By John Waugh   January 30, 2012

Hurricanes have always been the dread of Small Island Developing States in the tropics, and nowhere are they feared more than in the insular Caribbean.  Models of our changing climate predict more intense tropical storms, but that isn’t the only thing the future has in store for the Caribbean.  Climate change is also expected to bring sea-level rise and the possibility of droughts, evoking images of burning forests, flooded estuaries, and eroded beaches.

The scale of potential impacts is vast and small-island governments are already hard-pressed to find the resources to respond.  What limited resources they have will be directed largely to matters of national security – protection of critical infrastructure and the larger concentrations of people.

Given the scale of the problem and the lack of resources, communities must become more self-reliant.  It makes little sense to wait for instructions from on high. Climate adaptation underscores the limitations of centralized approaches.

Around the world, tools are being tested that show promise of being cost-effective ways to enhance the capacity of island communities to assess their vulnerability to climate change, strengthen their resilience, and initiate adaptation planning on their own.

When communities set their own priorities, there’s a much stronger chance of follow-through, and the plans are less likely to be static ones that don’t evolve with changing circumstances.  The shared knowledge and experience of planning can promote a more empowered, resilient community.

The fine-grained detail needed for effective local adaptation is only possible with knowledge that typically is not held by governments – traditional ecological knowledge, features of local cultural significance and those of local economic importance are examples.

Mapping is a useful approach when organizing complex information for community planning. This was borne out in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific, where local a non-governmental organization, Te Rito Enua, with support from the Asian Development Bank, launched a pilot project to help four communities on two islands to map their assets and compare them with climate models that showed areas at risk of storm surge, high winds, flooding, etc.  Communities first drew paper maps of their environs, and then mapped the important features they identified (features that were not likely to appear in official government maps) using global positioning system (GPS) handheld devices.  Features identified included ceremonial platforms called marae, water sources, taro swamps, fishing areas, houses, churches, and community centers, among other things. Even significant trees were mapped.  Later those features were uploaded into mapping software together with official maps and climate models, to produce unique, custom-made atlases of climate vulnerability for use in planning.  Participants came from all walks of life, from school-aged children to pensioners and fisherfolk to civil servants.  They were able to see how climate change would exacerbate some existing problems, like runoff of pesticides from banana plantations to nursery beds in coastal waters, as well as which houses would be under water in a storm surge.

In Belize, three communities in Toledo collaborated with scientists from First Peoples Worldwide to test a low-cost way to get high-resolution images for mapping using a camera mounted to a fixed-wing aircraft.  In this case the objective was tenure mapping, which enabled traditional and customary custodians of land to defend their interests against outside encroachment in a situation where they do not have the benefit of cadastral surveys and land titles.  The pilot project was able to determine that the technology was transferrable to communities and that the communities had need of the products – they mapped logging impacts, fishing grounds, coral reefs, surveyed areas of proposed oil exploration and resort development for potential environmental impacts, and monitoring a nature reserve, among other things.  Further work is underway to refine the camera mounts and camera equipment for ongoing projects.

There are several networks supporting community-mapping approaches that can give users new data and fresh perspectives for planning. – the open forum on participatory geographic information systems and technologies. emerged out of a tradition of participatory planning for development, and is strongly focused on developing countries. It is online at

The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science shares strong affinities with the open source software movement and the hacker ethic in technology. It focuses on grassroots innovation to make technology accessible to people.  It is online at

Grassroots Mapping emerged from the Public Laboratory and coalesced around the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and has spread into a global network of aerial mapping practitioners who monitor the environment using kite or balloon-borne digital cameras. It is at

Open source GIS software is widely available.  Although not as well supported as commercial software, it is accessible to communities.  A concerted effort to train more people in its use would help to overcome a potential barrier to effective participatory mapping.  Information is available at

Data Basin ( is a free online service that allows users to upload data that is “georeferenced” (e.g., from the use of coordinates from a GPS device) and share it with a community of users. Data Basin provides free access to climate change and biodiversity data sets for use in planning.

TerraLook is a tool developed by the US Geological Survey and NASA to provide free remote sensing imagery and simple tools for viewing and manipulating the images, for download at

A pilot project to demonstrate how communities in the insular Caribbean can map their vulnerability to climate and use that information for participatory climate adaptation planning is long overdue.    Ultimately, a regional network of practitioners should be supported by a regional center of excellence in community vulnerability assessment.  Such a center would be able to support communities through a clearinghouse of map data, remote sensing imagery, climate models, and guidance on how to conduct participatory mapping, training in the use of open source software that is freely available, and perhaps demonstration projects to help to show the way.

A philosopher once said that a problem well-defined is a problem half solved.  It might be a bit of an overreach to suppose that defining risks from climate change is half the way toward a solution, but it is clear that community engagement in defining vulnerability will be much more likely to produce results than any of the alternatives.

John Waugh is an adviser in conservation strategies and planning focusing on SIDS and Africa.