How Subnational Governments Can Strengthen Resilience to Climate Change

City officials inspecting the implementation of a coastal climate resilient infrastructure project in Bangladesh. Photo credit: ADB.

Share on:           

Published: 27 January 2023

Scale up local-level adaptation by integrating climate adaptation considerations into decentralized governance processes and resources.


Countries in Asia and the Pacific are highly exposed to the adverse impacts of climate change. These impacts are largely manifested at the subnational government level (both provincial or state governments and local government bodies) and the underlying drivers of vulnerability are inherently context specific.

It is widely recognized that adaptation solutions at all levels are critical, as emphasized in the Paris Agreement 2015.[1]  Many countries in the region have made progress in devolving responsibilities related to climate adaptation and resilience-building to subnational governments through adoption of climate change and disaster risk management-related legislation and institutions, which typically mirror the process of decentralization. Studies show that fiscal decentralization leads to a smaller number of disaster-related deaths and that more decentralized countries relatively fare better in terms of the effects of natural hazards on the population.

However, actual implementation of decentralization of climate adaptation-related responsibilities on the ground remains limited because of gaps in technical knowledge and capacity, data, and resources. Institutional frameworks for climate change adaptation must be part of decentralized governance and administration processes.

Key Challenges

Limited institutional capacity and knowledge. Though countries generally have climate change-related policy documents and legal frameworks in place at the national level, internalizing climate actions in local plans, programs, and budgets is challenged by limited institutional, technical, and financial capacity and knowledge. The quality of plans developed is low, and how these plans are being used to inform decision-making especially for pro-poor resilience building remains unclear. Subnational governments are yet to fully understand the climate risks, and locally adapted response strategies are yet to be formulated. Also, technical and capacity development support to put such strategies into practice is limited.

Gaps in data and analysis. To identify and design appropriate local-level adaptation investments that benefit the poor and ensure climate resilience in public service delivery, subnational government’s actions need to be informed by a robust understanding of climate risk in their jurisdictions.

While climate and disaster risk assessment is a powerful tool, the need for regular data collection and updating hazard, exposure, and vulnerability data can be quite demanding for subnational governments, which require support in developing databases and using geographic information system for analysis. In several countries, decision makers do not have access to climate data, while subnational governments do not have a simple and user-friendly data management system.

In many cases, the connections between climate information users and providers are weak or nonexistent. Where climate information is available, providers of such information often do not fully understand the contexts in which decisions are being made.

Inadequate resources. Subnational governments should derive a significant portion of their financial resources from local taxes, fees, and charges to cover at least part of the costs of the services they provide.

The assignment of substantive own-source revenue powers is important for achieving local involvement and accountability. However, revenue collection is weak in many subnational governments. Hence, they generally rely on central transfers, which cannot meet all climate-resilient investment and public service delivery needs.

Functional responsibilities for climate adaptation have been devolved to subnational governments in many countries in Asia. They need to be adequately funded through fiscal decentralization systems that allow for structured and predictable financing for adaptation. Though a fiscal decentralization framework usually includes formula-based transfers, the objectivity and equity of allocations often need to be strengthened and should consider climate resilience in subnational plans and programs. 

Subnational governments also have restricted mandates to borrow. Financing must be within the threshold and needs approval from the central finance ministry. As a result, they tend to neglect climate financing needs and build infrastructure that is not resilient to climate change.

Inadequate and unskilled human resources paralyze the development and implementation of climate actions and the mobilization of climate financing from the private sector. Subnational governments do not have adequate and appropriate technologies, and their operations are yet to be fully digitized, which adds to inefficiencies.

Ambiguities and overlapping functions. Having clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of different government levels under a multi-level governance system is important. Since subnational governments have the right to formulate their own laws (often based on national model laws), they have created many responsibilities at their respective levels, sometimes overlapping and duplicating those of other levels.

Ineffective coordination and collaboration. Recognizing that natural hazards impact beyond and across administrative boundaries, and actions in one area may inadvertently increase risk in other areas (for example, deforestation may lead to increased flooding in downstream urban areas), collaboration and coordination across administrative boundaries become critical for building resilience. Operation of inter-jurisdictional initiatives to address common problems (e.g., river cleaning and management) has been challenging due to various reasons, including difficulties in sharing funds, unclear mandates, and limitations in authority.

Policy Recommendations

Develop a suitable legal and institutional framework for climate change adaptation that will be part of decentralized governance and administration processes. This entails (i) preparation of new or improved policies, strategies, and guidelines to strengthen linkages between climate adaptation and planning and budgeting; (ii) formal and explicit assignment of adaptation responsibilities in laws and planning guidelines relevant to local administration; (iii) reassessing the assignment of functional expenditure responsibilities for climate adaptation through legal reforms, which will provide the foundation for channeling finance for adaptation to the local level; and (iv) development of systems, procedures, incentives, and tools for integrating adaptation considerations in local planning processes.

A gap assessment of the legal and institutional framework (to support local adaptation) should be undertaken to identify specific areas that need to be developed or strengthened and supported. National governments also need to ensure that appropriate frameworks for decentralized governance and administration are in place to facilitate reforms. Implementation requires adopting new forms of coordination with national and subnational governments, new types of collaboration with adjoining local bodies, new partnerships between local bodies and community groups, new ways for mobilizing resources, and inclusive decision-making processes to ensure the benefits reach all citizens in a just and equitable manner.

