index insurance with credit than to sell it directly to farmers? What kinds of sustainable land management systems boost water retention and insulate farmers from drought impacts? We have the tools to answer these questions. Deploying those tools can pay for itself in increased efficiency, better targeting, and more rapid scale up, as shown by the Bank-funded Sujala project in Karnataka, India. This watershed management project used rapid feedback on results to improve targeting of antipoverty efforts on women and landless people. It rigorously documented average household income gains of 24% along with environmental improvements, leading to widespread scale up of the project's approach.

I'm writing this on my way home from the Climate Investment Funds gathering in Istanbul, where I met people who are passionate about equipping their countries to withstand the bad weather ahead. With eyes on the future, and the right kind of information, the Bank Group can provide not just the finance, but the solutions they need to deal with today's climate threats and to prepare for the bigger changes to come. Evaluators have a big role to play in helping to find those solutions.


*Ken Chomitz is a Senior Advisor in the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank Group, where he has led a series of three evaluations of the Bank Group's climate change activities including a just-completed report on climate change adaptation. Previously he was a Lead Economist with the Bank's Development Research Group. Chomitz's work has focused on global environmental issues. He is the author of At Loggerheads? Agricultural Expansion, Poverty Reduction and Environment in the Tropical Forests, and a coauthor of the Bank's World Development Report 2003: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World. He was a pioneer in the application of econometric methods to analyzing spatial patterns of deforestation and has published articles on economic issues related to deforestation, biodiversity, and climate change. Chomitz holds a degree in mathematics from MIT and a PhD in Economics from the University of California, Irvine. Prior to joining the World Bank, he was a National Research Council Fellow at the US National Academy of Sciences; Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University; and Senior Advisor with the Development Studies Project, a policy research institute associated with the Indonesian National Development Planning Board.

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