Maladaptation: An Introduction

Submitted by Antje Lang | published 8th Jan 2019 | last updated 9th May 2023
Flooding in Ho Chi Minh City

Flooding in Ho Chi Minh City


Adaptation is one of the mainstays of addressing climate change. Recently, however, there have been increased calls questioning the effectiveness of adaptation and the climate adaptation community's approach. Several large-scale systematic literature reviews have analysed studies of climate change adaptation, and recognised that there is a glaring lack of engagement regarding the potential for adaptation measures to exacerbate and/or redistribute risk and vulnerability. Such instances, where adaptation interventions result in increased vulnerability, is known as ‘maladaptation.’ This introductory article provides a brief overview of the concept of maladaptation, potential frameworks for undertaking and assessing mal/adaptation actions, and questions that the practitioner should keep in mind.

The concept of maladaptation traces back to a paper by Scheraga and Grambsch in 1998 that referenced the idea of adverse outcomes resulting from adaptation measures. It was also mentioned in the IPCC Third Assessment although, at the time, it was specifically deemed as ‘inadvertent’ negative outcomes. There is now an established scholarship around maladaptation and various definitions of 'maladaptation' are provided in the literature, including:

  • Maladaptation is an ‘action taken ostensibly to avoid or reduce vulnerability to climate change that impacts adversely on, or increases the vulnerability of other systems, sectors or social groups.Barnett & O’Neill, 2013, p. 88.

  • Maladaptation is a ‘[r]esult of an intentional adaptation policy or measure directly increasing vulnerability for the targeted and/or external actor(s), and/or eroding preconditions for sustainable development by indirectly increasing society’s vulnerability.’ Juhola et al. 2016, p.139

  • Maladaptation is a process that results in increased vulnerability to climate variability and change, directly or indirectly, and/or significantly undermines capacities or opportunities for present and future adaptation. Developed by sixteen experts during a three-day workshop in November 2012 and used by Magnan, 2014, p. 3 (see full text for details).

  • Maladaptive actions (maladaptation) are ‘[a]ctions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.Noble et al./IPCC, 2014, p. 1769.

Although maladaptation as a concept has existed in the climate change sphere for about two decades, the challenges arise in that there is still no consensus on exactly what is meant by maladaptation. Indeed, the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report acknowledges that ‘adaptation literature is replete with advice to avoid maladaptation, but it is less clear precisely what is included as ‘maladaptation’ (IPCC, 2014, p 857). This is partly because there is often difficulty in assessing what exactly is meant by adaptation, e.g. what does effective adaptation look like? By that same metric, what does unsuccessful adaptation look like? Is unsuccessful adaptation equivalent to maladaptation?  

The short list of definitions provided, however, acknowledge a few clear aspects of maladaptation:

  1. It results from intentional adaptation policy and decisions
  2. There are explicitly negative consequences
  3. It consists of a spatial element, known as spatial spillovers – maladaptation does not necessarily occur in the geographic space or within the targeted group; it can extend social and geographic boundaries
  4. It consists of a temporal element – adaptation actions taken today can be maladaptive in the future.​

Causes of maladaptation

In their 2013 paper, Barnett & O’Neill develop a framework for maladaptation analysis. First, they identify five types of maladaptation: (1) Increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, (2) disproportionately burdening the most vulnerable, (3) high opportunity costs, (4) reduce incentives to adapt, and, (3) path dependency.

Second, the authors argue that different adaptation actions carry different risks of maladaptive outcomes. Those that seek to increase adaptive capacity are the least likely to be maladaptive, those that seek to decrease sensitivity carry medium risk, and those that seek to reduce exposure carry the greatest risk to be maladaptive.

How can we address it?

Magnan (2014) consolidates the literature into two existing frameworks: the pathways framework, adapted from Barnett & O’Neill (2013, and the precautionary framework, based on Hallegatte (2009).  From this, the author proposes a third framework – the assessment framework – that can guide practitioners through adaptation decision-making that avoids maladaptive outcomes (Figure 1).

