1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Environmental and Climate Justice, Social Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Transformative Adaptation to Climate Change in Coastal Cities

  • Project from: 2019 to 2020

Building on initial work on transformative adaptation carried out in 2018, this project delves deeper into adaptation decision-making processes and barriers to transformative solutions in the case studies of Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, and Jakarta, Indonesia, in order to inform more progressive policy making in the context of Southeast Asian coastal cities.

In a first phase (March–December 2019), the project convened an expert workshop and produced three discussion documents (two case study papers and a synthesis) in time for the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference COP25. In a second phase (April–December 2020), the initial findings were consulted with relevant stakeholders, and the discussion documents were updated and published as UNRISD Research Papers.

The Research Issue in Context

Despite the knowledge of the scale and urgency of climate change, current climate action is insufficient to successfully tackle its impacts. Recognition of the problem is not translating into decisions that address root causes and promote transformative change and climate justice. Rapidly urbanizing coastal regions face the complex challenge of not only adapting to the increasing impacts of different hazards such as sea-level rise and urban flooding but also ensuring sustainable, low-carbon development. This project seeks to improve policy making and strengthen policy acceptance of transformative adaptation (understood as change that can overcome inequalities and root causes of vulnerability) in coastal cities, by conducting two case studies in Viet Nam and Indonesia.

Adaptation measures often focus on infrastructure-heavy protective interventions, such as dykes, sea walls and building retrofitting. By primarily targeting the exposure to hazards, such interventions reduce the likelihood of being affected by a flood or storm surge, but leave people vulnerable in case of infrastructure failure, for example should a dyke be breached. Such measures thus have little effect on inherent vulnerability in terms of reducing people’s susceptibility to harm or increasing their coping and adaptive capacities to natural hazards. Many adaptation interventions offer technical solutions to problems that are not technical in nature, neglecting the more complex socio-political barriers to transformative solutions.

Focusing on the social justice implications of adaptation decision making in the context of informal settlements and urban development in Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta, the project dissects and imagines how cities may address root causes of vulnerability to flood risks experienced by slum dwellers and urban poor people. It thereby contributes to a debate on policy pathways to more transformative adaptation that challenges inequalities and power asymmetries and achieves social justice.


The project explores why transformative adaptation does not happen more often and how adaptation decision-making processes could be made more inclusive and integrated in order to promote more transformative approaches. It specifically seeks to increase the understanding of transformative adaptation and improve adaptation decision making in the context of Southeast Asian coastal cities.

Outputs and Activities

  • Workshop on barriers and opportunities for transformative adaptation (Bonn, 23-24 June 2019)
    Building on recent UNRISD work on transformative adaptation, we organized a workshop with 10 selected adaptation experts from Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta in order to discuss limits, barriers and opportunities for transformative change in the two cities and foster mutual learning and understanding of the challenges of transformative adaptation in these specific contexts. The workshop was complemented by a public seminar to engage a wider audience. Discussions are summarized in an online UNRISD Event Brief.

Communications and Outreach

Effective outreach and communications work is crucial in order to enhance both knowledge and policy acceptance of transformative adaptation. The project targets a number of different audiences and produces a range of knowledge products in order to reach them. Short policy briefs complement the Research Papers in order to reach policy makers and practitioners.

📗 Transforming Coastal City Adaptation: From Idea to Practice
📗 Bringing Social Justice into Climate Change Adaptation in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam
📗 Transforming Adaptation Planning and Governance in Jakarta, Indonesia

In order to showcase the relevance of the key points of our case study research, we have curated three think pieces from other coastal cities that emphasize the need for justice in adaptation planning and implementation. These are suitable for social media outreach and dissemination to a broader public thanks to their accessible writing style.

📗 Adaptation and Social Justice in Lagos, Nigeria
📗 Waste Management and Adaptation in Coastal Cities
📗 Transformational Adaptation in Mogla, Bangladesh

Finally, two short videos highlight the need to bring social justice into coastal city adaptation, and showcase how upgrading and resettlement can be done in order to reduce the adverse impacts on livelihoods. The videos are meant to provide short, visually appealing overviews of some of the key points discussed in the research papers and invite viewers to consult the written outputs.

Engage with the Project

Please get in touch with Dunja Krause [dunja dot krause at un dot org] if you would like to learn more about the project and explore ways you could contribute to it.


The project is funded by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung with support from the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.