Beyond binary outcomes in climate adaptation: The illustrative case of desalination

Amit Tubi, Joe Williams*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


This article develops an integrated approach to understanding adaptation outcomes. Current debates tend to consider actions to respond to climate change as either adaptive or maladaptive, leading to binary framings of outcomes as either successful or harmful. To address this, our article considers the vast space that exists between success and failure in climate change adaptation, highlighting the importance of applying the concepts of successful adaptation and maladaptation jointly in analyses of such outcomes. To this end, we develop an integrated framework to examine the major adaptive and maladaptive effects induced by large-scale seawater desalination. Now a major component of water supply in cities and regions around the world, desalination is increasingly viewed as an adaptation to water challenges linked with climate change. Based on a comprehensive review of the (successful/mal)adaptation literature, we present a matrix that will help academics and practitioners think through the complex and overlapping outcomes of adaptation via desalination in the water sector. We then discuss the insights concerning the configurations of desalination's adaptive and maladaptive outcomes. Overall, we present a threefold argument: (1) that examining successful outcomes alongside maladaptive ones enables a more complete and nuanced understanding of the overall effects of adaptation actions and their spatial and temporal distribution; (2) that a consideration of this can help to highlight the tradeoffs and constraints that are inherent in adaptation in order to support decision-making; and (3) that a more complex approach to adaptation outcomes can assist in problematizing the social-political drivers and consequences of adaptation. This article is categorized under: Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change > Learning from Cases and Analogies.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere695
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2021

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  • adaptation
  • climate change
  • desalination
  • maladaptation
  • water


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