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When Adaptation Goes Wrong: Exploring the Dangers of Maladaptation in Climate Change Response


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Written byAin Zahra binti Hisham, Elaine Tan Su Yin, Nurafiqah Mohd Sahar, Yong Sin Ng, Zhi Lin Yeoh

Edited byTan Zhai Yun (Nat), Felix Culas

Edit: This post was originally published on March 31st 2023.

Adaptation is key to addressing the climate change crisis. We must adapt to reduce our vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change.

However, is all adaptation good? Studies have shown that some adaptation measures can trigger existing climate risks or create new, unintended risks for the community that can lead to increased vulnerability in the long run. Such poor adaptation practices are known as ‘maladaptation’.

The 6th Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines the term maladaptation as “actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.” The same IPCC report claims that maladaptation is typically an unintended consequence.

When it comes to adaptation measures, there are differences between successful adaptation, unsuccessful adaptation, and maladaptation.

An unsuccessful adaptation simply means an action did not work. When adaptation results in increased vulnerability for other groups and sectors, even in the future, that is maladaptation [1].

Defining successful adaptations is challenging [2]. Adaptation metrics such as measurement of vulnerability, tracking the execution of adaptive actions, and conducting monitoring and evaluation (M&E) could help measure the ‘success’ of an adaptation project. These metrics, however, remain debatable as there are various viewpoints and evolving conditions when measuring adaptation [3].A study suggests that maladaptation and successful adaptation should be viewed as two ends of a spectrum as both can have different degrees of success or failure [4] . This spectrum (Figure 1) spans from a  worst-case situation where the target population is irreversibly more vulnerable to climate change, to the ideal scenario of transitioning towards a climate-resilient pathway [4].

Figure 1: A spectrum of responses from maladaptation to adaptation (Schipper, E.L.F., 2020).
*This figure reflects a snapshot rather than movement in time.

Below are some examples of good and poor adaptation strategies, and further explains how we can avoid maladaptation.

Flood Adaptation

Successful Adaptation Case Studies – The Netherlands

The Netherlands, being a highly populated and highly flood prone country, protects their coastline with a dike system. Additionally, they have adopted a “Room for the River” strategy based on the principles of water safety and spatial quality as it gives water more space to spread out when floods occur (Figure 2). However, the dike system requires immense capital investment for construction and maintenance [5].

Figure 2: Different types of flood adaptation strategies in the “Room for the River” programme (Busscher et al., 2019) [6]

Successful Adaptation Case Studies – United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Thames Barrier (Figure 3) curbs storm surges and high tides from flooding to protect 1.3 million people and £275 billion worth of property, infrastructures and historical places. Studies indicate that based on sea-level rise projections and the ability to raise embankments, the Thames Barrier can protect London until 2070 [7].

Figure 3: Photos of Thames Barrier. The Thames Barrier is one of the largest flood defence barriers in the world. It spans 520 metres across the River Thames and protects London against storm surges and rainfall swelling.

Maladaptation Case Studies – India

Bihar is India’s poorest and most flood-prone state, with 73% of its land area affected by floods due to its topography andsevere monsoonal rains. To the farmers, the rivers in Bihar fertilise the soil for agricultural and livestock farming, contributing to their livelihoods However, to 76% of the state population of 104 million, they are under the threat of recurring floods. 

In order to combat the floods, Bihar rivers’ physical characteristics have been altered, lined with more than 3,400km of embankments and additions of dams and barrages. While the embankments provide a temporary solution during the flooding season, they do not solve the vulnerability of the flood areas. These additions that altered the river flow patterns have led to increased intensity and duration of floods in Bihar [8].

Rising Sea Level Adaptation

Successful Adaptation Case Studies Rotterdam, Netherlands: Rotterdam Climate Initiative

Due to climate change, sea level rise over the next 30 years is expected to equal the total increase seen over the previous 100 years [9].  In the Netherlands, for example, 90 percent of Rotterdam City is below sea level [10]. As Europe’s largest port, the city is taking a proactive approach to climate change, using climate adaptation to upgrade infrastructure, increase biodiversity, and engage citizens. To achieve climate-proof status by 2050, the city has implemented hybrid strategies to deal with rising sea levels, coastal flooding, and to cut carbon emissions by half compared to 1990 levels [11].

