Climate change hits Africa hard
Africa finds itself on the frontlines of the disruptions to human life and the natural world induced by climate change. The continent is warming up faster than other world regions – the drylands that comprise three-fifths of Africa, for instance, are warming at twice the global average. With this, Africa’s water security, already fragile, is coming under increasing stress.
A rapidly increasing population, the unprecedented pace of urbanisation, high dependence on monsoons and rainfed agriculture, limited resources to spend on disaster prevention, and highly populated flood-prone zones, are but some of the many elements pressuring water-resource and disaster-risk management in Africa today. Without enhanced resilience to the grievous economic damage caused by natural disasters (which extends to their long-term effects on human capital), many economic gains made by African nations in recent decades will be reversed, and human distress and conflict greatly exacerbated.
The need for adaptation
As such, nowhere is a well-thought-out and integrated plan of adaptation more urgently required than in Africa. A recent Africa-specific report, State and Trends in Adaptation 2021 (STA21), prepared by my organisation, the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), in consultation with leading experts and organisations across the continent, provides a detailed adaptation blueprint in the realm of water.
In light of the pressing needs of Africa’s development agenda, the report shows how the continent’s policymakers can harness the synergies between adaptation, growth and development in devising and implementing water policies. In many cases, adaptation offers the most cost-effective way of building climate resilience while reducing inequality, supplying green alternatives to expensive grey infrastructure, and increasing participation of people and communities in water policy. Adaptation can harmonise the areas of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which are often transacted independently of one another. These findings are being used in the development of projects under the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program , a US$25bn Africa-led programme implemented by the Africa Development Bank and GCA to galvanise climate-resilient actions through a triple-win approach to addressing the impacts of covid-19, climate change, and the economy.
One good example detailed in the STA21 report is the creation of a Community Environment Conservation Fund for Water Resource Management in northern Uganda. Under this plan, 100 participating villages focused on a programme of improving local water sources and degraded land, restoring wetlands that act as flood buffers, and increasing household income through nature-based micro-enterprises. As a result, household income in the participating villages nearly doubled over the duration of the programme, while the adaptive capacity to tackle climate change also increased. Such efforts need to be backed by greater funding so that they can be implemented at scale.
Prevention is better than cure
But the financial impact of natural disasters is enormous and more needs to be done to ensure better preparedness for future events. The damage to infrastructure in Mozambique and Zimbabwe caused by Cyclone Idai in 2019 is estimated at over US$1bn. Despite this reality, at present only 1% of the budgets of African nations, on average, is devoted specifically to DRR interventions.
Positively, though, a detailed set of principles for disaster preparedness has been laid down by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015) and all African nations have committed themselves to its goals. The global agreement sets a target for measures to be implemented globally to protect development gains from the risk of disaster by 2030. As of 2020, 18 African countries had a comprehensive national DRR strategy in place and seven more are in the process of developing or validating one.
Early adaptation to climate change has significant economic benefits. The figure below shows that every dollar invested in DRR generates between two and 24 dollars in return. A dollar invested in weather and climate information systems generates between four and 25 dollars in return. Adaptation makes eminent economic sense.
Figure 2: Adaptation benefit-to-cost ratios for a selection of options from africa-specific studies
Strength in numbers
As disaster risk management, particularly of floods, is still at a nascent stage in Africa, international coordination and cooperation – a key goal of the Sendai Framework – greatly improves the quality of DRR, allowing countries to pool knowledge and resources and share best practices.
Such cooperation is also the most logical way to implement water resource management in Africa because the continent has the largest number of transboundary river basins globally. Over 90% of Africa’s surface water is in river basins such as the Nile, Niger, Senegal, Zambezi, Congo, Volta and Lake Chad. These riparian systems cannot be managed piecemeal; nor are they amenable to the climate adaptation strategies of a single nation. Rather, they require the bringing together of multiple stakeholders in order to foster peace, stability and sustainable development and the achievement of Blue Peace.
Good examples of transboundary water management at present in Africa include the Niger Basin Agreement, where nine countries have come together to develop the Sustainable Development Action Plan (SDAP) and Climate Resilience Investment Plan (CRIP). Such initiatives are also in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 - and the SDG target 6.5 on water resources management in particular - devoted to the sustainable usage and sharing of water.
Throughout human history, it is access to fresh water that has brought people together and served as the foundation for human flourishing and security. In a time of crisis, the management of water resources requires an “everything is connected” mindset to achieve a sustainable Blue Peace. When done well, adaptation offers the most productive use of limited resources to achieve such a goal.