Adaptation and Adaptive Capacity

Establishing and sustaining communities and economies in the Prairies, at the northern margins of agriculture and forestry in a dry variable climate and at great distances from export markets, have involved considerable adaptation to climate. Economic and social development will be sustained under climate change by tapping into and boosting the accumulated adaptive capacity of the region. Adaptive capacity is an attribute that provides an indication of a system or region's ability to adapt effectively to change. A system with a high adaptive capacity would be able to cope with, and perhaps even benefit from, changes in the climate, whereas a system with a low adaptive capacity would be more likely to suffer from the same change (see Chapter 2).

Nearly all adaptation in the region has been in reaction to specific climate events and departures from average conditions. The post-settlement history of the Prairies is punctuated by social and institutional responses to drought and, to a much lesser extent, floods. Planning for changing future environmental conditions is a relatively new policy and management paradigm. Many current examples of adaptation involve institutions and individuals adjusting their activities to prevent a repeat of the impacts of recent climate events, with the implicit assumption that such events will reoccur, potentially with greater frequency and/or intensity as the result of climate change.

The possible adjustments to practices, policies and infrastructure are so numerous that only categories and examples can be discussed here. For this assessment of adaptation and adaptive capacity, the authors make the distinction between the roles of formal and informal institutions and individuals, and between responses to impacts of historical events versus building adaptive capacity and developing approaches in anticipation of further climate changes.


Institutions impose a body of regulations, rules, processes and resources that may either sustain or undermine the capacity of people to deal with challenges such as climate change (O ’Riordan and Jager, 1996; O’Riordan, 1997; Willems and Baumert, 2003). Risk-management strategies that increase coping resources and enhance adaptive capacity in a context of a sustainable future are key to reducing vulnerability to climate change (Kasperson and Kasperson, 2005). Governance institutions and political and administrative systems play a central role in developing and strengthening adaptive capacity, supporting private efforts and implementing policies that allocate resources in a consistent manner (Hall, 2005). This may require institutional arrangements that differ from those fashioned around traditional policy problems. Addressing climate change requires cutting across traditional sectors, issues and political boundaries, and dealing with complexity and uncertainty (Homer-Dixon, 1999; Diaz et al., 2003; Willows and Connell, 2003; Diaz and Gauthier, 2007).

Although led by risk-taking innovators and early adopters, adaptation will generally be slow to be implemented, and adaptive capacity slow to develop, without involvement of all levels of government and other decision-makers. Coping with the impacts of climate change requires more than a myriad of unrelated adaptation measures; it ideally involves a structured response that allows for the identification, prevention and resolution of problems created by the impacts of climate change. Policy frameworks may help achieve such a systematic and efficient response.

Provincial policy documents that provide direction on climate change (e.g. Albertans and Climate Change: Taking Action) are focused largely on emissions reduction. They make reference to adaptation, but lack specifics regarding the nature of anticipated impacts or steps to adapt. In the Prairies, programs are quite advanced in Alberta, where the provincial government has established an Alberta Climate Change Adaptation Team, which initiated province-wide and multi-sectoral assessments of vulnerability and adaptation strategies (Barrow and Yu, 2005; Davidson, 2006; Sauchyn et al., 2007). In many cases, significant adaptation could be achieved and supported with adjustments to existing programs and policy mechanisms. In agriculture, for example, the Agricultural Policy Framework, National Water Supply Expansion Program, environmental farm plans and various other federal and provincial policies and programs can both accommodate adaptation options and provide the means of enhancing adaptive capacity.

The roles of institutions and government in enhancing adaptive capacity and facilitating adaptation implementation, drawing from both observed examples and potential futures, are provided in the following sectoral discussions.

5.1.1 Water Resource Management

FIGURE 16: Irrigation on the Prairies (Frenchman River valley, southwestern Saskatchewan).

FIGURE 16: Irrigation on the Prairies (Frenchman River valley, southwestern Saskatchewan).