Instead of managing from the top down, the city acts as a platform and facilitator for private companies, knowledge institutions, citizens, and the government. This enables the city to develop innovative solutions, such as the solar-powered floating pavilion, which is claimed to be climate-proof and adaptable to future climates. Active participation from communities and the private sector contributes to greater community and business knowledge and resilience to climate change.

Simultaneously, grey and green infrastructure such as dikes and water storage tanks were constructed and integrated into public spaces. The water plaza at Bellamyplein (Figure 4), for example, serves as a dynamic rainwater storage pond as well as a playground for the surrounding communities. Furthermore, as a floating city, the city is adapting to rising sea levels by developing floating houses and communities, attracting new opportunities. This helps to mitigate the effects of sea-level rise while also increasing the attractiveness of the city.

Finally, Rotterdam intends to open an international market in climate change adaptation for consulting firms, engineering firms, research agencies, knowledge institutes, and climate-related high-tech industries, transforming climate adaptation into new opportunities for the city. This is not possible without the city government taking climate change adaptation as a clear priority, being responsible for holistic resilient planning, and supporting the implementation of adaptation measures financially.

Figure 4: Photo of Bellamyplein water square in Rotterdam. The water square provides temporary water collection during heavy rain. The water square is one of Rotterdam’s solutions for the problem of flooding caused by climate change. 

Maladaptation Case Studies Fiji

Fiji, a Pacific Island country, is liable to the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and coastal erosion. On Vanua Levu Island (the second largest island of Fiji), the island country built a seawall as an adaptation measure. However, it only caused coastal erosion to move further inland.adaptation project resulted in unforeseen negative effects and maladaptation. Researchers discovered that the seawalls’ principal goal of protecting people from coastal pressures had not been accomplished, and that instead, they had unintended negative effects on the security of Vanua Levu Island’s land and livelihoods [12].

The main issue is the inadequate design and construction of seawalls (Figure 5), which caused them to trap water along their landward sides, acting more like a dam. Approaches to adaptation measures that are poorly thought-out can result in forced relocation or retreat of communities. These may have detrimental effects on communities that are already struggling the hardest with climate change.

Figure 5: Example of maladaptation: A protective sea wall was constructed in Fiji to protect the settlement from sea-level rise, but designers overlooked the need to allow for stormwater drainage on the inside, leading to flooding in the community (Schipper, E. L. F., 2022) [14].

How to Avoid Maladaptation?

From the examples above, we can learn some of the good and poor adaptation measures experienced by communities in different parts of the world.  It is critical not to repeat past mistakes when implementing future adaptation strategies.

Studies show that maladaptation can be avoided by including all actors – from the grassroots, NGOs and governments – to be involved in each aspect of the adaptation project, starting from the planning process, implementation, and all the way to evaluation of the project [14]. This creates a holistic understanding of the adaptation process among practitioners and decision makers, and enables them to identify how the costs and benefits can be fairly distributed across all social groups.

Barnett and O’Neill (2010) highlight five different types of maladaptation that can arise, namely interventions that can increase emissions of greenhouse gases, burden the most vulnerable disproportionately, incur high opportunity costs, reduce incentives to adapt, or limit choices available for future generations.  The authors propose that this maladaptation could form the basis for the evaluation of decisions about adaptation and thus could be used as a fundamental checklist for practitioners on the ground before embarking on an adaptation project.Another study further proposes an Assessment Framework that consists of eleven guidelines for avoiding maladaptation to climate change in coastal areas [15].  For practical reasons, the guidelines have been classified into environmental, sociocultural, and economic maladaptation which can be found in Table 1 below:

Avoiding environmental maladaptation: Avoid degradation that causes negative effects in situ. Avoid displacing pressures onto other environments (neighbouring areas or areas that are connected ecologically or socio-economically). Support the protective role of ecosystems against current and future climate-related hazards. Integrate uncertainties concerning climate change impacts and the reaction of ecosystems. Set the primary purpose as being to promote adaptation to climate-related changes rather than to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Avoiding sociocultural maladaptation: Start from local social characteristics and cultural values that could have an influence on risks and environmental dynamics. Consider and develop local skills and knowledge related to climate-related hazards and the environment.  Call on new skills that the community is capable of acquiring.
Avoiding economic maladaptation: Promote the reduction of socio-economic inequalities. Support the relative diversification of economic and/or subsistence activities. Integrate any potential changes in economic and subsistence activities resulting from climate change.
Table 1: The Assessment framework: eleven guidelines for avoiding maladaptation to climate change in coastal areas (Magnan, A., 2014).

