The Urbane Ecologist

Finally, Opportunity for Optimism: Climate Change Adaptation Experiments in Africa


Climate change adaptation in urban environments is becoming an increasingly valuable enterprise, as mitigation efforts have failed to effect meaningful differences in anthropogenic global environmental change. Many cities around the world are undertaking adaptation “experiments” in an attempt to adapt to the complex physical and social effects of climate change. While cities in the Global North, such as New York and Copenhagen, have attracted the most attention, the experiments of groups in African cities—where a very large, rapidly increasing, and highly vulnerable portion of the global human population lives—show initiative and innovation, and need to be encouraged and accelerated.

The population of Africa could more than double between now and 2050, from 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion, accounting for more than half of the world’s population growth. By 2100, the continent’s population could reach 4.2 billion, with several countries—Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Niger— having populations of over 200 million. Nigeria may even surpass China as the second most populous country in the world by the end of the century.[i]

Most of the people that constitute this population growth are being born in or moving to huge swaths of informal settlements surrounding cities, thus contributing to unprecedented and untidy urbanization. They are negatively affected by a variety of climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, extreme events, health effects, temperature changes, energy use alterations, and water resource changes. The hardships associated with living in informal settlements—lack of land tenure, poverty, poor governance, water scarcity, inequality, conflict, and poor infrastructure—make vulnerability to climate-related risks an everyday fact of life for slum-dwellers. Alarmingly, recent research indicates the Earth is warming even faster than previously anticipated and is likely to be 4° C warmer by 2100. This would make life extremely difficult for people living in the tropics, and could potentially cost Africa about $350 billion a year to adapt its farming and infrastructure. Because the magnitude of imperative adaptation measures could further destabilize communities already frequently on the brink of catastrophe, it is crucial that the efforts of groups attempting to adapt to climate change are supported and strengthened.[ii]

Climate change adaptation is a low priority for most countries and particularly in the Global South. In a world where the majority of people are neglected and do not know whether they will eat, have a roof over their head, or even be alive the following day, even in the absence of a disaster, climate change seems to be a very distant and vague problem. International and national policy-makers have also been more focused on mitigation. However, we are at a crucial point in world history, where two general circumstances have coalesced to create an environment that has spurred innovation. First, there is mounting anger with international climate negotiations, which have been ineffective, have served cities in the Global South particularly poorly, and have not held the actors primarily responsible for climate change accountable. Moreover, the failures of current systems of democratic society and capitalism have led many groups to seek a fundamental restructuring of global order. This has resulted in many climate change “experiments”, where communities attempt to address social problems within the context of climate change impacts. This unique state means that there are virtually no “best practices” that can be reliably used as a template in similar places or situations; rather, communities can attempt to adapt by inventing or emulating “promising practices”. Before launching into climate change experiments in several African cities, it is useful to recognize that they come in three general flavors.[iii]

Some experiments are simply “development in a more hostile climate”, and they are usually initiated by large governing organizations, such as the United Nations or national governments. These experiments are technically ambitious or large-scale; for example, they involve improving infrastructure, establishing emergency funds, or improving societal preparedness for extreme events. They are not particularly radical in rhetoric—in fact, they often reframe climate change adaptation as “risk management” pertaining to energy security and disaster relief. Making adaptation a part of other governance initiatives and tidily framing it in palatably mainstream terms can popularize and achieve adaptation goals, but it can also allow climate change to be obscured by competing priorities and can prevent addressing the drivers of vulnerability.  Sometimes initiatives confuse adaptation with coping, which addresses only immediate symptoms of vulnerability and can even undercut future opportunities for development.[iv]

Other experiments see climate change as an opportunity to create a more resilient society that accepts risks as something to live with. In cities with governance problems characteristic of the Global South (such as the absence of governments to can act strategically or collectively, or poor infrastructure), these experiments can help address basic needs for food, water, sanitation, and shelter, and can thus provide a foundation upon which to build resilience. While these initiatives, often undertaken in partnership between community groups and larger organizations, can surpass coping, they, too, do not challenge the fundamental causes of vulnerability.  They also rarely achieve long-term and investment-heavy changes, such as the creation of infrastructure systems.[v]

Some grassroots experiments attempt to tackle the drivers of vulnerability by addressing how governance is applied or how power is balanced in society.[vi] Although many of these experiments are perceived as small projects that are not “real” governance and cannot be scaled up, they can be successful.[vii]

Climate adaptation initiatives need strong political will, government support, new resources, and donors to achieve durable success. Admittedly, these things are more often missing from African cities than they are present. Nevertheless, there are some inspiring examples that we now turn to. If there is any recurring theme in these experiments, it is the high willingness of multiple groups to collaborate, indicating a strong desire to actively participate in guiding the world to a more sustainable future.[viii]