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There is significant scope for enhanced institutional adaptive capacity in the water sector through changes in the management of watersheds and reservoirs (Wood et al., 1997). For example, operating rules of water resource systems, which will be especially important given earlier spring runoff and increased summer water demands, may be adjusted to increase system efficiency and capacity. Process changes, including changing the timing of irrigation (Figure 16) to after sunset and using more efficient irrigation methods, can help offset increasing water demands from other sources (Bjornlund et al., 2001). Increasing water recycling or issuing licenses to industries that are based on best water management practices and water recycling standards are other opportunities for process change (Johnson and Caster, 1999). Holistic watershed management has been recognized and adopted in many regions already (Serveiss and Ohlson, 2007), and opportunities exist for community level adaptation to climate change for watershed-scale management authorities (Crabb é and Robin, 2006).

A comparative study of two dryland watersheds, the South Saskatchewan River basin (SSRB) in the Canadian Prairies and the Elqui River basin in north-central Chile, was undertaken to understand the role of regional institutions in formulating and implementing adaptation related to water resource management ( Results indicated that communities identify climate risks as problematic and that significant efforts are made to manage them. The study further noted that climate risks are compounded by non-climatic stimuli that increase vulnerability, and that communities perceive shortcomings in the capability of governance institutions to reduce the vulnerability of rural populations. A study of local involvement in water management in the Oldman River sub-basin of the SSRB (Stratton et al., 2004; Stratton, 2005) concluded that adaptation has been more reactive than anticipatory, and has focused mainly on the supply of water, rather than demand. Another project in the same basin found that, at the local level, there were both water-based consciousness and successful adaptation measures to water shortages (Rush et al., 2004). There are major challenges, however, related to attitudes towards the likelihood of climate change impacts on water supplies for all users, the long-term protection of water resources, and accepting water conservation as an adaptation approach. Policy and legislation could provide flexible economic and regulatory instruments to better manage increasing variability and scarcity of water, encourage greater efficiency, expand capacity to adapt to climate change, and facilitate trade-offs among water users that reflect their differing levels of vulnerability to water scarcity.

Given the inherent uncertainties regarding the magnitude and rate of climate change, water management and planning processes require flexibility to allow for responses to new knowledge about the expected impacts. These processes must also involve stakeholders at the local level to identify local vulnerabilities and appropriate adaptation approaches. These principles were criteria for Alberta ’s Water for Life Strategy (Government of Alberta, 2003), the province’s plan to develop a new water management approach with specific actions to ensure reliable, quality water supplies for a sustainable economy. Institutional reforms being considered include the use of economic instruments, best management practices and watershed management plans involving local communities to achieve a 30% increase in the efficiency and productivity of water use, while securing social, economic and environmental outcomes. This strategy anticipates that these instruments will be adopted on a voluntary basis and that water will be reallocated from existing users to satisfy the increasing demand from other economic sectors. It further guarantees that existing rights will be respected, that nobody will be forced to give up water. The Water for Life Strategy also includes the intention to construct flood risk maps and warning systems for communities at risk, as part of a long-term management plan.

Drought is of greater concern for cities in the Prairies than for urban centres elsewhere in Canada. In response to the 1988 drought, the City of Regina has developed drought contingency plans, including water conservation programs and expansion of water treatment and delivery capacity (Cecil et al., 2005). Other cities on the Prairies do not currently have such contingency plans in place (Wittrock et al., 2001).

5.1.2 Ecosystem Management

Managing natural capital in such a way that ecosystems already under stress continue to provide value as climate changes presents challenges for governments and resource industries. The assumption that protected areas are biogeographically stable will be proven incorrect, and biodiversity protection planning may need to protect “a moving target of ecological representativeness” (Scott and Lemieux, 2005). Aiming to build resilience into ecosystems, rather than seeking stability, is a more appropriate goal (Halpin, 1997). Proactive management of disturbance and habitat, with species-specific intervention strategies, may be the only alternative to “reconfigure protected areas to new climatic conditions” (Lopoukhine, 1990; Scott and Suffling, 2000). In Canada’s national parks, a landscape maintenance strategy may be materially impossible, whatever its philosophical merits or demerits (Scott and Suffling, 2000). Changing climate will result in areas being no longer suitable for the maintenance of the species and ecosystems they were originally designed to conserve (Pernetta, 1994). For example, Manitoba ’s Wapusk National Park, on the shores of Hudson Bay, was established for the protection of denning polar bears (Scott et al., 2002), but these bears are near the southern limits of their range and may be en route to extirpation as ice conditions deteriorate (see Chapter 3).

