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Urban adaptation - it’s not just about cities

The dying of Gaborone Dam was the most evident sign of climate change for urban dwellers
When we think of the impact of climate change on cities we often think of floods washing away homes, deadly landslides, raging fires and taps running dry.

Adapting to climate change in urban areas often looks like mayors announcing new city adaptation plans, communities planning for disasters, or public awareness campaigns to reduce water consumption.

But urban adaptation is about more than just what happens inside cities. It’s about the way cities connect and interact with the areas around them. It’s not always obvious how those interactions work, and how adaptation in one area affects another in often unpredictable ways.

The Mahanadi River Delta in India is formed by a network of three rivers draining into the Bay of Bengal, covering approximately 13,000 square kilometres and home to some 10.6 million people. The Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA) programme’s recent findings on adaptive strategies of residents found that exposure to monsoon flooding, tropical cyclones and erosion are compelling inhabitants to migrate out of the delta. When residents have few economic opportunities, climate impacts can sometimes be the catalyst for deciding to leave.

Most of the migrants out of the delta are men between the ages of 21 and 30, and many move to the nearest large urban centre, Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha state. As mostly men migrate, they often leave behind women as the heads of households. Migrants also send money back home, while working towards better economic and educational opportunities in the big city.

But the city of Bhubaneswar faces its own climate challenges. Heatwaves may not conjure the powerful images of a flash flood or cyclone, but they are dangerous, sometimes deadly, particularly for urban residents who are construction workers, homeless or otherwise unable to escape the heat. The state of Odisha suffered a historic heat wave in 1998, with more than 2,000 people losing their lives. Bhubaneswar was the hottest town in the state of Odisha in 2012, reaching a high of 46.7 degree Celsius. In cities, the crowded built environment coupled with more people, creates a “heat-island”, meaning cities are several degrees hotter than their surrounding areas.

How we define successful adaptation to climate change should take into account both the rural and urban dimensions. In this case, a new migrant who has just arrived in Bhubaneswar could be confronted by an entirely new climate hazard to which they are even less equipped to adapt. While the households who remain in the delta are missing family members, critical labour, and are reliant on the migrant’s earnings.

In 2013, the city of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat state, India, adopted and started implementing the first Heat Action Plan in South Asia, supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan increases preparedness and resilience to extreme heat through raising heat-health awareness, boosting capacity amongst health professionals to recognise and treat heat illness, issuing early heat alerts, and ultimately saves lives. It uses information shared on billboards, advertisements and more recently through WhatsApp, Facebook, and text messages.

In May 2015 temperatures again soared across India. A roadway in Delhi melted and more than 2,300 lives were lost across the country. Yet after implementing the heat action plan, the city of Ahmedabad, which is home to over seven million people, had fewer than 20 heat-related deaths. By 2017, the story of Ahmedabad’s success had led to 17 cities and 11 states across India adopting similar heat action plans, Bhubaneswar included.

Successful adaptation strategies like city heat plans can have positive knock-on effects on rural delta households who rely on the resilience of migrants in the city. Climate stresses like floods lead to more people migrating from rural delta areas to cities, placing more strain on cities already struggling to adapt. Whether or not migration is a successful adaptation strategy depends on both sides of this rural-urban picture.

But links between cities and their surrounding areas are not just limited to the people who move between them. Cities have complex relationships with rural, peri-urban and agricultural areas as well as smaller towns and cities in terms of competition for natural resources, which is an important variable in how we adapt to climate change.

In Nairobi, low-income households rely on cheap, readily available charcoal to cook with. But Kenya loses 10.3 million cubic metres of wood from its forests every year from firewood and

charcoal consumption, a major contributor to the country’s 0.3% annual deforestation rate. Forest ecosystems are critical for helping people to adapt to climate change, providing reliable water, preventing soil erosion and contributing to food security.

Kenya’s forests store water during the rainy season and release it slowly, ensuring there is water during dry periods and protecting the economy, particularly the agricultural industry, against shocks to water availability.

Deforestation costs the economy an estimated 5.8 billion Kenyan shillings  ($68 million) a year, according to a 2012 report by the Kenya Forest Service and the United Nations Environment Programme.

Not only is charcoal production and consumption leading to deforestation, but as forests recede, the price of charcoal rises, putting additional pressure on low- income households reliant on the fuel. The price of charcoal in Nairobi has doubled in the last three to five years, leading to more households using kerosene as a cheaper alternative. Both kerosene and charcoal have negative health impacts, particulary for women and children who spend more time cooking.

In Kenya 16,566 deaths annually are attributable to indoor air pollution according to the Global Burden of Disease 2016 study, and its estimated that thousands more lose their lives due to unquantified impacts and other harms like kerosene burns, fires and poisonings.

There is an innovative business model for distributing bioethanol being launched in Nairobi.  This alternative cooking fuel, which is cheaper than charcoal, avoids the negative impact on health and the environment.

A recent study by Dalberg found that if bioethanol replaced charcoal and kerosene in Nairobi alone, it could result in 1,500 avoided deaths in three years. Bioethanol use has a low risk of fires and burns, and has the potential to save up to 30 trees per household annually. It can be produced from molasses as a by-product of local sugarcane production.

Households in Nairobi may be better off with bioethanol, and it may be one of the most important innovations for protecting Kenya’s forests. But the story doesn’t end there. The charcoal industry in Kenya employs approximately one million people, often in informal jobs. Urban markets provide significant sources of cash in rural areas where there are few other sources of income.

Destroying these jobs could take away one of the only safety nets some rural communities have. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad for rural areas; scaling up local production of bioethanol could absorb thousands of rural jobs, providing formal employment and boosting income for smallholder farmers.

It follows that government regulators need to understand that changes in urban markets can have positive or negative impacts in rural areas. And there may be winners and losers, unless government steps in to support those who are potentially negatively affected in the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient society.

If the transition is going to be inclusive and just, adaptation cannot be divided neatly into “urban” and “rural”. We know that people, markets, value chains and governance structures cross these imaginary boundaries in complicated ways. Local governments alone cannot always manage these interactions. That’s why national government has an important role to play in encouraging better integration across policy sectors and geographic divides.

Rather than looking separately at urban and rural areas, we have to start looking at the links between them. In South Africa, rural and urban areas are often seen as competing for limited public resources and investment.

And while it’s true that sometimes positive impacts in one area can have negative implications in another, it is often the case that more resilient cities make more resilient rural areas too. Before we implement, we need to understand who the winners and the losers are and how to mitigate any negative impacts. When we start to see rural and urban areas as part of a connected system, we can make better decisions for both.

*Charlotte Scott is with SouthSouthNorth, a non-profit organisation operating from Cape Town which assists governments, the private sector and research institutions in understanding the economic, social and environmental choices that climate change presents. The article is part of a series the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project – University of Cape Town, has produced for publication in Mmegi


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