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National climate change adaptation plans must empower local communities

Botswana is yet to finalise its climate change policy
Though climate change is a global problem, the impacts are felt locally. How each community responds to increasing climate hazards, changing rainfall patterns and other impacts of climate change may be different.

Take, for example, Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa. As Cape Town residents recently rallied to stave off so-called ‘Day Zero’ – when city officials would have turned off all the taps as a result of a multi-year drought - Johannesburg had the opposite problem: coping with flooding caused by heavy rains.

Environmental scientists have been telling us for decades that climate change will make weather patterns more variable and less predictable, and that it will make extreme weather, like floods and droughts, more frequent and more intense.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 represents an important international commitment to reduce greenhouse gases and prevent the worst effects of human-induced climate change. But even if we do achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels, climate change is still going to affect economies, lives and livelihoods around the world, and societies need to prepare for these impacts.

The stakes are high, and the costs are already escalating. The insurance company, Swiss Re, estimated that natural disasters in 2017 cost USD306-billion globally. These costs can be expected to continue rising as climate change amplifies such disasters.

Increasing risk and uncertainty in weather patterns have significant implications for progress in key sectors, including agriculture, water and health. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises these essential linkages between sustainable development and climate resilience, creating a further imperative for countries to develop national-level visions for how they will adapt to climate change.

Recognising this need to build resilience to climate change threats, the government of South Africa is currently engaged in a process to prepare a national adaptation plan, consulting concerned groups on what actions should be a priority in order for the country to adapt to climate change.

Part of this process involves trying to understand how women and men in rural areas and in cities are experiencing the impacts of increasing risk and uncertainty in weather patterns.  Changing weather patterns and increasing extreme events create ongoing challenges in meeting basic needs and securing livelihoods, particularly for the poorest people.

Within communities and even within households, there are differences in capacity to respond to climate change. How wealthy you are, where you live in a community, how you earn income and provide food for your family, what type of house you live in – all of these factors influence people’s ability to protect their lives and livelihoods from the negative impacts of climate change.

And it gets more complicated – for some people, social inequalities create additional barriers in managing risks and adapting to the changes they face. Your ethnicity, your age, whether you were born male or female, and even your marital status can affect how you experience the impacts of climate change.

For example, recent research in South Africa found that female-headed households where the woman is unmarried are more likely to experience food shortages than those households headed by a married woman whose husband has migrated. Even in households where two adults are present, there are differences in how women and men experience climate variability and change over time.

Another study highlighted the issue of increased workload for women when, for example, water is scarce, a key impact of changing rainfall patterns and increasing drought.

At the same time, men, the traditional breadwinners, face psychological stress when weather extremes impede their ability to

provide for their families. These are just examples of the socio-cultural dynamics that these must be taken into consideration for adaptation efforts to be successful.

Addressing social and gender inequalities is a key challenge for countries as they engage in national adaptation planning processes. One key strategy for ensuring that national plans are grounded in local realities is to engage sub-national actors, including local both government and civil society organisations.

These actors are much closer to communities and generally have a better understanding of local vulnerabilities and what is needed to build resilience to climate risks. They can create critical linkages between national decision-makers and vulnerable women and men, to ensure that their voices are heard in adaptation planning processes. They can also channel information to the community level, to ensure that the people who most need to adapt are able to make the best decisions possible to manage risks and adjust to changes.

A national plan for adapting to climate change is therefore much more than a government strategy. To be effective, these planning processes must involve and empower local organisations and individual women and men who are on the frontlines of climate change.

Luckily, South Africa is not alone in trying to tackle this challenge. Governments around the world are learning about how to engage stakeholders in adaptation planning processes.

They’re learning how to prioritise the needs of farmers, fishers and vulnerable communities. They’re learning how climate change affects men and women differently. They’re learning how to ensure that local actors have the information and resources they need to build resilience and adapt to climate change over time.

We’re seeing more and more countries moving from planning to action. Though each country’s adaptation needs are unique, there are many lessons that can be shared between countries on how to move from planning to implementation, on how to partner with communities and citizens, on how to find the money to pay for adaptation, on how to monitor and evaluate their adaptation efforts, and more.

This week South Africa will host Adaptation Futures 2018, which will bring together over 1200 specialists from governments, NGOs, businesses and research organisations who are advancing the knowledge base on how to prepare for climate change.

We all need to strive to meet the Paris Agreement’s ambition to limit the rise in the global average temperature by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. But we also need to recognise that even if all countries drastically lower their emissions, some degree of climate change is now inevitable.

A robust national adaptation planning process is essential for all countries if they wish to adequately prepare their citizens for the impacts of climate change.

Many valuable lessons on how to adapt to climate change are already emerging. Country governments need to look internationally at what works and what doesn’t work in adapting to climate change.

Adaptation Futures 2018 will be an important opportunity to learn from one another to prepare our home communities and countries for the global challenge of climate change. 

*Angie Dazé is a climate change adaptation researcher with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which hosts the secretariat of the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) Global Network. This article is part of a series the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project – University of Cape Town has produced for publication through Mmegi

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