Strengthen administrative, financial, and technical capacity of subnational governments for delivering adaptation-related functions. Strengthening technical capacity of local governments in undertaking climate risk assessment in a participatory manner and in analyzing and interpreting the findings to inform local adaptation plan and identification of investments will improve quality and climate-resilient investment decisions. Capacity-building interventions must be context-specific and targeted to the varying capacities of subnational governments and local communities. Partnerships with local academic institutions, neighboring local governments, and civil service organizations should be encouraged to fill in the gaps. Capacity development and knowledge solutions on climate adaptation for communities also need to be a part of the plans so that regular training programs, orientations, and seminars are organized, and relevant knowledge documented and shared.

Identify data needs and develop and institutionalize tailor-made data management systems to support the collection and analysis of climate and disaster risk information. Hazard data include downscaled climate models, exposure, and vulnerability. Data on historic and observed changes in weather patterns and their impacts on people, assets, and livelihoods must be captured. Undertaking and regularly updating climate risk assessments that incorporate local dimensions (indicators of climate and non-climate drivers of risks and vulnerabilities at the local level) and embedding adaptation in local development plans and budgets (by making use of climate and vulnerability data to identify adaptation investments) are crucial. Strategic and targeted programs based on data will have better outcomes.

Incorporate climate adaptation considerations in the inter-governmental fiscal transfer mechanisms. The formulas used by many countries to adjust basic per capita funding levels by including different variables (e.g., poverty, geographic features) may be revised to provide greater weight to subnational governments or regions that have experienced or are at higher risk of experiencing adverse climate events to ensure that funds are available. Environmental (green) taxes, fines, and other levies, such as urban land value capture, can be important for changing behavior and incentivizing pro-resilience actions, as well as raising revenues. Moreover, performance-based grants provide a means for central authorities to reward local government practices, without directly interfering with devolved responsibilities to define development priorities and projects. Such rewards may be extended to performance related to climate adaptation.

Practice effective coordination both horizontally—across key departments, agencies, sectors (including non-state actors), and neighboring local governments—and vertically—to national government. Even in cases where detailed expenditure assignments are present and roles and responsibilities are clear, cooperation and collaboration among different entities are crucial to support both coordinated planning and knowledge exchange. Having designated climate change focal points within various sector departments can facilitate communication and coordination. Effective coordination supports learning between departments or institutions in local and regional governments with lessons from the local level feeding into the national policy process.

Support community empowerment and strengthen the demand side of governance. This helps the most vulnerable groups to receive a fair share of the benefits of adaptation efforts. It demonstrates the critical role that local communities, especially women’s groups, play in driving resilience action on the ground and how their role may be recognized and actions scaled up. This requires establishing community adaptation planning committees and conferences for multi-stakeholder dialogues, strengthening awareness, knowledge solutions, and partnerships. Civil society organizations can play a major role in demanding appropriate response actions from the government.

Introducing new incentives or leveraging existing incentives can support the enforcement of regulations (e.g., setbacks, building codes) by local governments, private sector, and local communities that contribute to building resilience. These incentives can also help steer development in resilient directions and encourage coordination and collaboration.


It is critical to scale up local-level climate adaptation by integrating adaptation considerations in decentralized governance processes, including institutions, planning, allocation of resources, and coordination. These processes provide an opportunity to increase meaningful participation of the poor and vulnerable, including women, in decisions related to resilience and ensure that adaptation financing meets local needs.

The decentralization of responsibilities for planning and financing means that local-level adaptation can be implemented at scale beyond targeted interventions dictated by central authorities. This potentially makes financing available to subnational governments nationwide—and proportionate to their level of climate risk.

Strengthening subnational legal and institutional frameworks, planning, budgeting and resource management, and coordination mechanisms will create an enabling environment for scaling up local adaptation actions and for pursuing a sustainable development path.

[1] The Paris Agreement 2015 states that “adaptation is a global challenge faced by all with local, subnational, national, regional and international dimensions” (Article 7.2)


The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has developed the Community Resilience Partnership Program (CRPP) to scale up local climate adaptation measures that address the root causes of vulnerability and facilitate transformational changes to the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of poor and vulnerable populations in Asia and the Pacific. The CRPP will help make decentralized governance work better, improving its effectiveness in delivering public goods and services needed for resilience building, and give poor and vulnerable people, especially women, a voice in identifying and implementing adaptation measures, thus promoting procedural and distributive justice. More information on the CRPP can be found here.


D. Mfitumukiza et al. 2020. Scaling Local and Community-based Adaptation. Background Paper. Global Commission on Adaptation.

IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

J. Martinez-Vazquez. 2021. Adapting Fiscal Decentralization Design to Combat Climate Change. The World Bank: Washington DC.

M. Lee, M. L. Villaruel, R. Gaspar. 2016. Effects of Temperature Shocks on Economic Growth and Welfare in Asia. ADB Economics Working Paper Series. No. 501. Manila: Asian Development Bank. 

Rachana Shrestha
Public Management Specialist, Public Sector Management and Governance Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

Rachana is responsible for multi-level governance pillar, which constitutes decentralization, public service delivery, public financial management, localizing SDGs, and policy and institutional reforms at subnational and local government levels. She provides policy advisory, technical, and knowledge support in these areas for project and program development and management in ADB’s developing member countries. She has a master’s degree in International Development Policy from Duke University, United States.

Arghya Sinha Roy
Principal Climate Change Specialist (Climate Change Adaptation), Climate Change, Resilience, and Environment Cluster, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank

Arghya has more than 19 years of international experience in the field of climate and disaster resilience, especially in the context of urban, infrastructure and community resilience, and post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. He worked with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center from 2004–2012. He joined ADB in 2012 and has been involved in supporting the implementation of ADB’s climate and disaster resilience-related policies, investments, and priorities. He has a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning.

Leave your question or comment in the section below:

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or its Board of Governors or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this publication and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. By making any designation of or reference to a particular territory or geographic area, or by using the term “country” in this document, ADB does not intend to make any judgments as to the legal or other status of any territory or area.