How to tackle climate change adaptation in cities

By Sabrina Archambault 01 June 2015

A flooded street in Davao City, Philippines. How can cities protect their residents from the impact of climate change? Photo by: Keith Bacongco / CC BY

To protect city residents against the impact of climate change, elected officials cannot simply implement one-off projects — early warning systems, rain drainage infrastructure and so on — to reduce vulnerabilities.

It is first necessary to prepare real adaptation plans and then to mainstream this concern into all local public policies.

To do so, a strong and ambitious political commitment is certainly necessary, but a panoply of institutional, strategic and social factors is also crucial to ensuring that adaptation is effective. Here are three key ways to make this happen.

1. Remove financial constraints, strengthen local partnerships.

Many local authorities lack financial capacities for adaptation. Indeed, the financing for this is often allocated at national and regional levels, but still too rarely redistributed at municipal level. Consequently, it is essential to increase municipal resources, for example, by raising dedicated transfers.

But this also requires building the capacities of local authorities to manage their resources. Local authorities are involved in partnerships with international actors to make up for this lack of financing and launch adaptation initiatives: with donors, but also with nongovernmental organizations and international research institutes. These exchanges are of great benefit to them in terms of broadening their local perception of adaptation and learning from these actors’ experiences in other territories.

Other partners, such as local actors — associations, companies, research groups and think tanks — are also important for local authorities. Indeed, their knowledge of city issues is helpful for local authorities to collect both quantitative and qualitative data on the local impact of climate change. These data are almost nonexistent, yet they are essential in helping decision-makers in local authorities to direct their choices toward more resilient investments.

For example, research centers can create climate risk models tailored to the local context. Participatory assessments — thematic surveys, focus groups, interviews and so on — can be conducted by NGOs, allowing climate incidents to be reconstructed in order to identify the resilience mechanisms that need to be set up following such events.

In addition to the importance of these local partnerships, local authorities must also be attentive to the adaptation initiatives led by residents. For example, in Theewaterskloof in South Africa, some 15 local and political figures, business leaders and farmers got together to propose adaptation solutions. This initiative has been lauded by the media and authorities as being legitimate and showing great promise to bring about improvements.

Municipal authorities have a triple role to play toward such initiatives as a facilitator, relay and financier to meet a locally identified need.

2. Scale up political support, while reconciling adaptation and development.

There are still too few locally elected officials who take up the issue of adaptation. This lack of political support is due to insufficient awareness of climate issues at all levels of governance, but also to the inconsistency between the short term of elected municipal officials and the medium or long term required to implement effective adaptation projects.

Certain events — natural disasters, organization of international climate conferences in the country — sometimes contribute to raising the awareness of certain political leaders, who consequently put the issue of adaptation on the agenda. The challenge is then to sustain interest in the issue beyond these high media profile windows.

Furthermore, in some cases, such as in South Africa, adaptation sometimes has a negative connotation for the elected officials of local authorities, who consider that it hinders the economic and social development that is eagerly awaited by populations.

Yet climate change adaptation does not run counter to economic and social development. For example, reinforcing urban flood prevention infrastructure protects residents, while limiting risks of activities being paralyzed after such natural disasters. Adaptation can thereby provide an opportunity to make development more resilient and therefore more sustainable over the long term.

Reconciling adaptation and development objectives necessarily involves improving coordination between the services concerned by climate change — planning, water, risk management — in the city’s organizational structure, while seeking interactions with the other public actors — central government, state-owned companies — and private actors — companies, community groups, NGOs.

3. Establish pillars for sustainable urban adaptation.

Improving adaptation in cities for more sustainable and resilient urban development is based on three complementary actions:

● Build the financial and technical capacities — a diagnostic of the city’s vulnerability, support for decision-making, etc. — of local authorities.

● Improve coordination of the levels of intervention, actors and planning documents relating to adaptation.

● Encourage local authorities to develop participatory approaches and, more generally, consultation, to raise the awareness of populations.

This guest opinion is published in association with ID4D, an international blog for exchanges and constructive debates on development. Hosted and facilitated by the AFD, the French agency for development, ID4D is aimed at all development stakeholders.

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About the author

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Sabrina Archambault

Sabrina Archambault joined AFD in January 2008. Having held a position in Réunion, she returned to AFD’s headquarters in Paris as a climate change adaptation officer. Since 2012, she has held an operational position as project manager in the Local Authorities and Urban Development Division, focusing on Madagascar, Cameroon and Senegal. Sabrina graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in “Cities, Environment and Transport.”


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