Sub-Saharan African countries are failing to plan for climate change

Article published origionally at the Guardian

Image: Ninara

Failure to factor climate change into long-term investment and planning risks leaving countries across sub-Saharan vulnerable to droughts, floods, heatwaves and rising sea-levels

Communities around the world are feeling the impacts of climate change already, but many of the most severe effects will be felt in the decades to come, particularly from mid-century onwards. Nowhere is this more apparent than in sub-Saharan Africa which will be one of the hardest hit regions of the world.

Right now, African countries are busy investing in infrastructure and development to help support current economic growth. Many of these long-lived investments – such as ports, large dams, and social infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools – will most likely last well beyond 2050. But by then, Africa’s climate may look quite different to what it does today. Factoring climate change into long-term investments and planning decisions is essential for supporting climate-resilient development – but it’s not happening.

New research, coordinated by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), shows that governments and businesses across sub-Saharan Africa are failing to consider long-term climate information in their investments and planning decisions. This includes studies from Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Ghana and Mozambique. The worst case scenario is that poor use of climate information could lock societies into patterns that make them highly vulnerable to droughts, floods, high temperatures or sea-level rise in the future.

Why do decision-makers have this blind spot? First and most importantly, other challenges such as eradicating poverty and promoting access to primary and secondary education are extremely pressing, forcing decision-makers to think and act in short time frames.

Secondly, long-term climate information is often ill-suited to informing local economic, social and environmental contexts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Knowing what the average temperature in 2050 will be for rural Nakuru County, Kenya, is of little practical use. What decision makers really want to know is how higher temperatures are likely to influence water resource availability or crop yields: outcomes that affect local people most. But what decision makers ask for is not often technically possible as there is a lack of information that combines knowledge of future climate with other disciplines such as hydrology or ecology.

There is also a communication mismatch between the producers and users of climate information. The information delivered to decision-makers is often overly technical and easy to misinterpret. Likewise, decision-makers’ needs are rarely fed back to climate scientists.

So what should be done to address this?

Perhaps the most obvious starting point is enhancing the quality and quantity of African climate observation networks and scientific capacity in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only will this help to establish information about past and current climates, it will also help to ‘ground-truth’ climate science by generating local knowledge, perspectives and expertise. Also, these people will be able to act as intermediaries among scientists, policy-makers and practitioners and help with presenting climate information in a format that decision-makers can act upon.

Spending time and resources to understand the local political context, and engaging with local partners, can also help funders and knowledge brokers to communicate climate information more effectively. Above all, funding for climate-related programmes in sub-Saharan Africa needs to shift away from short funding cycles, rigid structures and targets, and donor-driven agendas, and move towards longer-term partnerships between international and national partners.

Importantly, climate information has to be taken up by the people and policies that matter most. Adaptation to climate change still falls under the mandate of ministries such as environment or natural resource management, which are relatively weak in governments. It is only when influential ministries, such as those responsible for economic growth and development, have the incentive and responsibility to act on climate-related issues that effective action occurs.

A large part of this is engaging with high-level ‘champions’ to drive the climate agenda forward. These champions are often vital in gaining legitimacy for climate change discussions and overcoming political obstacles to the use of climate information. In Rwanda, president Paul Kagame’s strong backing for national action on climate change, alongside involvement from relevant ministries, led to climate change being at the heart of the country’s development planning processes.

Lastly, the research raises a number of ethical challenges. Is it justifiable to push for a long-term development agenda in places where addressing current concerns, such as meeting basic economic needs and promoting the wellbeing and development of local communities, is a higher priority? Should we be pushing a long-term agenda where there is little immediate appetite or demand? Sadly, few donors, development agencies or governments are willing to address these questions.

A failure to promote honest and transparent communication of climate information can therefore only result in a further push-back from local decision makers, continuing to put vital infrastructure and long-term development in Sub-Saharan Africa at risk of future climate change.

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