Understanding linkages and possibilities for coordinated actions between social protection and climate change adaptation and disaster preparation, response and recovery actions.


Setting the background: understanding the impact of climate change on the rural poor

Global evidence suggests that around 80 per cent of the world poor live in rural areas, and 76 per cent rely on small-scale agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods (De La O Campos et al. 2018; World Bank 2016). The rural poor are thus considered to be the major custodians of the world’s natural resources (FAO 2021).

A high dependency of their livelihoods on land, forests, pastures, water and even specific weather conditions leads to high vulnerability of the rural poor to climate-related risks and shocks. Floods, lack of or excess rainfall or extreme fluctuation in temperate results in the volatility of agricultural production and incomes, which poor rural households are unable to immediately cope with as they often lack access to insurance, savings or productive assets (FAO 2021).

Over the longer term, climate-change-induced changes in temperatures and precipitation are likely to affect agricultural production to an ever-increasing extent. The rural poor again become those who are least likely to have access to the resources needed to change or adapt their production methods, to meet the challenges connected with climate change (Gondwe 2019).

Falling short of applying strategies aimed at the sustainable management of natural resources, such as the use of water-saving technologies in agriculture or agroecological and ecosystem approaches to farming, the rural poor become uncompetitive in their agricultural production, which affects their incomes and traps them in the cycles of inter-generational poverty.

At the same time, non-adaptation of traditional production methods means a continuous contribution to environmental degradation (land erosion, pastureland desertification, deforestation, etc.), increasing the exposure of rural communities to the effects of climate-related hazards and disasters, and thus continuous poverty (FAO 2019).

Clearly, the integration of climate risk management approaches into agricultural practices of the rural poor can generate sustainable trade-offs with poverty reduction objectives at the individual, household, community and territorial levels. However, the introduction of sustainable natural resource management practices often requires resources that poor rural households often lack.

Social protection may, therefore, become the key to supporting inclusive climate change strategies for the vulnerable rural households, fostering stronger linkages between poverty reduction efforts, climate risk management, sustainable use of natural resources and even disaster risk reduction and mitigation strategies.


How can social protection support climate risk management?

Global evidence suggests that appropriately designed and funded social protection schemes can play an essential role in helping vulnerable rural communities manage and adapt to climate-related risks in three main ways (FAO 2019).

Firstly, by reducing vulnerability and negative coping strategies, regular and predictable cash transfers can protect people from the potential income losses incurred due to shocks by helping them smooth consumption, preserve their assets, and increase their coping capacity. For example, in 2008, the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia reduced the impact of drought on vulnerable rural populations and increased their capacity to recover (FAO 2019).

Secondly, appropriately designed social protection schemes can provide a stepping stone towards climate-resilient livelihoods (Kuriakose et al. 2012), contributing to reducing climate vulnerability by addressing economic barriers to adopting more productive and climate‑resilient investments or complementing other production-focused programmes. For instance, India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) aims to remove climate-related constraints by involving communities in public works which aim to rejuvenate the natural resource base and help participants access productive assets, e.g., compost for soil enrichment (FAO 2019).

Thirdly, social protection schemes can help ensure greater inclusiveness of disaster preparedness and response strategies. Access to social protection can help build the resilience of rural populations to climate-related shocks, both before, during and after events (ADB 2018). Pre-crisis, social protection systems can, for example, help ensure that crop and livestock insurance is accessible and affordable to all people exposed to climate risk. Pre- and during crisis events, rural populations with access to regular and predictable transfers (cash or in-kind) are less likely to engage in negative coping mechanisms in the case of a crisis.

For example, the Hunger Safety Net Programme in Kenya provides transfers to the chronically food insecure and scales up support during drought and other emergencies. During and after crisis events, poor populations affected by climate risks can be identified and reached in a fast and cost-efficient manner if well-functioning social protection systems are already in place. Existing systems can be expanded horizontally (to cover broader sections of the population) in the case of crises, or vertically (topping up of transfers to help vulnerable populations cope with the impact of a crisis); or the existing administrative system (beneficiary registries or social registries) can be used to deliver adequate help to the affected population.

Besides disaster risk reduction, disaster response and climate change adaptation, social protection can facilitate climate change mitigation efforts if climate risk management programmes integrate social protection mechanisms into their design from the beginning. Although the linkages between social protection and climate change mitigation have been less explored in the literature and policy frameworks, there is clearly potential for social protection to contribute to mitigation efforts. For example, Brazil’s Bolsa Verde programme delivers payments for ecosystem services, using conditional cash transfers to promote better environmental outcomes.


Conclusion: the challenge of achieving a better integration

For social protection to play these positive roles, there is a need for it to be better integrated into climate adaptation and mitigation (adaptive social protection[1]), disaster risk preparation and disaster response strategies (risk-informed and shock-responsive social protection[2]). For climate risk management policies and programmes, in their turn, to maximise their effects, it is crucial to fully recognise, utilise and realise the potential that social protection has to support the actions.

In this regard, the COVID-19 crisis has explicitly brought to the forefront the importance of protecting people in times of risk, and national social protection systems proved to be the only scalable and well-established risk management tool capable to provide shock-driven support. In 2020 alone, over 200 countries and territories invested over $800 billion in more than 1,400 social protection measures to respond to the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 (Gentilini et. al. 2021).

Following a similar pattern, social protection can become fundamental to managing climate risks by addressing chronic poverty, providing temporary livelihood support during periods of economic and livelihood disruption, and ultimately building resilience preparing people better respond and manage climate-related shocks (Costella et. Al. 2021).

Yet existing social protection systems are rarely designed with climate risks in mind, nor are they typically part of disaster risk reduction/climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, i.e., there is rarely an explicit acknowledgement that well-functioning scalable social protection systems can make a country’s disaster management strategy or climate adaptation actions much more inclusive.

Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Program is arguably one of the few social protection programmes designed with the climate change risks considerations in mind. Launched in 2014 in six Sahel countries, the programme aimed to systematically strengthen adaptive social protection systems to enhance household resilience and expand the reach of shock response cash transfer programs, through a mix of (cross-) country innovation, knowledge development and investments (World Bank 2020).

Therefore, more evidence generation, as well as pilot actions on designing social protection programmes with climate risk management components as well as integrating social protection into the climate risk and natural resource management programmes, are required.




[1] To learn more about adaptive social protection, take a micro-course on Adaptive Social Protection (2020) at socialprotection.org.

[2] To learn more about risk-informed and shock-responsive social protection, you may refer to Social Protection across the Humanitarian-Development Nexus. A Game Changer in Supporting People through Crises (European Commission 2019).