Managing natural ecosystems may also require challenging policies that discourage alien introductions, and developing strategies for introducing new species to maintain biodiversity and increase ecosystem resiliency (e.g. species ‘redundancy’; Malcolm and Markham, 1996). Current policies do not favour alien introductions (e.g. Alberta Reforestation Standards Science Council, 2001; Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, 2005; Manitoba Conservation, 2005), in part due to the assumption that it is possible to maintain existing vegetation mosaics. But if native species cannot regenerate, the policy options are not clear. There seem to be no legal prohibitions to the introduction of alien tree species, and alien species are already frequently planted on freehold land. The Government of Saskatchewan (2005) is heavily promoting agro-forestry, with the goal of converting 10% of the province ’s arable land base to trees within 20 years. Most converted cultivated acreage is expected to be along the fringe of the southern boreal forest, so exotic trees could potentially invade the native forest. Another potentially controversial management option is to “accelerate capture before loss” (Carr et al., 2004). Under this option, timber harvest would be accelerated if necessary to maximize one-off resource use of a forest not expected to regenerate.

5.1.3 Agriculture

Historically, federal and provincial governments have responded to drought with safety net programs to offset negative socioeconomic impacts (Wittrock and Koshida, 2005) and, more recently, through development of drought management plans. These programs have included crop insurance, the Rural Water Development Program, the National Water Supply Expansion Program, the Net Income Stabilization Account (NISA), the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization (CAIS) program, the Canadian Farm Income Program (CFIP) and the Tax Deferral Program. Types of assistance include helping producers access new water sources, offsetting the costs of producing crops and deferring tax income from culling herds. Claims from crop insurance and assistance from safety net programs soared in the drought years of 2001 and 2002, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan (Wittrock and Koshida, 2005).

Soil and water conservation programs have been an integral part of agricultural adaptation to the dry and variable prairie climate (Sauchyn, 2007). Predating settlement of the Prairies, a network of experimental farms was established during the 1890s to early 1900s to develop dryland farming practices. The first Canadian government programs to combat land degradation, including the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), were created in response to the disastrous experience of the 1930s, when drought impacts were exacerbated by an almost uniform settlement of farmland that did not account for variation in the sensitivity of soil landscapes and the capacity of the climate and soil to produce crops.

Recent institutional initiatives to reduce soil degradation have included the soils component of the Agricultural Green Plan, the National Soil Conservation Program (NSCP), the National Farm Stewardship Program, the Environmental Farm Plan and the Greencover Canada program. In the Prairies, a major component of the NSCP was the Permanent Cover Program (PCP; Vaisy et al., 1996). The initial PCP was fully subscribed within a few months, removing 168 000 ha of marginal land from annual crop production. In 1991, an extension to the original program converted another 354 000 ha. The PCP represented a policy adaptation that has reduced sensitivity to climate over a large area, even though this was not an explicit objective of the program.

5.1.4 Forestry

Mechanisms that encourage sustainable forest management in Canada should help to enhance adaptive capacity in the forestry sector, even though they do not explicitly address climate change adaptation. Such mechanisms include the criteria for Sustainable Forest Management, as set out by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, 2003), as well as certification procedures indicating that forestry products are produced from a sustainably managed forest land base.