Durban’s adaptation efforts are the most famous in Africa and over the past few years, the city has managed to shift from relying on international donors to funding itself with municipal resources. Its Municipal Climate Protection Program arose as part of the city’s goal to become the continent’s “most livable city” by 2020. The program began in 2004 by assessing local impacts of climate change, such as higher temperatures, heavier rainfalls, and coastal erosion. The health, water, and disaster management agencies then proposed adaptation strategies appropriate to their respective sectors. The Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department oversees the implementation of these agencies’ plans on a quarterly basis and has taken further initiative in approaching issues such as community-based resilience, food security, green roofs, and biodiversity. The Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department regularly monitors the implementation of these agencies’ plans.[ix]

Dar es Salaam has many active projects that aim to increase the resilience of poor residents, whose difficult living environment is made more stressful by a range of climate threats—such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, water scarcity, and erratic electricity generation. Although most projects do not aim explicitly for climate change adaptation, they nevertheless allow residents to adapt to situations that will become increasingly common as climate change worsens. For example, the city has been practicing the relocation of groups of people—a process that will be repeated as land becomes unusable—with the Chamazi Resettlement Project. Because the city’s main port was planning to expand, it became necessary to evict the 36,000 people living in its proximity. In response, the Tanzania Urban Poor Federation, the Centre for Community Initiatives, and Homeless International helped 500 families start a saving scheme. This allowed the residents to collectively purchase a 30-acre alternative piece of land for $24,000, even in spite of the fact that many of them were tenants and originally ineligible for compensation plans that were limited to property owners. The residents were also empowered to negotiate with city authorities over various elements of the plot’s design.[x]

Half of Mozambique’s urban population calls Maputo home, and 70% of those people live in slums. Urbanization was so rapid that the City Council’s maps became outdated and officials could not make informed decisions when slums began to encroach on dangerous areas. To set the foundation for proactive adaptation planning, the Council and UN-HABITAT established an environmental management information system (EMIS). This system analyzes flooding, monitors mitigation efforts, and guides planners on potential locations for development by integrating various types of data and accounting for the different roles of distinct actors and activities. The system was introduced to and improved by the community—academics, private-sector representatives, members of civil society, and development organizations—in an attempt to promote a unified perspective of sustainability in the city. The EMIS has so far helped Maputo rehabilitate mangroves, which are critical to buffering storms, and has been linked to other data management projects, such as the World Bank’s “Pro-Maputo” scheme.[xi]

In Kampala, the City Council launched an experiment in two neighborhoods that regularly experience flooding, overflowing sewers, and contaminated water as a result of changing weather. In an attempt to merge grassroots knowledge with that of experts and to determine whether perceptions of urban life under the threat of climate change were gendered, sex-segregated and mixed-sex groups of residents took walks through their neighborhoods and discussed their impressions of their environment. While women noticed how weather conditions restricted their mobility and thus their ability to fulfil their domestic and commercial responsibilities, men tended to emphasize the need for infrastructure and services in commercial locations. Men also promoted the establishment of local environmental management committees comprised of residents, NGOs, and city authorities that would encourage sustainable behavior change. Women supported the development of urban agriculture, which has been banned in Kampala since 2007, but which could give them another source of income, develop “green space”, and allow composting. Most encouragingly, the experiment increased the men’s appreciation of how women’s lower socio-economic status makes them more vulnerable to climate change.[xii]

In Mombasa, the Majaoni Youth Development Group was launched in 2003 by several young people who saw the need to address several matters, including: providing youth with employment, sustainably managing mangroves, cooperating with the community, and promoting ecotourism. Although the group’s plans were ambitious, its structure enabled it to achieve many of its goals and led to strong support from the community. They built a boardwalk across the mangrove that not only made it easier to monitor but opened the area to eco-tourism, adding a source of revenue. The group employed youth and barred older members from leadership positions, and paid members based on the number of mangrove seedlings they planted or how many beehives they took care of (as bees were needed to pollinate the mangroves). In addition, the group established productive fish and prawn ponds, which allowed them to sell fish and shellfish to tourists. It also welcomed as many women as men, and the ratio of Christian to Muslim members reflected the nation’s religious composition. Decisions were made collectively, and leaders were elected. Furthermore, they had a charter that included a protocol for conflict resolution, and they documented their finances. Unfortunately, the group relied on financial contributions, and I cannot find any internet-based evidence that helps determine whether or not this group still exists. However, documentation until 2011 indicates that this group functioned well and achieved many of its goals. Furthermore, the lack of internet information does not indicate the demise of the group, but may simply indicate a barrier to internet use.[xiii]

Piecemeal responses can be very discouraging, given the need for urgent action on climate change. However, the ubiquity of adaptation experiments around the world and particularly in Africa, which grapples with so many developmental challenges at once, points to a growing recognition of this need. These projects function as testing grounds and nest themselves in an overall response to climate change, allowing changes at one level to create opportunities at another, perhaps even leading to the eventual development of “best practices”. While a single given set of actions cannot solve all problems, the growing number of experiments is worth celebrating.


Note: An important starting point for me was Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), available at I tried my best to find more recent information on the experiments I found the most interesting, but limited information was available to me over the internet. If you would like to share more information about this with me or direct me to helpful sources, please contact me or leave a comment! 


