Helping African communities adapt to climate change

A recent report by the Global Center on Adaptation shows that financing adaptation to climate change will be more cost-effective than paying for increasingly frequent and severe crises response.


Image : Global Center for Adaptation

Interest in the global response to climate change tends to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to minimise the rise in average global temperatures. Until recently, however, far less attention has been paid to adaptation, which is the other main strand of the international community’s efforts to tackle the impacts of a warming climate. The two processes are closely linked, as minimising temperature rises will reduce the amount of adaptation that is required, but there is little doubt that the latter is central to Africa’s survival in the growing climate emergency.

Adaptation seeks to  reduce risk and vulnerability to climate change, strengthen resilience, enhance well-being and the capacity to anticipate, and respond successfully to change. It can range from cities improving their drainage to cope with flooding, to mountainous areas reducing the possibility of landslides, including through comprehensive tree planting programmes and ensuring that water can flow more easily. However, it is also important to make the most of any possible opportunities that may emerge from climate change, such as promoting the cultivation of different crops where this becomes possible because of rising temperatures. 

While press coverage of adaptation has been fairly limited in the past, the process has received some attention from the international community. UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 on climate action aims to “strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries”, while the theme of climate adaptation is included in many of the other SDGs. 

Moreover, one of the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goals was to “enhance adaptive capacity and resilience; to reduce vulnerability, with a view to contributing to sustainable development; and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the goal of holding average global warming well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to hold it below 1.5°C”. At United Nations Climate Change Conference Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021, the world agreed to work towards defining a global goal on adaptation to identify collective needs and solutions to the climate crisis.

Adaptation comes to the fore at Cop27

However, it was at Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022 that the issue really came to the fore. After much debate, the summit finally concluded with an agreement to create a specific “loss and damage” fund for vulnerable countries most affected by climate disasters. It was the first time that wealthier nations had agreed to set up a fund to assist developing states with financing to cope with the damage and economic losses inflicted by ongoing climate change.

The UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell, said of the agreement: “We have determined a way forward on a decades-long conversation on funding for loss and damage – deliberating over how we address the impacts on communities whose lives and livelihoods have been ruined by the very worst impacts of climate change.”

It was agreed that a transitional committee would be established to make recommendations on the funding arrangements, with the fund itself ready by Cop28. Resilience for people living in the most climate-vulnerable communities is to be enhanced by 2030, while the UN Climate Change’s Standing Committee on Finance is to prepare a report on doubling adaptation finance. However, a total of just $230m in new commitments to the Adaptation Fund were made at Sharm el-Sheikh, so the real test will be how much funding is actually provided and how quickly it is mobilised.

Adaptation is critical because climate change is firmly entrenched and even if there were a big fall in emissions in the near future, further global warming is inevitable because of the volume of carbon and methane that has already been emitted. Sub-Saharan Africa produces lower emissions than any other region per capita – just 4% of the global total – but will be hardest hit by climate change than any other large region. The need to rein in emissions even in developing countries is growing but it is understandable that it is adaptation that is of most concern in Africa.

Impact on Africa

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cites three factors as underpinning vulnerability to climate change: exposure to hazards, sensitivity to those hazards, and capacity to adapt. Areas with the greatest exposure and sensitivity to hazards and least capacity to adapt include large parts of Africa, such as the Sahel, where temperatures are rising more quickly than the global average and a lack of rainfall is already having a profound impact on the environment. 

The recent State and Trends in Adaptation in Africa report from the Global Center on Adaptation shows that financing adaptation to climate change will be more cost-effective than paying for increasingly frequent and severe crises response, disaster relief and recovery pathways. “For Sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of action on climate adaptation of agriculture and food systems is less than a tenth of the cost of inaction: $15bn compared to $201bn per annum”, said GCA CEO Patrick Verkooijen.  

The UN’s Global Commission on Adaptation concluded that investment in adaptation generates cost-benefit ratios of between 2:1 and 10:1, with extreme weather early warning systems generating benefits up to ten times the initial cost of the systems themselves. It calculated that investment of $1.8 trillion before 2030 could create $7.1 trillion in benefits, if targeted at early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dry land agriculture, mangrove protection and making water resources more resilient. 

However, securing the required investment is the big challenge. Cop26’s Glasgow Climate Pact promised – but failed – to double-down on climate change adaptation finance for developing countries. The UN estimates required adaptation costs in developing countries at $300bn a year by 2030 but calculates that just $16.8bn a year of climate finance provided by wealthier countries to developing countries currently goes to adaptation and resilience. 

Recommended climate adaptation measures include preserving or restoring natural protection against climate change, such as wetlands and forests, as well as natural adaptation, including the creation of fire breaks in forests. They can also involve infrastructural changes, such as building defences against rising sea levels and improving existing road, bridge and rail surfaces to make them more resilient to higher temperatures and more frequent flooding. 

