Adaptation to climate change seen from a southern NGO perspective

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 30th Mar 2011

By Lawrence Flint - ENDA TM, 2007

ENDA is one of the few truly international African NGOs whose constituency comprises African populations in urban and rural Africa, many of which have suffered the effects of unequal development since absorption into the European world economy which became global from around 1900. ENDA focuses on a 'development first' agenda, building capacity and resilience among communities and their representative leaders, institutions and decision makers across the continent from its base in Dakar.

Climate change and variability represent serious threats in much of Africa due to the immediacy of their impacts on local communities whose survival, socio-economic and cultural well-being is premised primarily on the natural environment. Nevertheless, climate change is not a new phenomenon and African communities have, over time and space, developed coping strategies, successfully managing livelihood resources from a gradually expanding indigenous knowledge base.

However, the increase in climate variability, added to the demands of rapidly growing populations and unsustainable socio-economic practices, where pressure on the environment is already high, have now started to outstrip local coping capacity. This has intensified pressure on the quality of lives and livelihoods in Africa, putting further pressure on human and ecological security. Adaptation to the crisis is constrained by shortages of information, technology, skills and economic resources. These constraints intensify seemingly inerasable inequalities that have become long entrenched.

Germane here is that human and environmental vulnerability is caused more by socio-economic and political dynamics than by biophysical processes. Climate has become an aggravating factor, adding to risk and constraining efforts to alleviate hardship and human insecurity. This is why vulnerability, sensitivity of local systems and capacity to adapt to climate change and variability must be considered when developing sustainable development strategies and national plans of action.

Adaptation, we argue, is a social response to vulnerability. It rarely involves new processes; adaptation is not about 're-inventing the wheel'. What is new and innovative is the inclusion of climate dynamics in planning and the methodologies germane to adaptation. These involve high levels of participatory communication and analysis of biocapacity usage and availability. It is about the creation of choices and alternatives for survival and livelihoods. Adaptation to climate change remains, nevertheless, meaningless unless it is integrated or 'mainstreamed' into overall development strategies, addressing social and ecological pressures combining short and long-term goals, taking into account other aggravating factors such as energy poverty.

For African organisations such as ENDA, whose main focus is on tackling underdevelopment, such strategies must be conditioned by two factors. First is the positioning of priority ownership of the adaptation process among affected communities and their representative leaders. Second is the recognition and validation of indigenous knowledge networks as a basis from which to work when introducing new methodologies and techniques.

Both can be achieved by sensitive processes of interaction with principal stakeholders in advance of crafting adaptation strategies to glean experiential evidence of climate and its impacts and provide sensitisation to increased risks. Evidence obtained from this process can then be addressed by climate science and technological innovation that can be considered by stakeholders for local application. These should consist of measures that add value and fit alongside existing systems and do not simply replace them.

Nonetheless, many practices have become unsustainable and need revising or replacing to address rapidly evolving biophysical environments demonstrating reducing productive and carrying capacity. However, no adaptation strategy is likely to provide sustainable solutions to vulnerability unless premised on sound communication strategies that respond primarily to community needs and aspirations.

Crosscutting these issues is gender, specifically the reality that climate induced vulnerability impacts women and girls disproportionately because women, who already suffer unequal levels of impoverishment, are principal workers with climate impacted commodities. As providers of water and fuel, cooks, cultivators and raisers of small livestock, women are at the cutting edge of climate impacts and therefore need to be consciously mainstreamed into adaptation planning and decision-making, particularly when choosing a particular strategy.

Vulnerability affects societal and cultural cohesion, threatening conflict and out-migration from affected regions to other ecosystems whose carrying capacity becomes equally threatened. The technology behind actions that become successful and sustainable must also be transferable and flexible so that they can be replicated and upscaled in other regions and ecosystems. This aspect of transfer of skills and developing capacity at all levels from community to national government is central to ENDA's ethos.

African institutions and organisations must focus on the needs and sensitivities of policy and decision makers at all scales. This can be achieved by recognising the different short and long term agendas of such enabling agencies. While adaptation addresses underdevelopment and vulnerability to climate factors over the longer term, the agenda of most decision-makers is conditioned by relatively short stays in office, and the need to retain credibility and produce results in politico-cultural environments suffering the same lack of capacity and underdevelopment as their socio-economic counterparts.

For national policy makers, required to mainstream climate into regional and national development planning, there is a higher recognition of the need to focus on such issues. However, vastly increased understanding of climate issues is required at policy-making level. Nevertheless, local and national NGOs that interact with policy makers must keep a sense of balance and address adaptation through advocacy that specifies definable vulnerabilities that have been adequately researched through social as well as physical science lenses.

By adoption of these principles, ENDA believes that adaptation to climate change can have a positive and enabling role in national development, creating choices and alternatives to contradict the pervading gloom that has surrounded development in African since the dawn of independence.