An interview with Dr. Ian Burton

11 Apr

Burning Rainforest in the Amazon

Dr. Ian Burton is a scientist emeritus with the Adaptation and Research Group of the Meteorological Service of Canada and adjunct professor with the University of Toronto’s Institute for Environmental Studies.  He also works with the Red Cross-Red Crescent Climate Centre in The Hague. He recently attended the conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change in Bangladesh.

What kind of organizations attended the Conference?

I’m not sure what the proportion was, but perhaps the larger proportion was made up of development and to some extent research NGOs, but mostly development NGO, with an international network (like) Care, Greenpeace and Oxfam. They were mostly organizational people who have been working at the community level.

It started off focused on climate change but many, many people came there with a community development view that was not necessarily focused on climate change and was in fact using the climate change vehicle for getting support for the things they wanted to do anyway. More holistic, more integrated, but this is an area that has been relatively neglected in development.

So what are poor communities doing to adapt to climate change?

Just a tremendous range and variety of things, so it’s hard to generalize about people and the problems they face in mountain regions or on the Bangladesh coast, in semi-arid regions and in tropical rainforests.

Can you give me some examples?

Rainwater collection, people who are short of water or seasonally short of water can and do benefit themselves by roof collection systems. It’s just one example, (but) it’s a simple technology; it doesn’t cost a lot; it’s been in use for a long time in a lot of different places. So a lot of this movement that is going on is about trying to expand that to other communities that haven’t been doing that. And in respect to climate change, there are situation where either you know now or can anticipate in the future where water availability will decrease. Doing that is a cheaper and more self-reliant alternative than asking somebody to come and put down a tube well.

Also preserving forests, not holus-bolus chopping down forests, trying to reduce that, replanting forest, planting different varieties, different species.

What about agriculture?

That was quite a pervasive theme. One thing that I saw that was actually quite interesting was down on this southwest coast of Bangladesh, (where) they are suffering from slow incremental sea-level rise but the more acute problem at the moment is salinity. These were mostly small subsistence farmers producing rice for their own consumption. And now there is quite an interesting growth in shrimp cultivation. I saw some rice paddies full of water with a dyke around it and it would have a net diagonally strung across it. And on one side they would be growing rice, and on the side there would be shrimp.

What I see going on is very encouraging. It’s additive to what’s been going on anyway. The existence of the climate change threat and the general acknowledgement that it’s going to hurt the poor countries and poor people most, so NGOs are picking that up and saying we need to factor climate change into all the things that we’re doing on community development.

So while the focus was on community-based adaptation to climate change, it’s also community-based adaptation to everything else.

Readers can find out a lot more about the conference by checking out the videos posted at



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