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Opinion

Adapting Africa to changing climates

To avoid potentially massive human suffering, countries must improve their climate change policies.

Last Modified: 18 Oct 2013 07:25
Richard Munang

Dr Richard Munang is Africa Regional Climate Change Head & Co-ordinator at the United Nations Environment Programme.
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Building climate risk considerations into policy is vitally imperative to ensure that development proceeds along pathways that are resilient to climate change [AP]

The changing climate is no longer an abstract issue, and the realities of its impacts are being felt across the world. The long awaited IPCC Assessment Report (AR5) summary for Policy Makers was released on September 27. The report predicted the impacts of climate change will lead to more flooding, famine, drought and disease which could have a negative impact for millions of people in the poorest parts of the world, especially Africa.

Climate change is already affecting millions of people, thwarting their efforts to escape poverty. Building climate risk considerations into policy is vitally imperative to ensure that development proceeds along pathways that are resilient to climate change. Against this backdrop, several African nations have already embarked on steps towards building societal resilience and have completed successful demonstrations of pilot projects which are providing answers for coping with climate change. However, a common framework is needed for effective adaptation. Currently, most responses are either ineffective or spur large disagreements. But one fact is certain: If countries want to avoid massive economic and human injury, then climate change policies must improve.

Science, action and policy:

The gap between science and policy explains some of this disagreement. Policymakers need demonstrable evidence so they can build support at the national level. Evidence and examples can translate complex concepts into understandable lessons. Illustrations can be found worldwide, and Africa, in particular, has already taken innovative steps towards advancing adaptation actions. The Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness stresses that countries should take the lead in defining and implementing development programmes that address their national priorities.

Water access in Togo

Throughout Africa, 97 percent of agricultural production is currently rain-fed, which means agriculture is particularly vulnerable to changes in rain patterns.

With less than 4 percent of cultivated land being irrigated this could spell disaster for many small farming communities. The government of Togo's pilot project addressed this water insecurity issue by rehabilitating community water reservoirs. The project increased the storage capacity at Damone Reservoir from 9,000 to 24,000 cubic metres of water and from 50,000 to 70,000 cubic metres of water at Timbou Reservoir. Community members with access to water increased by 82 percent, from 1,460 to 8,000 people, in Timbou and by 25 percent in Damone. For the foreseeable future Damone, Timbou, and surrounding communities have insulated themselves from the threats of climate change while the Togo government obtained workable results which will be used to implement similar projects country-wide.

Direct savings in Seychelles

In Seychelles, a rainwater harvesting project in schools provided students a practical demonstration of adaptation to climate change, with harvested water used for school gardens, cleaning, and flushing toilets. It also enabled the schools to save up to $250 per month on water bills, permitting the saved funds to be invested in other areas such as teaching and learning resources. Legislation is now under consideration to include rainwater harvesting systems in building codes.

Reforestation in Rwanda

Endless streams of refugees fled to the wetlands and forests of Rwanda, displaced by the post-colonial civil war. To begin their lives again, these communities had to carve an existence out of fragile ecosystems like that of Gishwati. With an investment of only $150,000, the project mapped and developed a comprehensive plan for suitable land use. Seeing that the land use plan fit into a country’s national development policies, the government of Rwanda allocated $25m from the national budget to relocate vulnerable populations, preserve and replant 2844 hectares of fragile forest..

Experience shows that small but well-timed and targeted interventions can have a significant impact on moving policy forward or spurring the development of larger efforts.

Lessons from African projects:

As the importance of climate change adaptation policy continues to grow, it is critical to chart a course for better adaptation policies. It is often difficult to make changes to policy when countries lack clear examples of success. The African pilot projects map a clear path for doing this and teach us three hard-won lessons on including ecosystem-based methods into national policies.

1- If projects are to be effective, then actions must provide evidence and the appropriate tools for up-scaling successful practices into national policy. They must also build the sense of ownership felt by the community and allow for flexibility in its design.

2- Technical assistance should strive to serve, not mandate. Each ecosystem is as different as each community. Solutions must address the needs that the community views as most important, as well as adapt their practices to the many different environments threatened by climate change. If policymakers want solutions to stick, communities must retain ownership over their community action.

3- If projects are to be taken up nationwide, then the timing and relevance of the projects must align with national policies and priorities. Pilot projects are meant to spur grander action and should be timed and implemented accordingly. Additionally, climate change adaptation activities need not operate in isolation. They can and should aim to achieve multiple goals like the alleviation of poverty and the strengthening of community voices.

Policy implications:

Provide evidence: The use of evidence-based practical interventions in the form of projects plays a crucial role in un-packaging these complex concepts, building capacity, and developing appropriate tools for up-scaling the interventions to a local government level or national level.

Build ownership: Ensuring the ownership of interventions so that the local community, and in turn the country, is in the driver's seat right from the conceptual level is key. External factors should be directed at helping local communities identify their priorities and develop interventions suited to their unique circumstances.

Allow for flexibility: Technical and financial assistance to respond to nationally defined needs by providing targeted yet flexible and rapid interventions that turn complex adaptation measures into practical action. This organic approach ensures that projects are iteratively modified to better suit and respond to local realities.

Give options, no “one size fits all” approach: By promoting the diversification of adaptation actions across sectors and thematic environmental areas, the project results in co-benefits such as enhancing resilience of the national adaptation strategy to addressing future climate change impacts.

Appropriate timing of interventions: Experience shows that small but well-timed and targeted interventions can have a significant impact on moving policy forward or spurring the development of larger efforts. If successfully executed, demonstrative actions have a big potential to inform polices and contribute information and data that are valuable for assessment processes.

Relevance and link to national priorities: Activities to strengthen climate change adaptation policies at the country-level cannot run in isolation. They should link, for instance, to efforts to tackle poverty, and must be conceived from the local level as part of a broader development strategy based on an understanding of the livelihoods of vulnerable households/communities, how they perceive risk, and what social and political constraints they face.

Climate change poses dramatically large consequences for communities at all levels. Steadfast political will, armed with demonstrable actions, will be absolutely crucial to prevent the undoing of present progress and to protect people and ecosystems.

Dr Richard Munang is UNEP's Africa Regional Climate Change Head & Co-ordinator.

Follow Richard on Twitter:@MTingem

Jesica Andrews is an intern with UNEP's Climate Change Programme in Africa.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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