Of course, the scale and complexity of adaptation decisions mean that maladaptation likely is occurring and will occur in the future, despite efforts to avoid it. Thus, ensuring that monitoring and evaluation of decision-making include assessments that prioritize learning. Indeed, the only way for practitioners to enable better and more effective adaptation decision-making is by learning and sharing the knowledge of what does not work.

Case examples

These following case studies are presented not to denigrate adaptation actions that ended up being maladaptive – the intention behind these projects is clearly never to bring harm. They do serve the purpose, though, of highlighting specific challenges that practitioners should consider when developing and implementing adaptation actions.

Flooding in Ho Chi Minh City

Hallegatte et al. describe one example of maladaptation in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). City planners developed and began implementing infrastructure projects (sewage, drainage, dikes and barriers) intended to mitigate expected flood risk from sea level rise, based on the best predictions of climate and development available at the time. Unfortunately, recent analysis indicates that the impacts of climate change will be larger than expected. This means, that these plans may actually increase vulnerability, with storm sewer systems unable to handle the potential flood capacity and tides overtopping the dikes and barriers.  Moreover, there was an unexpected rise in urbanization in previously low-density areas, possibly partly attributed to the sense of security brought about by the initial flood plans.

Drought in Australia

During Australia’s Millennium Drought (1996 – 2010), Melbourne attempted to adapt to the lower rainfall levels through the construction of the Wonthaggi desalination plant and the Sugarloaf Pipeline project. These projects were maladaptive because the increased carbon emissions required a huge amount of capital, and did not seek to strengthen people’s adaptive capacity to drought (e.g. encouraging water-saving behaviours and water efficient building/appliances). Water restrictions were lifted when the drought broke in 2010-11. The Wonthaggi desalination plant was not completed until 2012 and was immediately put into standby mode.

Flood embankments in Karnali, India

The Karnali River traverses the mountains from Tibet through Nepal and becomes the Ghaghara in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Uttar Pradesh is one of the most flood affected states in India after Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Orissa.

About 16 kilometres below the Nepal border in Kailali district, Girijapuri barrage was built in the late 1970s to divert water for irrigation to central Uttar Pradesh, including Lucknow and Varanasi. Much of the water is diverted west to the Sharada River — another tributary of the Ganga. Embankments have been built to maintain the river course.

According to new studies, the Ghaghara started shifting course particularly after 1995. The Gangetic plains are relatively flat, and after the steep decline from the Himalayas, the rivers shift course in the plains fairly easily, especially when they swell during the monsoons. According to the National Disaster Management Authority of India, about 2.7 million hectares out of 24.1 million hectares of land in the state is affected by floods every year, with an estimated loss of more than INR 4 billion (USD 57 million). After the massive flood in 2000, floods have caused increasingly more damage causing communities to move their settlements as the river changes course or migrate to cities for work because of the ongoing damage to agriculture.

Debates whether embankments are the right way to deal with floods are not new, but the problem is getting bigger as more money has been invested in this solution over the past decades. The best way to deal with the issue as populations grow is to let the river take its natural course and keep communities away, but this is increasingly difficult as populations grow. See Dancing with the river for more information.


Barnett, J. & S.J. O’Neill (2013) Minimising the risk of maladaptation: a framework for analysis. In: Palutikof, J.P. et al. (Eds.) Climate Adaptation Futures, pp.87-94. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hallegatte, S. (2009) Strategies to adapt to an uncertain climate change. Global Environmental Change—Human and Policy Dimensions 19: 240–247.

IPCC. (2001) Climate Change 2001: Adaptation Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [McCarthy, J., Canziani, O., Leary, N., Dokken, D., White, K. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, USA. Available online from:

IPCC. (2014) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L.White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1132.

Juhola, S., Glaas, E., Linner, B.O., Neset, T.S. (2016) Redefining maladaptation. Environmental Science and Policy 55:135-140

Magnan, A. (2014) Avoiding maladaptation to climate change: towards guiding principles. Sapiens [Online] Available from:

Scheraga, J.D. & A.E. Grambsch (1998). Risks, opportunities and adaptation to climate change. Climate Research 10: 85–95