Analysis: To help Chinese communities adapt to climate change, listen to them

A survey in southern China’s Pearl River Delta, a region prone to flooding and storm surges, provides insights into climate adaptation strategies
<p>Assessments of climate resilience have tended to pay little attention to the mutual aid function of neighbourhood relationships (Image: Huang Yaohui / Alamy)</p>

Assessments of climate resilience have tended to pay little attention to the mutual aid function of neighbourhood relationships (Image: Huang Yaohui / Alamy)

A curious phenomenon is at play in Zengbu, an urban village in south China’s Guangdong province with a high proportion of elderly residents.

Situated in the city of Guangzhou alongside the Zengbu River, the village is prone to flooding in its lower-lying areas after heavy rainstorms and typhoons. When homes are at risk of inundation, the local government promptly advises residents to evacuate.

However, some older members of the community refuse to move and, in an effort to pressure them, the authorities have sometimes cut the power supply, says Huang Yingxin, head of the environmental programme at Harmony Community Foundation (HCF), an NGO dedicated to the Pearl River Delta.

Why are older residents unwilling to evacuate in the face of impending danger?

Last year, HCF volunteers and researchers tried to answer such questions by visiting 29 communities across five Pearl River Delta cities, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan. Their research and a subsequent study, published in October 2023, attempts to establish how climate change risks are being identified, communicated and adapted to at the grassroots level in southern China.

Zengbu was one of the surveyed communities and had experienced almost annual flooding before infrastructural improvements were made in 2023. Over the years, residents had developed ways of dealing with that risk, such as keeping valuables well above ground level, and this familiarity with flooding has led to some of them underestimating the dangers, says Huang.

a group of people outside a building
Zengbu had experienced flooding nearly every year before infrastructural improvements were made in 2023 (Image: Harmony Community Foundation)

The HCF study found that people in southern China are, to a large extent, alert to the impacts of climate change. They encounter the associated natural disasters, and health and travel issues and such encounters inform their understanding of climate change more than scientific facts or policy announcements related to China’s emission-reduction goals.

In recent years, the central government has provided policy guidance for climate adaptation work. In 2013, came the “National strategy for climate change adaptation”, and in 2016 the “Action programme for urban climate change adaptation”. Then, in 2017, 28 municipalities were selected for pilot projects geared to developing climate-resilient cities.

What is climate adaptation?

Actions taken to reduce the harmful impacts of global warming on the environment, society, public health and the economy. Meaningful adaptation to these impacts requires practical solutions tailored to each country, region and community.

However, adaptive capability varies from community to community. To ensure urban areas adapt successfully to climate change requires an evaluation of climate resilience at the local community level, with the diverse capacities and challenges of each neighbourhood recognised, another HFC report has found.

How climate adaptation is assessed

As well as heavy rains, coastal cities may be particularly vulnerable to flooding caused by sea-level rise. Guangzhou and Shenzhen are among the world’s cities most at risk of damage from coastal flooding and storm surges, the New York Times has reported. Improving coastal resilience to sea-level rise is therefore an urgent task.

However, adapting to climate change is an open-ended process requiring constant adjustment. Assessing the climate resilience of an individual community is not straightforward.

At present, there is no unified methodology for assessing climate adaptation in Chinese cities. Between 2010 and 2016, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Urban Development and Environment analysed the climate resilience of 16 Beijing districts. This research proposed 17 evaluation indicators, including GDP per capita, number of civil society bodies, and environmental protection outlay as a share of fiscal spending.

The research was led by the institute’s Zheng Yan. She noted in her analysis of the results that “existing statistical indicators do not meet all the requirements for evaluating climate resilience.”

According to Zhu Anqi, if such information is not adequately available at the district level, obtaining it at the community level is even more difficult.

