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Bridging Cultures, Merging Science and Local Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation Planning (Part One)
Author: Pakprim Oranop-na-Ayuthaya  |  Posted on 8 April 2015  |   Comments

How do you teach rural villagers about climate change when there is no word for “climate” in their language? This is one among many interesting and eye-opening experiences we encountered as we carried out the USAID Mekong ARCC adaptation planning approach across 20 communities in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). Read on to learn more about how we helped increase rural villagers’ awareness about climate change, their understanding of how it will affect them and what they can do to prepare their communities for its impacts.

As two native Thai women our world views are deeply rooted in the Southeast Asian culture of our country, but we have also each benefited from spending time studying in the West and working for many years combined on international donor-led project.  Our individual professional backgrounds and roles on the USAID Mekong ARCC project are different—Goong is a field coordinator and expert in rural community development, and Prim is the project’s Monitoring and Evaluation specialist with a background in capacity development—but our jobs frequently overlap and we often work together in the field in order to advance the project’s community resilience strengthening goals.

Working on a project at the forefront of community climate change adaptation has provided vast and diverse lessons. We’ve gained a lot insight from assisting rural communities in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam to address climate challenges as part of their current and future community planning. A key lesson has been that the ability to bridge East and West has been critical to our work in effectively translating scientific concepts about climate change into the language and cultural paradigms that rural villagers in the LMB relate to.   

In this two-part blog post, we will share some key highlights and results from the project’s participatory adaptation planning process.  

Community Stories Unfold  

The primary goal of USAID Mekong ARCC’s community decision making process was to identify the adaptation measures that would best support the communities’ current and future challenges resulting from climate change.  First, we needed to capture the current knowledge and experience of climate change in the communities—the “community climate story”. We designed and conducted a survey within the communities. Here are some interesting findings from the surveys in Thailand and Vietnam, undertaken in March 2014:

  • More than 80 percent of community members said they had noticed major changes in the weather and climate already.
  • Heat, drought and unpredictable weather were among the top responses villagers noted they were increasingly experiencing.
  • Close to 50 percent of 580 rural community members had heard of and knew about climate change.
  • Only 5 percent said they felt “very prepared” to deal with the projected climate impacts.

Afterward, we conducted a series of exercises with villagers to identify climate hazards and their impacts on community livelihood assets. Various participatory methods were used such as mapping resources, revisiting community history, and using calendars to analyze seasonal activities and difficulties. Villagers ranked important livelihood resources’ vulnerability according to hazards or, "prioritized vulnerabilities". Despite the cultural and geographic differences across the community sites—whether among the karsts of Khammouan or shrimp-rice paddies of the Vietnam Mekong Delta—we heard similar stories of drought, heat, unseasonal rain impacting crop yields, food security and health.

Thailand's Hae Ko Villagers discussed livelihood vulnerabilities during the workshop. (Photo Cr. Angela Jöhl Cadena/IUCN)
Photo: Thailand's Hae Ko Villagers discussed livelihood vulnerabilities during the workshop.
(Photo Cr. Angela Jöhl Cadena/IUCN)

Contextualizing the Term ‘Climate Change’

Kan-plien-plaeng sa-pab phu-mi-a-kat is “climate change” translated into Thai, comparable to the Lao translation as kan-pien-pang sa-pab din-fa-a-kat, which literally means “changes in weather, soil and sky conditions”. A similar term is also used in Khmer. Local terms for “climate change” are long and complex because we don’t have a specific word for “climate”, only for “weather”.

Before sharing the USAID Climate Impact Study projections, we had to clarify the differences between weather and climate to community members. This was challenging because many community members have extremely limited education levels. Simple explanations were necessary; for example, "weather is what you see and feel now, while climate is about the seasons you have experienced in years and expect to see every year." The local term for climate change was restated frequently to familiarize the community with the term and concept.

Introducing Science with a Spoonful of Sugar

As evidenced from around the world, communicating about climate change and convincing non-scientists about its impacts is a real challenge. It takes creativity to be effective.

We took the approach of using visual aids and engaging activities, such as cartoons, storytelling, videos and games, to connect the discussion about climate change to people's everyday lives. It was important for the audience to understand our messages about the climate science while simultaneously being receptive to discomforting information about how climate change is projected to impact them and their resources. For example, villagers had a good laugh about our drawings of a skinny cow dreaming of food and sick livestock waiting in front of a doctor’s clinic, which we used to communicate forecasted impacts.

For Thais, having fun, or sanuk, is a regular and important aspect of everyday life, even in work. Thai participants always expect the sanuk component in workshops. The same expectation was held by the communities in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Through our experience, learning through fun, engaging activities helped enhance participants’ understanding of climate change and its impacts.


Photo: A Xeo Quao Village member in Vietnam explained the drawing about the climate change impacts
to the livelihoods and food security. (Photo Cr. Pakprim Oranop-na-Ayuthaya/DAI)