How can we adapt to the impacts of climate change?


UNESCO, Nairobi, Kenya

Adaptation refers to actions that countries, communities and companies can take to limit the threats climate change poses. In the long term, climate change can only be tackled by mitigation – steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – and the faster this happens the less adaptation will be needed. But even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, the planet would continue to warm because greenhouse gases persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. This makes adaptation today all the more urgent. Adaptation actions range from large- scale infrastructure projects to small-scale community based initiatives. It includes research and action, information and changes to livelihoods, behaviours and business practices. The UN Environment Programme estimates that the costs of adaptation in Africa could reach US$350 billion per year by 2070.


The Adaptation Fund

The Adaptation Fund was created under the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol and it generates finance by charging a two per cent levy on all transactions made through the protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. But with only about US$157 million in the fund as of December 2013, many other sources of finance will be needed to support adaptation across the developing world. 
The fund is the first one that countries can — if they choose — access and spend without needing to apply through a third party such as the UN Development Programme. To do this a country must first have an accredited National Implementing Entity. Senegal became the first country to access the fund in this way when, in 2010, the Adaptation Fund’s board approved its proposal for direct access to funding to tackle coastal erosion caused by rising seas. 
Other projects the fund has supported include:
• Promoting climate resilience in the rice sector in Madagascar;
• Developing agro-pastoral shade gardens for poor rural communities in Djibouti;
• Building resilient food security systems in Egypt;
• Reducing vulnerability of coastal communities in Tanzania;
• Enhancing community resilience to the impacts of climate change on food security in Mauritania; and
An adaptation programme on water and agriculture in Eritrea.

Adapting agriculture

Adaptations that can increase food production and minimize crop failure despite extreme and less predictable climate will be crucial. They include: 

• Changes to crop and livestock varieties that tolerate more variable and extreme weather. In Zimbabwe, farmers have begun to use a new variety of maize that matures faster than traditional varieties, requires less water and produces two cobs instead of one. If one cob fails, the other still has a chance to develop.

• Improved systems for predicting climatic events and warning farmers of extremes. In Ghana, farmers are installing rain gauges to record of monthly rainfall and help to predict longer-term trends. Niger plans to improve its climate observatory and early warning systems, and ensure that better information about the climate reaches farmers and others.

• Changes to ways of storing and transporting food. In parts of Malawi, famers have switched from storing grain in ground-level granaries to using smaller harvest bags which they can easily move to higher ground in the event of flooding.

• Changes to ways of managing water supplies, including collecting and storing rainwater.

• Index-linked insurance schemes that compensate farmers and pastoralists when certain climatic events occur, such as a pre-determined number of consecutive days without rain.

Diversification of livelihoods to include a greater variety of crops, or a mix of agriculture with other activities.

Rearing ducks instead of chickens as they can survive floods, and planting elephant grass along river banks to slow flood waters.

• Mozambique plans to reinforce rural roads and rehabilitate irrigation and drainage systems to withstand weather extremes and coastal flooding.


In 2010, the International Food Policy Research Institute analysed actions that ten African nations (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda) have taken, or planned to take, to adapt agriculture to climate change.95 All ten countries included plans to use more drought-tolerant and early- maturing crops. All ten also planned to increase their use of renewable energy, as a way to adapt to depleting sources of biomass energy upon which most African nations depend heavily. Eight of the ten nations also highlight rainwater harvesting – either with dams or on a small-scale. Five other strategies appeared in more than half of the plans:

• Conserving and restoring vegetation in degraded and mountain areas;

• Reducing overall livestock numbers through sale or slaughter;

• Cross-breeding livestock or acquiring smaller livestock (such as sheep or goats);

• Adopting traditional methods to conserve forests; and

• Using community-based management programs for forests, rangelands, and national parks.

Large-scale investments in infrastructure like dams, irrigation and levees can provide major benefits by helping countries limit flooding, provide water for agriculture, and generate electricity if constructed and managed properly. At the opposite scale, the local knowledge of smallholder farmers attuned to their environments can also provide low-cost solutions to major questions about water management.

Genetically modified crops and climate change 

A plant’s genetic properties can determine if a crop will survive a drought, flood or extreme heat. Farmers have selectively bred crop varieties to exhibit favourable qualities since the dawn of agriculture over 10,000 years ago. Genetically modified (GM) crops are varieties that scientists have developed by altering the structure of their genetic material (DNA) to make them exhibit specific new traits. They were first grown commercially in 1996 and by 2012, farmers in 30 countries grew them on more than 170 million hectares.