[i] United Nations, “World Population Projected to Reach 9.6 Billion by 2050 with Most Growth in Developing Regions, Especially Africa—says UN,” press release (New York: 13 June 2013), available at

[ii] “Most of the people…urbanization,” from Naison D. Mutizwa-Mangiza et al., Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011 (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), available at Climate change impacts from Hunt, A. and Watkiss, P., “Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation in Cities: A Review of the Literature,” Climate Change, vol. 104, no. 1, pp. 13-49, 2011, available at For cost estimates of flood losses in major coastal cities, see Stephane Hallegatte et al., “Future Flood Losses in Major Coastal Cities,” Nature Climate Change, vol. 3, pp. 802-806, 18 August 2013, available at The following publication offers a survey of climate change impacts in many African cities: Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), available at Hardships in informal settlements from T.J. Wilbanks et al., “Industry, Settlement, and Society,” in M.L. Parry et al., Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 357-90. 4° C warmer by 2100 and $350 billion a year from Steven C. Sherwood et al., “Spread in Model Climate Sensitivity Traced to Atmospheric Convective Mixing,” Nature, vol. 505, pp. 37-42, 2 January 2014, available at; Damian Carrington, “Planet Likely to Warm by 4C by 2100, Scientists Warn,” Guardian Climate Change Blog, 31 December 2013, available at; and John Vidal, “Cost of Climate Change Adaptation Could Destabilise African Countries, UN Warns,” Guardian Global Development Blog, 20 November 2013, available at Destabilized communities also from Vidal.

[iii] Low priority and focus on mitigation from Harriet Bulkeley, Cities and Climate Change (New York: Routledge, 2013) and Berrang-Ford, L. et al., “Are We Adapting to Climate Change?”, Global Environmental Change, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 25-33. Reasons for anger with climate negotiations from M.J. Hoffmann, Climate Change Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with a Global Response after Kyoto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Capitalism, democracy, and “experiments” from Harriet Bulkeley, Cities and Climate Change (New York: Routledge, 2013) and Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castán Broto, “Government by Experiment? Global Cities and the Governing of Climate Change,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 361-375, July 2012, available at “Best” and “promising practices” from Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), available at

[iv] “Development in a more hostile climate” from Nicholas Stern, Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity (Oxford: Bodley Head, 2009). Rhetoric, making adaptation part of other initiatives, obscuring priorities, and confusion with coping from Harriet Bulkeley, Cities and Climate Change (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[v] T. López-Marrero et al., “From Theory to Practice: Building More Resilient Communities in Flood-Prone Areas,” Environment and Urbanization, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 229-49. Mark Pelling, Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation (London: Taylor and Francis Books, 2011). R. Leichenko, “Climate Change and Urban Resilience,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 3, pp. 164-8. Naison D. Mutizwa-Mangiza et al., Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011 (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), available at

[vi] Harriet Bulkeley, Cities and Climate Change (New York: Routledge, 2013). [vi] M.J. Hoffmann, Climate Change Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with a Global Response after Kyoto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[vii] Harriet Bulkeley, Cities and Climate Change (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[viii] “Climate adaptation…success” from Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), available at

[ix] Debra Roberts, Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Institutionalizing Climate change within Durban’s Local Government, (Washington, DC: Cities Alliance, 2010), available at Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, “Adapting Durban: Actions for a ‘Climate-Smart’ City,” PowerPoint presentation (EThekwini Municipality: 14 February 2009), available at Climate Impacts: Global and Regional Adaptation Support Platform, “Municipal Climate Protection Programme (MCPP),” webpage (unknown location and date), accessed December 24 2013), available at  Debra Roberts and Sean O’Donoghue, “Urban Environmental Challenges and Climate Change Action in Durban, South Africa,” Environment & Urbanization, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 299-319, 6 September 2013, available at Maria Gallucci, “6 of the World’s Most Extensive Climate Adaptation Plans,” InsideClimate News, 20 June 2013, available at

[x] D. Dodman et al., “Tomorrow is Too Late: Responding to Social and Climate Vulnerability in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,” for Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011 (2011), available at Chamazi Resettlement Project, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, available at

[xi] J. Ensor et al., “Building Adaptive Capacity in the Informal Settlements of Maputo: Lessons for Development from a Resilience Perspective,” in T.H. Inderberg et al., Social Adaptation to Climate Change in Developing Countries: Development as Usual is Not Enough (New York: Routledge, 2013), available at “Initiative: Adaptation to and Mitigation of Climate Change in the City of Maputo: Preliminary Assessment,” available at Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), pp. 53, available at

[xii] Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), pp. 16, available at Buyana Kareem, “The Gender Dimensions of Climatic Impacts in Urban Areas: Evidence and Lessons from Kampala City, Uganda,” in William G. Holt (editor), Research in Urban Sociology (West Yorkshire, England: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011), available at

[xiii] Robert Goodwin et al., Promising Practices on Climate Change in Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2011), pp. 53, available at Majaoni Youth Dev. Group Project Blog, accessed on 3 December 2013 at One Young World, “Majaoni Youth Group,” webpage, accessed 4 December 2013, available at


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