Huang Yingxin thinks questionnaire-based surveys can better capture the complex picture of climate resilience. By comparison, quantitative indicators do not reflect how residents perceive climate change, their previous experiences of adaptation, or the issues they consider most in need of attention, she says.

a group of people wearing face masks filling a survey
Volunteers conduct questionnaires with members of a Guangdong community (Image: Harmony Community Foundation)

To properly understand a community’s real situation and needs, Huang says these questionnaires should be steadily refined based on local dialogues. “Residents need to work together to define community resilience and specify the approaches that are most helpful for them in terms of enhancing adaptation,” she adds.

Neighbours who know each other well are more likely to support each other through a crisis. Though this trend is not straightforward, it has been established in studies such a 2015 one by Lynda Cheshire of the University of Queensland.

Zhu Anqi, an intern who helped develop the HCF questionnaire, says that assessments of climate resilience generally pay less attention to this mutual aid function of neighbourhood and clan relationships.

HCF tried to evaluate the part played by close social networks in resilience to climate-related disasters. The questionnaire asked respondents about their emergency supplies and neighbourhood connections, in addition to other factors such as climate risks and insurance coverage.

From perception to action

The ensuing report, titled “Study on assessment of climate risk identification and resilience of urban communities in the Pearl River Delta”, found that residents perceive typhoons, storms and heatwaves to be the main weather hazards associated with climate change. These events have indeed become more frequent across the province as the climate warms, according to Guangdong’s 14th Five Year Plan on addressing climate change.

Huang believes climate change risks fall into one of two categories: extreme weather events and long-term changes in average conditions. For the general population, the growing frequency of extreme weather events most readily registers as a climate change impact, she says.

Related to long-term changes, however, a 2021 HFC report found that 60% of respondents do not have a good understanding of the content of China’s national climate targets.

More than half of respondents to HFC’s most recent questionnaire were not insured against typhoons, flooding and other disasters. While only a third of households were equipped with emergency supplies such as food and water, torches, first aid kits and power banks. Residents also engaged in an average of three kinds of emergency-preparedness activities, such as emergency drills.

Huang says it was not the intention of the survey to grade each community’s climate resilience, but rather to give the communities findings to draw on and take targeted measures to improve their own adaptive capabilities. Such measures could include disaster-relief messaging encouraging residents to take out insurance or prepare emergency supplies; and the launching of voluntary services and local support groups to boost community cohesion.

Climate adaptation from the community perspective

Zhu expresses caution about directly applying the HCF findings to communities beyond the Pearl River Delta. The study does, however, mark the beginning of a process for getting China’s urban communities involved in climate-adaptation planning, she says.

An October 2023 Oxfam report makes a similar point. It argues that while many local governments have produced policies and action plans for climate adaptation, the needs of rural and marginalised urban communities must not be overlooked.

Infrastructure is key to a community’s climate resilience and modelling can assess climate-change readiness in terms of design and construction standards, as mentioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Sixth Assessment Report. However, alongside this relatively objective indicator, it is still instructive for policymakers to seek grassroots’ perspectives on infrastructural issues and contingency considerations.

Pearl River Delta residents flagged heatstroke as a growing risk during a 2022 heatwave when power supplies were restricted or simply failed. They noted that moving around their city becomes difficult after heavy rains bring floods, and that roads get blocked and cars damaged when typhoons topple trees and blow roofs off buildings.

a metal board attaced to the door as flood barriers
Barriers installed to prevent floodwater from entering a resident’s home (Image: Harmony Community Foundation)
a washing machine being elevated
To cope with water that does get in, residents raise appliances and furniture (Image: Harmony Community Foundation)

What these respondents most wanted from authorities is roads to be kept in good repair, and local drainage systems to be dredged in advance of heavy rainfall. They also wanted certainty that water, electricity and food will remain in regular supply.

China Dialogue spoke to HCF consultant Zheng Huan. Regarding the tendency for flooding in urban areas that contain older buildings, like Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, Zheng says this may relate to deteriorating and narrow underground drainage pipes. As a civil society group, however, HFC does not have the resources to make infrastructural improvements. Ultimately, that is a job for the relevant authorities.

“We hope this study will help policymakers identify vulnerable populations and understand the needs and expectations of residents, improving climate resilience for those communities while also promoting climate justice,” concludes Zheng.