A Socio-Ecological Approach for Identifying and Contextualising Spatial Ecosystem-Based Adaptation Priorities at the Sub-National Level

PLoS One. 2016 May 26;11(5):e0155235. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155235. eCollection 2016.


Climate change adds an additional layer of complexity to existing sustainable development and biodiversity conservation challenges. The impacts of global climate change are felt locally, and thus local governance structures will increasingly be responsible for preparedness and local responses. Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) options are gaining prominence as relevant climate change solutions. Local government officials seldom have an appropriate understanding of the role of ecosystem functioning in sustainable development goals, or access to relevant climate information. Thus the use of ecosystems in helping people adapt to climate change is limited partially by the lack of information on where ecosystems have the highest potential to do so. To begin overcoming this barrier, Conservation South Africa in partnership with local government developed a socio-ecological approach for identifying spatial EbA priorities at the sub-national level. Using GIS-based multi-criteria analysis and vegetation distribution models, the authors have spatially integrated relevant ecological and social information at a scale appropriate to inform local level political, administrative, and operational decision makers. This is the first systematic approach of which we are aware that highlights spatial priority areas for EbA implementation. Nodes of socio-ecological vulnerability are identified, and the inclusion of areas that provide ecosystem services and ecological resilience to future climate change is innovative. The purpose of this paper is to present and demonstrate a methodology for combining complex information into user-friendly spatial products for local level decision making on EbA. The authors focus on illustrating the kinds of products that can be generated from combining information in the suggested ways, and do not discuss the nuance of climate models nor present specific technical details of the model outputs here. Two representative case studies from rural South Africa demonstrate the replicability of this approach in rural and peri-urban areas of other developing and least developed countries around the world.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Climate Change*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Conservation of Natural Resources* / methods
  • Ecosystem*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • South Africa

Grant support

The methodology for defining spatial ecosystem-based adaptation priorities was developed in the Namakwa District with funding from the International Climate Initiative, an initiative of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety adopted on the basis of a decision by the German Bundestag, grant number 11_II_084_Global_A_EbA solutions. The International Climate Initiative paid the full-time salary for corresponding author Amanda Bourne from Sept 2011 to June 2015. The same project also funded time for Stephen Holness, Camila Donatti, and Sarshen Scorgie to develop the methodology, conduct the spatial analysis and contribute to technical reporting. The methodology was refined and replicated in the Alfred Nzo District with funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, grant number 61486. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. This project funded time for Stephen Holness and Petra Holden to undertake the spatial analysis, and the stakeholder engagement and report writing processes respectively. Although the authors received funding to conduct the original analyses, as above, the authors received no specific funding to produce this manuscript and all volunteered their time to convert the methodology from technical report into manuscript. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.