Integrity and good governance in climate adaptation projects also play a major role in avoiding maladaptation.  Opportunities to make money, political agendas with short-term goals or non-transparent decision-making processes that exclude vulnerable groups, minorities, women and youth may all contribute to  flawed decision-making in adaptation projects [16]. Thus, greater transparency in project monitoring and inclusive participation in the decision-making process are sorely needed in any adaptation project.

Since there is no one adaptation strategy that can fit everywhere, understanding the environmental and socio-economic context of the adaptation project implementation area is critical.  For instance, what works in the Netherlands may not work in Fiji.  Failure to address the social, economic, environmental, ecological and political aspects without careful consideration of the interdependent systems in designing adaptation projects might result in maladaptation which can lead to disaster, economic loss, and disruption of social wellbeing.


  1. Barnett, J., & O’Neill, S. (2010). Maladaptation. Global Environmental Change, 20(2), 211-213.
  2. Morgan, E. A., Nalau, J., & Mackey, B. (2019). Assessing the alignment of national-level adaptation plans to the Paris Agreement. Environmental Science & Policy, 93, 208-220.
  3. Noble, I. R., Huq, S., Anokhin, Y. A., Carmin, J. A., Goudou, D., Lansigan, F. P., & Chu, E. (2014). Adaptation needs and options. In C.B. Field et al. (Eds.), Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (pp. 833-868). Cambridge University Press.
  4. Schipper, E. L. F. (2020). Maladaptation: When adaptation to climate change goes very wrong. One Earth, 3(4), 409-414.
  5. Jongman, B. (2018). Effective adaptation to rising flood risk. Nature Communications, 9(1), 1986. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04396-1
  6. Busscher, T., van den Brink, M., & Verweij, S. (2019). Strategies for integrating water management and spatial planning: Organising for spatial quality in the Dutch “Room for the River” program. Journal of Flood Risk Management, 12(1), e12448.
  7. Global Centre on Adaptation. (n.d.). 12 great examples of how countries are adapting to climate change. https://gca.org/12-great-examples-of-how-countries-are-adapting-to-climate-change/
  8. Pritchard, B., & Thielemans, R. (2014). “Rising waters don’t lift all boats”: A sustainable livelihood analysis of recursive cycles of vulnerability and maladaptation to flood risk in rural Bihar, India. Australian Geographer, 45(3), 325-339.
  9. Sweet, W. V., Kopp, R. E., Weaver, C. P., Obeysekera, J., Horton, R. M., Thieler, E. R., Zervas, C. E., & Zhai, A. R. (2022). Global and regional sea level rise scenarios for the United States: Updated mean projections and extreme water level probabilities along U.S. coastlines. NOAA Technical Report NOS 01. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/sealevelrise/noaa-nostechrpt01-global-regional-SLR-scenarios-US.pdf
  10. Kimmelman, M., & Haner, J. (2017, June 15). The Dutch have solutions to rising seas. The world is watching. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/15/world/europe/climate-change-rotterdam.html
  11. Huang-Lachmann, J. & Lovett, J. C. (2016). How cities prepare for climate change: Comparing Hamburg and Rotterdam. Cities, 54, 36-44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2015.11.001
  12. Piggott-McKellar, A. E., Nunn, P. D., McNamara, K. E., & Sekinini, S. T. (2020). Dam(n) Seawalls: A Case of Climate Change Maladaptation in Fiji. In J. S. Dryzek, R. B. Norgaard, & D. Schlosberg (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (pp. 305-322). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199566600.013.17
  13. Schipper, E. L. F. (2022). Catching maladaptation before it happens. Nature Climate Change, 12(7), 617-618. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01228-1
  14. Bertana, A., Clark, B., Benney, T. M., & Quackenbush, C. (2022). Beyond maladaptation: structural barriers to successful adaptation. Environmental Sociology, 8(4), 448-458. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2021.2007567
  15. Magnan, A. (2014). Avoiding maladaptation to climate change: towards guiding principles. SAPI EN. S. Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society, (7.1), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.4000/sapiens.1532
  16. Green Climate Fund, Independent Integrity Unit. (2021, November 4). Thematic Brief: Enhancing Integrity to Avoid Maladaptation. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://iiu.greenclimate.fund/documents/1226411/1238388/20211104-ThematicBrief-Maladaptation-A.pdf/83f30caa-64e8-c5e2-2933-0c8f141a8a9b

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