If present practices of restocking or natural regeneration fail, it could become increasingly difficult to regenerate any forest environment as the climate becomes warmer and drier (Hogg and Schwarz, 1997). Forest loss could therefore be irreversible if adaptation is slow or only reactive. Proactive adaptation could involve introducing certain alien species, although that also brings a risk of hybridization or the import of unintended species or pathogens associated with the alien species. Introducing alien species with no hybridization potential and of low invasiveness appears to be the most reversible adaptation option, but there is no guarantee of either reversibility or successful naturalization.

5.1.5 Health and Well-Being

Protecting the most vulnerable citizens will go a long way in safeguarding the health and well-being of all residents of the Prairies under climate change. Some adaptation responses in other sectors will directly alleviate the health consequences of climate change. For example, successful adaptation in the agriculture sector to drought will decrease the stress and financial constraints experienced by agricultural workers, their families and associated communities. Health care is a defining characteristic of Canadian culture, and existing monitoring or surveillance measures may need only modification to be made more applicable to climate change. Building the capacity to link current climate-sensitive health outcomes (e.g. respiratory illnesses) to weather and climate variables will allow researchers to better determine how changes in climate might affect illness patterns in the future. Other research gaps and capacity needs are listed in Table 12.


TABLE 12: Examples of research gaps and additional capacity needed to reduce specific health-related outcomes.
Climate-sensitive health outcomes Additional capacity needed or research gaps
Drought-related stress/anxiety in agricultural workers Linking health and well-being to agri-economic and farm employment statistics
Dust-related illnesses/conditions Education and awareness for populations at risk; link dust levels with weather variables
Wildfire-related illnesses/conditions Baseline incidence and prevalence rates of known health outcomes
Waterborne diseases and illness from poor water quality Link water quality, outbreak data and boil-water orders to weather variables locally and distally (e.g. watershed)
Increasing average temperatures and foodborne diseases (FBD) Link FBD and food-borne pathogens (along the food-processing chain) to weather variables
Air pollution and respiratory illnesses Baseline incidence and prevalence rates needed; connect weather variables and air pollution levels; use of air mass analysis
Flooding and post-traumatic stress disorder/stress/anxiety Additional community support for flood prevention
West Nile virus (WNV) and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) Continued monitoring and surveillance

The costs associated with disaster assistance and aid programs during and after disasters will be a rising expense for governments unless effective adaptation is implemented (Soskolne et al., 2004).


Individual farm families manage more than 80% of Canada’s agricultural land, so much rural adaptation continues to be local innovations. This is in contrast to the other sectors, specifically forestry, mining, energy, transportation and cities, where the resources are generally owned or leased by corporations and much of the adaptation is therefore implemented at the institutional scale.

Globalization is shifting the responsibility for adaptation to agri-business, national policy makers and the international level (Burton and Lim, 2005). Larger and automated farm equipment and larger scales of production enable fewer producers to produce more commodities. This industrial scale may favour technological and economic adaptations to climate change and variability, but it tends to displace a robust and cohesive network of rural communities (Diaz et al., 2003), thereby affecting social capital for adaptation. Although the agriculture industry has become much more diversified and therefore resilient, there is evidence that this has been achieved in part by regional specialization and therefore less diversity, and greater vulnerability at the individual farm level (Bradshaw et al., 2004). Although the adaptive capacity of agriculture producers appears relatively high (e.g. Burton and Lim, 2005), coping thresholds will be exceeded by departures from normal conditions that are outside the historical experience (Sauchyn, 2007).

There are opportunities for more efficient use of agricultural water supplies, especially improved management of water use by livestock (e.g. McKerracher, 2007) and irrigated crops (see Case Study 2). Anecdotal evidence suggests that owners and managers of agricultural land are giving more thought to restoring natural storage and traditional practices, such as rainwater collection systems, and using the storage capacity of wetlands and riparian ecosystems. However, the large scale of modern farming is a barrier to the restoration of wetlands, as wetland restoration may result in greater inefficiency of operating large farm equipment and may require compensation for flooded cropland.

