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Climate Change

Climate Change Adaptation in the Context of Developing Countries

Article by Sandiswa Tshaka of South African Cities Network


Climate change and the threats posed by climate variability have taken centre stage in the international sustainable development discourse. Both industrialised (developed) and developing countries continue to engage in discussions and negotiations in an effort to develop amicable solutions to the problems associated with climate change. These discussions are based on the premise to secure a global future; where risks to ecological and human life are minimised, and strategies and responses to balance the development goals with natural resources are developed.

The impacts of climate change are evidenced similarly in both developed and developing countries; and although the manifestation and magnitude of climate change impacts vary, developing countries face the greatest risk, both ecologically and socio-economically.


Context of Developing Countries in relation to climate change

Poor developing countries are more vulnerable and have lesser adaptive capacities to climate change than developed nations, due to:

  • Overpopulation (relative to current productivity, income and natural resources)
  • Debilitated ecological base (land degradation and fragmentation)
  • Over-dependence on climate-sensitive sectors: agriculture, forestry, fisheries
  • Level of economic wealth
  • Inequities in access to resources and wealth among groups
  • Weak socio- cultural (rigidity in land-use practices, social conflicts) infrastructural, financial/market (uncertain pricing, availability & lack thereof of credit), legal and governance structures
  • Technological, skills and human resource bottlenecks
  • Poor pre-existing health conditions.

According to the World Development Report (2010) of the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from natural fragility (two-thirds of its surface area is desert or dry land) and high exposure to droughts and floods, which are forecast to increase with further climate change. The region’s economies are highly dependent on natural resources. Biomass provides 80% of the domestic primary energy supply. Rain-fed agriculture contributes some 23% of GDP (excluding South Africa) and employs about 70% of the population. Inadequate infrastructure could hamper adaptation efforts, with limited water storage despite abundant resources. Malaria, already the biggest killer in the region, is spreading to higher, previously safe, altitudes.


Local Governments and Climate Change

The hosting of the seventeenth Conference of Parties (COP17/CMP7) by South Africa in 2011 presented an opportunity for local governments, especially of the developing world, to raise the issue and importance of ‘forward-looking adaptation’ clearly and strongly. Forward looking adaptation is about “bouncing forward” not “bouncing back”; accepting that the world as we know it will change permanently.

The rationale for integrating adaptation into development strategies and practices is underlined by the fact that interventions required to increase resilience to climate variability and change generally further development objectives. Adaptation calls for natural resource management, buttressing food security, development of social and human capital and strengthening of institutional systems. Such processes, besides building the resilience of communities, regions and countries to all shocks and stresses, including climate variability and change, are good development practice in themselves.

In this regard, history was made in Durban, South Africa when 114 mayors and other elected local leaders representing over 950 local governments from around the world, came together in the signing of the Durban Climate Change Adaptation Charter (DAC), a political commitment to strengthen local resilience to climate change. The DAC was signed under the auspices of the ‘Durban Local Government Convention: adapting to a changing climate – towards COP17/ CMP7 and beyond’ event which ran in parallel to the UNFCCC COP17/CMP7. The Durban Local Government Convention was organised by the South African Cities Network (SACN), the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, eThekwini Municipality and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.


Why focus on adaptation

  • Firstly, no matter how robust mitigation measures are, a certain degree of climate change is inevitable due to historical emissions and the inertia of the climate system
  • Secondly, in Africa, for example, mitigation opportunities are linked to more sustainable land and forest management, to cleaner energy generation, and to the creation of sustainable urban transport systems thus furthering development agenda; however, effects of these mitigation measures may take several decades to manifest
  • Thirdly, adaptation measures can be applied on a regional or local scale, and their effectiveness is less dependent on actions of others
  • Fourthly, adaptation besides addressing the risks associated with changes in the climate in future, typically reduces risks associated with current climate variability.


A concerted effort globally which should translate to national plans is what is needed in combating the effects of climate change. Some of the issues that can be tackled are discussed below:

Policy and Governance Issues

Countries need to develop Adaptation Policy Frameworks e.g National Adaptation Programmes of Action including continuing with adaptation processes; assessing future climate risks; assessing current vulnerabilities; scoping and designing adaptation programmes etc. The issue of main-streaming vulnerability and adaptation to climate change into sustainable development planning is also critical. The main advantage of such climate change adaptation mainstream into sector policies, programmes and projects, is that it expands the range of opportunities for reducing vulnerability and also enables impacts to be addressed in a more economically efficient manner.

This mainstreaming and integration needs to take place at different levels e.g

  • Local level: municipal planning processes and community level strategies, covering areas such as risk assessment practices, community services, emergency preparedness programmes, seed banks etc
  • Sectoral level: impacts on agriculture, water resources, forestry, fisheries, coastal zones, urban planning, human health, and disaster risk reduction, need to be built into the sectoral planning process
  • National Level: government planning and budgetary processes
  • Global level: integrated unequivocally into the MDGs, country assistance strategies of international financial institutions, aid initiatives etc.

Ecological sustainability and Economic Impact Issues

A diversity of natural capital is needed to cope with climate change and to ensure productive agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. For example, crop varieties are needed that perform well under drought, heat, and enhanced CO2 levels. The cost of not doing anything is huge to the environment and the country’s GDP’s. Studies show that up to USD100 billion is required for adaptation measures associated with the 2°C trajectory by 2030.


Call for Action

The time for action is now - the World Development Report warns that the average temperature on Earth has already warmed by close to 1°C since the beginning of the industrial period. As such a more than 5°C warming that unmitigated climate change could cause amounts to the difference between today’s climate and the last ice age, when glaciers reached central Europe and the northern United States. The speed and magnitude of change could condemn more than 50% of species to extinction, while sea levels could rise by one meter threatening more than 60 million people and $200 billion in assets in developing countries alone.

At a global level, initiatives like a ‘climate insurance’ should be established. Such an initiative would commit funds to support climate relief or insurance-type approaches in vulnerable countries for losses resulting from both climate change and climate variability. Nationally and in the South African context, all three government spheres must work together for an effective implementation of the National Climate Change Response Policy. This is not forgetting the important role to be played by other non-state stakeholders e.g business, civil society etc.

Planning is the critical ‘word’ especially for municipalities. Municipalities should prioritize climate change into their city development strategies and integrated development plans. This will ensure allocation of appropriate resources into the budgetary processes in order to facilitate action at local level.

The platform Local Government Program for Sustainable Development created as a partnership program by the SALGA, SACN, DEA and the Department of Cooperative Governance is one of the models which South Africa is trying out to have a continued dialogue on pertinent issues that affect the local government sector such as climate change.




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