Climate risk and resilience in southern African cities 

Southern Africa is facing a climate emergency. The region already experiences periods of severe droughts and floods, influenced by the ‘El Niño Southern Oscillation’ (ENSO) cycle. Now climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather and climate events such as heatwaves. The knock-on impact is huge. Changes to temperature and rainfall patterns in Southern Africa increase water scarcity, challenge food security, worsen health and threaten the survival of millions.     

Climate change poses even more of a danger in urban areas. While heatwaves, droughts and flooding pose continued hazards to urban areas, many policymakers are unable to implement effective risk reduction strategies. Although awareness of climate change is increasing, there is a lack of relevant climate information and knowledge about what strategies they should put in place to reduce the risks. Informal urban settlements also have their own challenges, such as the provision of clean water and sanitation. 

The Future Resilience for African Cities And Lands (FRACTAL) project ran from 2015 to 2021, bringing together an international team of partners, including the Met Office. It aimed to advance methods of engagement and co-produce accessible, timely, applicable climate services needed by decision-makers operating in southern African cities.   

The project also strived to advance scientific knowledge about regional climate responses to human activities. Its researchers and stakeholders worked together to develop relevant and useable climate knowledge to help urban decision-makers imagine and implement resilient development pathways. 

FRACTAL was coordinated by the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town. It was part of the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) programme – jointly funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) (formerly the Department for International Development (DFID)) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). 

The project initially involved scientists working in three target cities of Lusaka (Zambia), Maputo (Mozambique) and Windhoek (Namibia) and building relationships with people from the city organisations such as water ministries and community groups. These cities were chosen for various reasons including because they were deemed to be places involving greatest human security risk, rapid urbanisation and national decision-making.  

The FRACTAL team developed a ‘learning lab’ approach to identify the problems the cities were facing. The learning labs focussed on developing relationships and generating ‘safe spaces’ where partners were able to share and integrate their knowledge through engaging and productive activities.

Together, the city partners and researchers identified key climate issues for each city, with a particular focus on water-related issues: such as water supply, flooding and sanitation. The partners worked together to define and provide relevant information and decide how best to communicate issues relating to water and the impacts of climate change including potential food, water and power shortages.  

Scientists working in FRACTAL developed a series of infographics and supporting materials to help decision-makers to understand future risks and consider how to adapt to them. They included climate information based on three potential storylines of the future, along with areas of impact, societal consequences and potential responses.  

Despite the first funded phase of FRACTAL coming to an end, researchers are still working with the three city governments and other relevant organisations to maintain resilience building activities and consider how the work can be sustained in the long-term. In particular, the follow-on FRACTAL-Plus project has sustained relationships in Lusaka with a focus on urban flood resilience. The project has been funded by NERC and led by the University of Bristol together with the University of Cape Town, the Met Office and other organisations involved in FRACTAL. Learning from FRACTAL has also been used to inform some of the work of the FCDO-funded Asia Regional Resilience to a Changing Climate (ARRCC) programme, led by the Met Office. 

Chris Jack, Deputy Director, Climate System Analysis Group at University of Cape Town, said: “Although FRACTAL was designed to explore climate risks affecting urban communities, the actual starting point was to better understand the real-world problems facing cities, covering both climate and non-climate issues, such as access to energy and water. In doing so, the project showed that uncertainty in the future climate does not prevent progress towards climate resilience. Rather, progress can be made by bringing researchers and city decision-makers together to explore solutions that address short-term and long-term issues. Climate change information was introduced later to think through alternative futures and consider how urgent development problems may be solved while also building climate resilience. FRACTAL has helped city decision-makers improve urban development policy and inspire different communities to take a more inclusive approach to climate change adaptation.” 

Dr Joe Daron of the Met Office said: “Working on FRACTAL has demonstrated the value of deep and sustained engagement to achieve long-term climate resilience outcomes. Through working closely with other researchers and city decision-makers, we have built trusted relationships and learned about the complex realities facing rapidly urbanising cities in southern Africa. The project has encouraged and equipped us to go beyond traditional and siloed roles as ‘climate experts’ to be part of inter-disciplinary teams grappling with different types of knowledge to collectively address climate risks.” 

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