Designs for new infrastructure need to be more resilient according to local demands and pressures. Strategies also need to take into account existing inequalities, including with regard to age, gender and ethnic background, to ensure that those who are already among the most vulnerable are not further disadvantaged. By the end of 2022, 40 countries – mainly in Africa and the Americas – had developed National Adaptation Plans under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In the agriculture sector, which is the greatest source of employment in Africa, as well as obviously the basis of food security, soil fertility needs to be increased and water used more efficiently, including through the use of solar-powered irrigation. In addition, agricultural insurance can be provided automatically in new seed purchases and payments released automatically when data from local weather stations reveal a drought situation.

Local empowerment

A panel faces the audience at the launch of the GCA Global Hub on Locally Led Adaptation.

It is vital that adaptation policies make use of local knowledge, including on existing environmental and climate risks, or indeed are devised by local communities themselves. Local people are the best placed to identify both challenges and solutions, so power should be shifted to local stakeholders, without expecting them to shoulder the burden of adaptation. This can catalyse adaptation that is effective, equitable and transparent. 

To realise this, the GCA is supporting adaptation decisions that are made through a combination of local, traditional, indigenous, generational and scientific knowledge that can enable resilience under a range of future climate scenarios.

Eight Locally Led Adaptation (LLA) Principles have been devised by the GCA to devolve decision making to the lowest appropriate level. They help give “local institutions and communities more direct access to finance and decision-making power over how adaptation actions are defined, prioritised, designed, implemented; how progress is monitored; and how success is evaluated,” the GCA said in a statement. 

The principles include investing in local capabilities to create a long term institutional legacy without being dependent on project based donor funding; and providing patient and predictable funding that can be accessed more easily. Collaborative action and investment is placed at the heart of adaptation projects across various sectors, initiatives and levels to ensure that different initiatives and sources of funding support each other. This avoids duplication and enhances efficiencies and good practice.

In Africa, the GCA is supporting community-led data collection, profiling, mapping and planning in informal settlements in the Malawian capital Lilongwe, which are extremely vulnerable to repeated storms. Improved data will help communities negotiate more strongly with resource providers and has already enabled Lilongwe County Council to set up a Ward Development Fund to support implementation. 

In Bangladesh, GCA is working with the government and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology to empower local communities in driving forward concrete the adaptation solutions while harnessing the power of nature. In over 20 coastal towns across Bangladesh “People’s Adaptation Plans” are co-designed and connected with large scale finance of the Multilateral Development Banks.

An initiative by Rangamati Hill District Council, which collaborated with five villages where the residents were combating worsening droughts, landslide, and flash floods, won the Local Adaptation Champions Award at Cop27. The community worked to set up solar power-based safe water supply facilities and the provision of safe drinking water during crises.

The GCA Global Hub on Locally Led Adaptation was also launched in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in December to build on the South Asian country’s track record in developing local solutions. 

Emphasising the importance of putting people at the centre of adaptation action, GCA CEO Verkooijen said: “The Global Hub on Locally Led Adaptation turns words into action. Through this initiative, the Global Center on Adaptation aims to amplify the success and the experiences of Bangladesh in building the climate resilience of the most vulnerable communities.”

International funding in practice

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is one of the mechanisms of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to help reach the international community’s goals on combating climate change. It supports developing countries in limiting their greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change impacts by promoting sustainable development. The urgent needs of vulnerable countries, including many in Africa, are favoured.

Funding totalling $11.4bn has been committed to date, with $3bn disbursed already to 209 projects, including 85 in Africa. Funding is divided almost equally between emissions’ mitigation and impact adaptation, with most funding taking the form of grants or loans but 9% as equity investments and 4% as results based payments.

To take one example, $10m is being invested in increasing water security and strengthening community resilience to climate change in the Upper Athi River catchment area in Kenya, where most tributaries have either dried up or experience significantly reduced flow volumes. Interventions include hydrological and meteorological information management; installation and rehabilitation of water infrastructure; and strengthening planning and regulatory frameworks for water resource management. A total of 1.1m people are set to benefit directly and another 3.7m indirectly.

Many GCF projects are international in nature. The Acumen Resilient Agriculture Fund (ARAF) will improve climate resilience to ensure long term sustainable increases in agricultural productivity and incomes for smallholder farmers, with $56m invested to benefit farmers in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda over 12 years. It will support innovative private social entrepreneurs in micro-, small, and medium-sized enterprises by providing aggregator and digital platforms, plus innovative financial services, to smallholder farmers.

Applications to the GCF require 30 years of detailed climate data, so in December the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) launched a new initiative under the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Programme to help African countries acquire climate data, tools and methodologies to support their GCF applications. At least four proposals will be selected each year for additional technical assistance and guidance by the AfDB, GCA and partners.

Making the required adaptation is going to require large-scale, sustained investment through partnerships with African countries. As GCA CEO Verkooijen said at the third Finance in Common Summit in Abidjan: “Cop26 delivered a breakthrough with commitments to place adaptation firmly on the global agenda by doubling adaptation finance. You have one shot to deliver on this pledge. Africa can no longer wait. The Covid crisis has demonstrated that trillions of dollars can be mobilised by the international community overnight. We need to match the same bold ambition for the fight against climate change.”

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