The advantage of genetic modification is that new traits can be introduced into crops far faster and with more precision than by traditional plant breeding techniques. To achieve this, scientists either remove or deactivate genes from a crop’s existing DNA, or insert new genes into the DNA. The new genes can come from plants that could normally breed with the modified crop or from a very different species (which can be another plant, a bacterium or even an animal). In the context of climate change, GM crops of interest include drought-tolerant varieties and salt-tolerant varieties, which can withstand coastal flooding, and drought-tolerant varieties.

Critics of GM crops fear that they will promote corporate control over agriculture. Others say GM crops could pose threats to human health or the environment, but there is no strong scientific evidence to support those claims. There is also little evidence that GM crops will be able to boost yields in a changing climate, on the scale needed and at the price farmers can afford to pay. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for instance, doubts that there is a GM solution to drought tolerance: “Drought tolerance is a complex trait that can involve many different genes, corresponding to different ways the plant can respond to drought; genetic engineering can manipulate only a few genes at a time. And in the real world, droughts vary widely in severity and duration, affecting the crop at different stages of its growth, so any engineered gene will be more successful under some drought conditions than others.”

Adapting towns and cities

Globally, more people now live in cities than in rural areas, and African nations are urbanising fast. The UN Population Fund reports that most new urban population growth will occur in smaller towns and cities with populations under 500,000, which have fewer resources to respond to the challenges of climate change.

Ways to adapt urban centres include:
• Creating new buildings and infrastructure to increased risks;

• Building seawalls to protect houses against coastal erosion, and dikes to carry water away during storm surges, as in coastal towns in Senegal.

• Planting mangrove forests to limit coastal erosion and protect communities from rising seas and storm surges as in Kenya.

• Working with vulnerable people and settlements to find solutions that serve them;

• Preparing for disasters.

• Creating networks of waterways to absorb sudden influxes of seawater

• Using floating schools and other buildings in flood-prone communities as in the Masako slum of Lagos, Nigeria.1

• Planting trees and roof gardens to reduce temperatures, provide shade and increase food security.

• Building multi-storey shelters to protect coastal communities during tidal surges and cyclones.

Harvesting rooftop run off to boost water supplies in informal settlements, as in South Africa.

• Installing storm drains and raising walls around landfill sites to limit the risk of floods spreading diseases, as in Djibouti.

For people living in informal settlements, the relationship between city governments, community organization, and individuals is vital to adapting to climate change. Adaptation is all about the quality of local knowledge and of local capacity and willingness to act combined with support provided by higher levels of government and international agencies.

The degree to which cities adapt to the anticipated disruptions of climate change is going to be a major determinant of how humanity adapts because cities are now where most people are. Looking forward, there is a growing economic rationale that the resource efficiency of cities point the way to sustainability and climate resilience. High population density typically means lower per person cost of providing infrastructure and basic services and may also help to minimise people’s effects on local ecosystems if land use is concentrated. However, cities draw together many of Earth’s major environmental problems: population growth, pollution, overconsumption, resource degradation and waste generation. Paradoxically, the efficiency of cities may also hold our best chance for a sustainable future.


Adapting to urban flooding in African cities

Urban floods spread disease, interrupt schooling, and destroy houses, assets and livelihoods. Meanwhile, droughts and floods in rural areas have forced many people to migrate to towns and cities. Many of these new arrivals live in hazardous places, building their homes on floodplains, steep, unstable hillsides or on tidal flats. This can aggravate the flood risk by obstructing natural channels through which flood waters could seep away from urban centres. Efforts to adapt are underway in cities that include Accra (Ghana), Freetown (Sierra Leone), Kampala (Uganda), Lagos (Nigeria), Maputo (Mozambique) and Nairobi (Kenya). These include planting trees along river banks and using sand bags to limit the entry of water into urban areas, digging canals and trenches to manage the flow of floodwaters, and making sure waste does not block waterways and drains. These are mainly individual coping strategies at local community level. Support to local communities from governments and national disaster reduction organisations enables larger scale activity such as: using sand to elevate vulnerable areas; building dykes or trenches to divert water from houses; protecting structures with waterproof recycled materials; installing tanks on roofs to collect rainwater; and relocating housing to higher, more secure areas.

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