Climate adaptation in southern Africa: Addressing the needs of vulnerable communities

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani 25th March 2011 19:17

Southern Africa is faced by a number of weather and climate-related hazards, particularly cyclones, floods and droughts. The impacts and losses caused by these events are high because poverty and weak institutions make populations very vulnerable, with little capacity to prepare for and recover from these natural occurrences.

Human-induced climate change has caused an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events as well as gradual changes in the rainfall and temperature patterns. This is expected to continue to varying degrees under different climate scenarios for the future (based on the extent of greenhouse gas emissions). The need to respond to these changes is urgent as the climate change-related impacts are starting to emerge more rapidly than before. It is also important to understand how climate stress interacts with other existing stressors to increase vulnerability, for example compounding the impacts of both HIV/AIDS and water stress on agricultural livelihoods and food security.

Kids pumping water in Ngulumbe Village, Malawi (photo: Anna Taylor)

Kids pumping water in Ngulumbe Village, Malawi (photo: Anna Taylor)

Evidence suggests that the negative impacts of climate change are greater and expected to grow more rapidly in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. However, many of the causal linkages and feedbacks within and between the natural and social systems are still being investigated. Based on existing and projected climate risks, focus is being placed on activities that reduce the sources of vulnerability and build resilience and preparedness, to complement more traditional relief efforts. This involves considering longer time scales and using new sources of information for selecting intervention and response strategies, which requires building internal capacity, fostering new collaborations and improving communication within and between organisations.

This study provides information for the Oxfam GB Regional Centre in southern Africa to make strategic decisions on how best to support people living in poverty to adapt their livelihoods in a way that makes them more resilient to climate change, recognising that capacity to adapt is not equal among all groups and targeted support is necessary. A thorough response to climate change, which builds on existing responses to disaster risk and natural climate variability, requires focussing on two aspects:

a) increasing and improving people's ability to prepare for, and respond to, extreme weather events (such as more frequent flooding) and increasing climate variability; and

b) investing in mechanisms and systems for adapting to gradual climate change (for example, where overall rainfall patterns in a region change and a particular crop is no longer viable).

This study takes a regional perspective but focuses mainly on national and local conditions in three of the countries where Oxfam GB works, namely Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia; drawing on existing scientific and local anecdotal evidence to investigate:

  • current understandings and impacts of climatic change in southern Africa;
  • how organisations and communities are responding to these changes; and
  • the challenges and opportunities that exist in preparing for and responding to climate change impacts (institutional, technical and socio-political).

Based on this analysis, there are a number of recommendations for how Oxfam GB (and others) might contribute to addressing climate change challenges and increasing adaptive capacity in the region (at various scales). The report concludes with a proposed way forward, including some suggestions for further research. The nature of this study (rapid and external) means that the challenge for Oxfam will be to relate the findings from this report to their existing programmes, strategies and mandate and find ways to operationalise this new focus and area of work across their institutional structure.

The findings of this study show that:

1. There are many complex relationships between changes in the climate and natural environment and the impact this has on people and their livelihoods. However, not all of these relationships are fully understood yet. This remains a notable gap between the supply and demand of climate change information. Practitioners want clear statements about causal relationships and local near-term impacts on which to base their intervention decisions, while scientists largely work on trying use the new and emerging climate science to determine the implications of climatic change on biophysical, social, economic, political and cultural systems, processes and entities at a variety of temporal and spatial scales, but often in the longer term. There is a need for these different communities of practice to work more closely together to fill this gap. This includes improving science communication by developing a range of climate information products targeted at specific users (according to organisational objectives).

Severe flooding in central Malawi causing prolonged hardship and disruption of livelihoods (photo: Gina Ziervogel)

Severe flooding in central Malawi causing prolonged hardship and disruption of livelihoods (photo: Gina Ziervogel)

2. Local communities have observed changes in the climate and their natural environment that have made them more vulnerable to food insecurity, health threats, water scarcity, and disaster situations (like flooding). This requires intervention in building capacity to respond to and plan for these emerging threats. In Mozambique the focus is still largely on disaster management, having suffered immensely from cyclone events and flooding in recent years. In Malawi the impacts of flooding and droughts on agricultural livelihoods are compounded by widespread deforestation and HIV prevalence, limiting the implementation of existing coping strategies during times of crop failure and food insecurity, such as collecting wild foods and charcoal production. In Zambia communities plagued by periodic flooding and droughts have noticed a shift in weather patterns over recent decades (for example changes in the timing of the rainy season) that have negatively impacted water availability and agricultural production.

3. National and local governments are starting to address issues of climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction, but this is still in the very early phases. Much of it is externally driven and supported by donors. There is an in-country shortage of relevant climate information and of people with the skills to apply it. There are also large problems of under-resourcing and poor coordination. Regional bodies, including SADC and the AU, are starting the process of establishing groups mandated with addressing climate change, formulating policy on climate-related issues and engaging in international decision-making on adaptation financing. These are largely in the very early stages of development and progress is expected to be slow, especially in terms of translating this into action on the ground.

4. NGOs are starting to lobby on various climate justice issues, and some are already mainstreaming climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction activities into their programmatic work. However, there is a sense that the lack of government leadership and the confusing messages coming out of the scientific community are limiting progress on this. NGOs have an important role to play in progressing from climate change as an espoused priority to clear action on addressing climate change within a development context, by linking different information and actors across scales and places and testing the effectiveness of different interventions. NGOs are well placed to support local communities in documenting and voicing concerns about the climate impacts they are already experiencing and their demands for adaptation support to their national government and the international community.

5. Understanding nuances in the nature and level of vulnerability of groups and individuals is important in developing locally appropriate and effective adaptation strategies, including understanding different perceptions of risk that form the basis of response choices and patterns of behaviour. There is a need to comprehensively assess the robustness of existing initiatives in light of current and expected climate change, to ensure that developments being supported and encouraged are sustainable. This will require establishing institutional arrangements that facilitate closer relationships with national Meteorological Services and academics both nationally, regionally and internationally and/or building research capacity on these issues within the organisation (whether government, NGO or private sector).

6. There is a need and a clear opportunity to develop strategic partnerships for collaborative efforts and shared learning opportunities around climate risk management between a variety of NGOs and other actors. This requires improving communication and broader engagement with other civil society organisations, academic institutions and government. It will contribute not only to developing capacity for advocacy work but also, critically, to building capacity to supply the technical support needed to do climate adaptation.

For the full report on this, produced by SEI Oxford and commissioned by Oxfam GB, click HERE