BLOG | Reflections on the contribution of the hotspots concept in CARIAA

By Ahmed S Khan, PhD

2017 Professional Development Awardee, CARIAA, IDRC, Ottawa, ON, Canada


After a year spent working with the CARIAA program as a Professional Development Awardee, based at the International Development Research Centre, Dr. Ahmed Khan shares his reflections on the program’s emphasis on climate change hotspots.


Thomas Kuhn is widely credited with the term paradigm shift, referring to when new ideas or social processes change our current thinking of phenomena. Although Kuhn based his ideas on scientific revolution in the physical and mathematical sciences, the concept has been applied to the biological and social sciences and exemplifies the evolution of ideas pertaining to a field of study.

One area that has undergone a profound paradigm shift in recent decades is ‘hotspots’ research. Having originated in biodiversity conservation in the late 1980s, the concept is now widely employed for timely and cost-effective responses to natural hazards, epidemics, and climatic impacts. Within the field of climate change and development, the term ‘hotspots’ refers to geographic regions home to large numbers of vulnerable people whose livelihoods depend on economic activities threatened by climate change. What makes the climate change hotspot approach topical and trendy is the transdisciplinary attention and holistic approach it generates in addressing multiple vulnerabilities in human and natural systems, as well as the due diligence given to non-climatic issues.

This has been the motivation behind its use in CARIAA, with a focus on three climate change hotspots in glacier-fed river basins, deltas, and semi-arid regions to address multiple vulnerabilities (Fig 1). A unique feature of this paradigm is that it opens multiple tiers for research inquiry across disciplines, sectors, and regions as climate change is cross-cutting and calls for both place-based and cross-scale approaches.

CARIAA hotspot regions

Fig 1: CARIAA hotspot regions in semi-arid, deltas and glacier fed river basins.

For these reasons, CARIAA has been structured around four consortia-style research clusters, involving more than 18 research institutions in over 15 countries, 40 partner organizations within and across continents, and more than 450 researchers in total. The research program prides itself with a robust ‘design’, including independent research frameworks in each consortium, attention to organizational leadership, and the creation of learning and collaborative spaces across consortia to foster synthesis through working groups and annual program meetings. Gender and migration are examples of two working groups, formed across the four consortia, owing to policy relevance of these topics in all the three hotspots. By using the hotspot as a cross-cutting unit of analysis, novel and interesting insights are now emerging from the consortia’s individual and collaborative work.

As the CARIAA program wraps up in its final year of 2018, some key outcomes and deliverables reinforce the utility of the hotspot approach. For instance, through the consortia research work there are new knowledge and tools to better understand climate science in hotspots particularly on the prediction and modeling of a 1.5oC warming scenario. This is more so evident in resource-dependent regions in the glacier snow-packed mountains of Asia and the semi-arid regions of Africa. As more research outputs emerge, there is a “changing narrative” towards new opportunities for resilient economies. These have been explored through stakeholder engagement on issues such as migration and remittances and commodity value chains, which are crucial to livelihood security and national and regional economic development particularly in semi-arid hotspots. Furthermore, CARIAA’s work has helped to create “solution spaces” for knowledge co-production that reflect on changing attitudes and perception about the co-benefits of adaptation planning and development, central to issues around water scarcity, drought, and addressing invasive species.    

Finally, the CARIAA theory of change relies on Research-in-Use (RiU) strategies for impact at scale, through communication specialists who work at the science-policy interface and can broker knowledge through various policy windows. In influencing change, RiU specialists have developed guides and stakeholder network maps to mobilise knowledge and are engaging with policy makers at various levels and fora. We are seeing this uptake of knowledge at the local and national level on issues such as barriers and motivation to migration decisions in the Mahanadi - Brahmaputra and Volta regions that are relevant for national delta plans and integrated coastal zone management.

Through the utilization of the hotspot approach, cross-regional learning platforms and partnerships have been created. Local capacities have also been strengthened through a wave of interdisciplinary researchers and trainees who see value in innovative tools and best practices. A key legacy of CARIAA is the investment that has been made in people to be responsive as future leaders and climate champions. This is evident and well captured through Stories of Change and the quality and quantity of scientific publications, policy briefs, videos and cartoons that have emerged from the program consortia to educate, excite and foster positive change. 

This paradigm shift in the use of the hotspot concept is very relevant in research for development on climate change, as it provides us with analytical tools, new knowledge and innovative solutions to contribute to the most pressing sustainability issues of our time.