Because farm-scale management practices have more immediate influences than climate change (Jones, 1993), they have the potential to either reduce or exacerbate climate impacts. Soil conservation is a prime example of a ‘no regrets’ strategy, since preventing soil loss is beneficial whether or not impacts of climate change occur as projected. Since the adoption of modern soil conservation practices, particularly reduced tillage, the average number of bare soil days dropped by more than 20% in the Prairies between 1981 and 1996, with a resulting 30% reduction in the extent of land at risk of wind erosion (McRae et al., 2000). The cost of soil and water conservation is usually borne primarily by the land manager.

“Very severe wind and water erosion is dominated by infrequent occurrences when highly erosive events impact exposed soil. Such events may only happen once during the farming lifetime of an individual farmer, making it difficult to justify the expense and inconvenience of many soil conservation practices. ” (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, 2000, p. 33)

Some forms of social capital, such as knowledge sharing and participation in support networks, reduce vulnerability by intensifying mutual support and reciprocity (Portes, 1998; Field et al., 2000; Glaeser, 2001; Putnam, 2001; Policy Research Initiative, 2005). Social capital facilitates an understanding of challenges and coping instruments, and can be used to mobilize resources to ensure the well-being of persons, groups and communities. Existing adaptive capacity is “bound up in the ability of societies to act collectively” (Adger, 2003, p. 29), which involves social networks, relationships and trust. Social capital can complement, and even substitute for, the state ’s efforts in terms of dealing with climatic hazards (Adger, 2000; Sygna, 2005). Particularly in rural communities, such informal institutions as church groups and agricultural societies are an effective mechanism for helping to address issues like climate change.

Surveys of six rural communities in southern Saskatchewan provided clear evidence of high levels of social capital. Trust and participation in formal organizations and networks are distributed among community members (Diaz and Nelson, 2004; Jones and Schmeiser, 2004). Individuals who have medium or high levels of social capital are, on average, more informed, more optimistic and more empowered when it comes to climate change and water quality issues (Diaz and Nelson, 2006). Those with lower levels of social capital seem to have a more pessimistic outlook on climate change and are less optimistic about the ability to do something about it. In urban contexts, there is greater variability among neighbourhoods in terms of social capital, reflecting specific economic and social conditions within the city (Cecil et al., 2005).

The residents of rural communities may be more likely than urban residents to treat information about climate change with scepticism (Neudoerffer, 2005). This could present a barrier to participation in adaptation initiatives. Furthermore, the autonomy of community-level institutions is becoming threatened by large-scale market forces and administrative structures dominated by multi-national corporations and regional governments eager to attract new investment (Epp and Whitson, 2001). A reduced sense of autonomy could also discourage local adaptation planning.

In Aboriginal communities, the adoption of non-traditional lifestyles in recent years has eroded local knowledge and practices, while growing dependence on waged labour and external assistance have served to undermine local adaptive capacity (Ford and Smit, 2004). Traditional knowledge and land management systems served as a source of resiliency in the past, and could play an important role in restoring and strengthening adaptive capacity in the future.

Many resort-based communities and recreational facilities involve enormous fixed capital expenditures, such as ski lifts, snow-making equipment, lodges and expensive vacation homes. Where such communities are limited to winter activities, the potential for economic losses as a result of changing climate are high. However, net economic impacts could be ameliorated with diversification, to capitalize on more summer-like conditions in the spring and fall (Scott and Jones, 2005). Tourism-based communities tend to be more diversified economically than communities dependent on a single resource-based sector (i.e. agriculture, mining or forestry), and residents are likely to have a broader skill set that strengthens adaptive capacity.

Learning from past disasters provides insight into adaptive strategies. Newspapers detail the impacts of these events from the perspective of individuals and communities, and can document a crucial link between disasters and negative health outcomes that is not easily measured by conventional scientific research methods (Soskolne et al., 2004). Descriptions of the hardships endured by communities and individuals highlight those circumstances that negatively affect health and well-being during a disaster. These stories can provide insight into where community adaptation may be best incorporated, such as the development of alternative evacuation routes for remote communities. Although the current health care system is generally able to effectively handle direct health outcomes from disasters, more frequent and severe extreme climate events could cause health services to become inundated.