Reframing Adaptation: A Multilevel Analysis of Collective Action, Power, and Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Climate Vulnerable Communities

Expedition Dates: December 2021 – August 2022 (anticipated)


Expedition Field Team Members:

Suman Acharya, PhD Candidate, Anthropology and Environmental Policy & Climate Change Institute, Unviersity of Maine

Expedition Funding: Dan & Betty Churchill Exploration Fund


Field Expedition Location:  Dailekh District, Nepal


Research Background

Global climate change presents extreme challenges to both social and ecological systems (Pachauri et al., 2015). Current understandings of climate change adaptation problems seek the cooperation of multiple actors at various scales to meet the objectives of sustainability, equality, and inclusiveness that address social, environmental, economic, and political requirements for present and future generations (Adger, 2003; Adger et al., 2005; Ostrom, 2010; Agrawal et al., 2012; Eriksen et al., 2015; McElwee, 2016; O’Reilly et al., 2020). Most studies on adaptation to date are highly focused on biophysical changes such that ignoring the social, political, or economic determinants of adaptation (Mrino and Ribot, 2012; Eriksen et al., 2015; Nagoda, 2015). In this research I argue that the adaptation is equally governed by the social, political, and economic factors across scales. This research uses multilevel governance framework and engages theory of collective action with an attention to issues of power to investigate the political nature of climate change adaptation. This work will explore how power and politics can limit or foster collective action and affect adaptation planning and decision-making across scales, using Nepal as an ethnographic case study.

Initially I proposed to study the impacts of climate change and farmer’s ability to decide adaptive capacity that would help in planning future policies. However, due to COVID-19 situation, I was not able to conduct my fieldwork and I had to defer my project initiation. With the passage of doctoral course, my project evolved more in anthropological dimension that now aims to understand the political nature of climate change adaptation. Currently, I am doing interviews across scales based on the following three research questions:


Research Questions

  • How power is determined across scales and how does this affect collective effort in adaptation planning and decision-making across scales?
  • How does collective action occur across scales and what is the role of it in achieving successful, inclusive, and equitable community-based climate adaptation?
  • How do farmers use collective identity to challenge the influence of power and politics in climate change adaptation policies?


Study Area

This research is situated in Nepal, a developing country that is recognized as a highly vulnerable nation. Currently, I am conducting my fieldwork in the Dailekh district in Western Nepal (Fig 1.). I chose this site because it is located in the country’s most climate-vulnerable region (MoFE, 2021) and climate adaptation programs like National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) and Local Adaptation Plans of Action (LAPA) along with multiple forms of institutions, NGOs, public and private groups are working in the study area, which make this an excellent location for this case study.



Methods and Results Achieved

I am conducting an ethnographic fieldwork across scales (local, provincial, and national) in Nepal. This ethnographic research involves participants’ observation, semi-structured interviews, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, oral histories, and policy review.

I arrived Nepal in the second week of October 2021. However, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) took a longer time for a final approval after multiple reviews. During this time (between January and February, 2022) I did rapport building work in my study area, built a good relationship and favorable environment to conduct my fieldwork smoothly. I selected three irrigation canal communities such that: -one is driven by community interests that function on the traditional norms and rules; one is conceived and implemented by the formal program; and one that is conceived and implemented by an international entity. In March and first week of April, I completed the national level interview at Kathmandu. The experts from different governmental organizations including ministries, Non-Governmental organizations (NGOs), International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), donors, and civil societies participated in the interview. Currently, I am interviewing local farmers and observing their daily activity and their participation in different workshops and meeting. I am attending district level workshops called by different organizations. I am also trying to transcribe the interview recording in the field site. However, due to multiple constraints in the rural area I have not been able to do it in time, which I think I will be doing intensively after returning to Orono in August, 2022. Following is one of the important quotes that I generated from my field work.


“I don’t know what the intention of LAPA (Local Adaptation Plans of Action) was. Officials from projects came here, gathered us, and asked to put our problems to be solved. We were barely given chance to speak, the literate, politically active, and rich peoples from high caste spoke all the time. We are Dalits. I did not know what they really wanted to hear from whom, who were targeted by that program, who decided to implement the projects that are currently implemented, and what the amount that they would spend in our village was. I was in real need because the landslide is about to sweep away my house, but my voice was never heard. Those who were able to speak got several benefits, but my situation is getting worse, and I am literally counting days when this landslide will sweep away my shelter. This program might be beneficial to rich people but not to me”



This PhD dissertation research work was made possible by an award from the Dan & Betty Churchill Exploration Fund, the Chase Distinguished Research Assistantship, the Lambda Alpha Grant Award, and the Graduate Student Governance degree related awards. My advisor Dr. Cindy Isenhour and other committee members are helping me in every steps of this ongoing research. I am grateful to Social Service Center (SOSEC) Nepal for supporting my research as a local collaborator. Betty Lee and Rebecca Addessi from the Climate Change Institute played an important role in managing my travel, I would like to thank them. Finally, I would like to take a moment to thank all the research participants from Nepal who are currently providing their valuable time and crucial information to this project.