Adapting to save the future

When the uMgungundlovu district municipality realised in the late 2000s that changes in temperature and rainfall patterns were already evident within its borders, it began a long process of firstly understanding the local impacts of climate change and then establishing plans to cope with the problems that were expected to emerge.

The uMgungundlovu District Municipality Adaptation Project, aimed at building resilience in the uMngeni catchment area, is now regarded as a leader in testing and establishing adaptation practice and is one of South Africa’s flagship climate change programmes. 

“We were confronted with increasing disasters, which our municipality had no resources to address,” says manager of municipal functions Riaz Jogiat. “We are a poorly resourced district with our income generated from small towns, so we are unable to invest adequately in core functions like disaster prevention and mostly can only provide some relief for people affected.”

Losses due to climate change reduce economic success as well as people’s livelihoods and jobs. For example, just a single frost day in June last year, following an abnormally dry winter, resulted in the loss of 50% of the sugar crop in one area. Impacts included fewer job opportunities, reduced workload at sugar mills and reduced foreign export.

“Climate change is going to force us to look at everything with a different lens,” says Jogiat. “If we want to tackle adaptation, the old way of doing things has to change. And we should be supporting the many initiatives that have proved that, if you invest in people and build from what they need to adapt to a changing climate, the outcomes are bound to be better.”

uMgungundlovu is a water factory for KwaZulu-Natal, with about 50% of the water drunk in the province flowing from the district. It is intensely farmed with crops and livestock, including 20 million chickens, and commercial tree plantations cover a quarter of its surface area.

Many people living in the municipality are already vulnerable because of factors such as poverty, poor land use, housing close to rivers, or challenging conditions for farming. 

The region is susceptible to fire and drought, which are expected to increase in frequency due to climate change, and its high rainfall is also a contributor to climate-related complications because of the hazards associated with increased flooding.

One aspect of the municipality’s adaptation project is to develop early warning systems for extreme rainfall conditions. Firstly, local level rainfall projections, coupled with monitoring systems on the ground, will be used to predict flash flooding. This will enable the municipality to warn people in vulnerable areas to evacuate before conditions become dangerous.

The success of these early warning systems is also dependent on developing close working relationships within communities so that information reaches everyone who is affected. This part of the project will involve a partnership with Umgeni Water, which already has an early warning system for dam management.  

Jogiat and his team are also drawing on the experiences of other countries such as Brazil, which has customised responses in favelas (informal communities). “It’s a journey to learn how to work with early warning systems, because we’ve never had the threats that the Brazilians have had. So we’re learning,” he says.

Fire management and warning are a second aspect of reducing the risk of disaster. The timber industry already has a sophisticated system of cameras that informs managers of fire problems as they are developing, but it does not cover communal areas. Often villages and homesteads burn down long before authorities are even aware that there is a fire. uMgungundlovu is looking at a partnership with the timber industry to add cameras in the Ingonyama Trust area so that the municipality’s firefighters have access to real-time data and can get to villages before fires do. This system could also assist with flood warning by keeping tabs on stream flow.  

A key aspect of the project is focused on increasing the resilience of smallholder farmers. Tafadzwa Mabhaudi of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of agriculture, earth and environmental science co-ordinates the agricultural component of this work, with Professor Albert Modi leading the project.

Previously it was considered desirable to shift agriculture onto a commercial scale, but this has not always yielded good results. According to Mabhaudi, a number of studies are showing that smallholders are well placed to boost food security, “so the focus is now shifting back to smallholder farming and doing farmer-led research, so that farmers themselves define where they want to be”. 

The agricultural component is active in three areas. In Swayimane, the team works with small-scale farmers to upscale their farms using what he calls climate-smart agriculture. A number of measures are being tested, such as alternative crops, improving resilience of cropping systems and intercropping. 

The term “climate-smart agriculture” is sometimes used to refer to genetically modified crops, which many communities reject because the systems prevent them from harvesting seed. In addition, these crops often require external input such as fertilisers and pesticides that make farming expensive and reduce water and soil quality. 

The uMgungundlovu project does not use genetically modified crops because the team is interested in developing local resources and promoting “neglected and under-utilised” crops.  This includes crops that are commonly used elsewhere in Africa, such as the bambara groundnut, amadumbe (cocoyams), a number of African leafy vegetables, and legumes such as cow peas and pigeon peas.

“Most are very resilient to climate change and extremes like drought,” says Mabhaudhi. “We proposed a strategy of reintroducing some of these crops and cultivating them as part of existing systems.” 

In peri-urban Vulindlela the project focuses on livestock, with the underlying intention to improve the health of the grasslands. Crops for both people and livestock are also being introduced, specifically those that show resilience to rain-poor conditions.

At Nhlazuka, an area where people are living on steep slopes and are vulnerable to both heavy rainfall and prolonged drought conditions, the project is working to establish “climate-smart” food gardens. One of the challenges communities face is wild animals and livestock marauding the fields, which means that fencing becomes important for food security.  

The practical agricultural work will be linked to crop and climate modelling, and training in using available decision support tools. Mabhaudhi says: “If smallholders have access to the same weather information that commercial farmers use, it could help them respond timeously and make good decisions about things like what crops to plant when, or how to manage fertiliser use.”  

The uMgungundlovu adaptation project is funded by the Adaptation Fund, set up to receive 2% of the revenue generated by the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.  With the failure of carbon markets and ongoing delays in implementing the second commitment period of the protocol, the fund’s future is unclear. But pledges such as Germany’s €50-million late last year could be considered an indication that the fund will be kept afloat, and commitments to countries and projects met.  

South Africa’s National Implementation Entity (NIE) for the fund is housed in the South African National Biodiversity Institute. It has access to a total of $10-million, of which about $7.5-million is allocated to the uMgungundlovu project, and about $2.5-million to small grants in Namakwa and Mopane.  

Mandy Barnett, director of the NIE, says the small grants project is a mechanism to help dispense funds to organisations that are responding to climate change at community level. 

She says the small grants aspect is “innovative”, and considered to be the fund’s first enhanced direct access project, putting South Africa in a position to share lessons with other countries. The small grants projects are managed by SouthSouthNorth and Conservation South Africa.  

In approving projects for funding, Barnett says, one of the factors the NIE is looking for is integrated activities, so that a number of different stresses are addressed in the same project. The uMgungundlovu project, for example, combines work in early warning systems, agriculture, and built and ecological infrastructure, as well as learning and tool-sharing components.  

A great part of reducing people’s vulnerability to climate change involves improving levels of development, says Barnett. “There’s a difference between how adaptation is defined at an international level and what happens at a local level. At a local level you can’t separate out development from the climate change adaptation space,” she says, “But there are clear climate drivers, so this is also not about development work as usual.

“A typical example is that you will see cows grazing in the grasslands, and when the rains come late the cows graze maybe a month longer and eat down the grass more, so when the rains do come there’s more soil washed away and more degradation.”

Says Jogiat: “The reality in the world now is that our development future will be determined by the extent that climate change impacts on us, and what we do to protect and mitigate and adapt.  I don’t think any institution remains a stranger to that.”

For uMgungundlovu, he says, the secret will be to expand adaptation beyond this initial project.

Rehana Dada
Rehana Dada has over 49 followers on Twitter.

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