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Building urban resilience to climate change in Africa

For the launch of the chair on climate risk reduction, held by Professor Mark New at the University de Cape Town, focus on a global challenge: building climate-resilient cities. Environmental Challenges
Apr 6, 2017

In November 2016, the COP 22 conference in Marrakesh reminded us of Africa's vulnerability to climate change. Although the continent only produces 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the food security of millions of Africans and their access to drinking water are now under threat—particularly in cities where the infrastructure is already being put to the test by the rapid urbanisation. To deal with this challenge at the interface of population shift from rural to urban areas and environmental stresses – such as climate change, knowledge and expertise must now be pooled together to support African cities with their resilience strategies.

"Our planet cannot afford an urban semi-revolution."

"If we want to raise the profile of 21st century cities, no territory must be left behind," said Debra Roberts straightaway. She is Head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit at eThekwini Municipality the local government entity responsible for planning and managing the city of Durban in South Africa. In 2015, Debra joined the scientific committee of the AXA Research Fund which awarded the first "AXA Chair in African Climate Risk" to the University of Cape Town. Mark New, a recently-arrived professor at this university, is the first holder of the Chair.

In South Africa, the effects of climate variability have been experienced for decades by the people who live there, with growing impacts on biodiversity, water supplies, agricultural production, often through extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heat waves. "These dangers have always existed, but global warming has and will continue to change their frequency and intensity. As yet, little research has been done on how climate change is altering these disturbances, and their effects on the continent," explains Mark New. He adds, "The aim of the AXA Chair is to fill in the gaps in our knowledge by financing a new research programme on the African climate risks every five years."

Developing climate knowledge in Africa

Professor Mark New will therefore be analysing the impact of human activity on these climate disruptions, to quantify how their risk is changing. His research team will in parallel study the influence of human activity in the field, by comparing land management methods and their consequences for the sensitivity of the food and water supplies to climate extremes. Eventually, the Chair intends to bring together the brightest minds on the continent through a multi-disciplinary research programme drawing on climate expertise, statistical science, hydrology, agricultural sciences and economics. The aim is to train a new generation of researchers in the understanding of climate disruptions which hamper the development of African countries – since many of the “at risk” food and water systems provide the life support to urban areas.

"The AXA Research Fund is a key component in our cooperation with the scientific community," says Philippe Derieux, Director of new business models at AXA P&C (an AXA business line dealing with property damage insurance and civil and professional liability insurance), whose teams create simulation models and climate risk analysis tools. "The Fund enables us to develop this knowledge in our future-oriented fields today and to share it with society on a wider scale." Since its launch, the AXA Fund has already supported 492 basic research projects. For advice on how to allocate its funding, the Fund has surrounded itself with an international scientific committee composed of researchers in earth sciences, social sciences, medicine and development sciences, as well as environmental practitioners like Debra Roberts who provide their empirical experience. "These individuals expand our understanding of the world. They help us fuel public debate and guide our actions better," Philippe Derieux continues.

Increasing resilience in the most vulnerable communities

Today, there are forty-seven cities in Africa with over a million inhabitants. By 2030, experts predict that half of the African population will be living in these cities, where the bulk of the economic activity is already concentrated. "It is vital to assess the impact of climate instability on the infrastructures that will be accommodating these populations in order to support them with their resilience strategies and protect their development," explains Philippe Derieux. "Now, as we commit to city resilience, our mission is inconceivable without a commitment to emerging countries." Climate experts at AXA Global P&C are constantly in touch with the research community to expand and share their knowledge. For Philippe Derieux, this collaboration between the industrial community and researchers is vital for developing groundbreaking modelling and risk analysis tools. "The better we understand the risks, the better we can protect those exposed to them," he adds. "Some African cities are experiencing economic hardship, but they are also extremely dynamic places where new partnerships can be tried out between the private sector and local governments.

Debra Roberts
Head of Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit in the eThekwini Municipality, South Africa

To address climate change, all the players involved must collectively agree on the value of natural resources in our economies and recognise that they are assets which must be protected.

AXA is therefore participating in a parametric insurance programme covering several African countries to ensure farmers' economic sustainability when there are poor harvests. This new insurance model is based on weather and yield performance data and enables those insured to be paid compensation automatically as soon as an event occurs which affects the harvests. A protection for the agricultural production that contributes to strengthen food security in the cities in a context of climate change.

Enhancing the status of traditional knowledge

Although scientific research provides analysis and modelling tools for anticipating the dangers, Debra Roberts also reiterates the need "to listen to the traditional inherited knowledge of local people to understand the inner workings of our ecosystems and local communities." In Durban, significant areas of land are managed by traditional Zulu communities who live in permanent contact with nature and are the first to witness the disruption in the pattern of the seasons. "A key part of our work must now be to focus on preserving this traditional knowledge, and on the ways to incorporate it into the resilience strategies we are putting in place," maintains Debra Roberts. Yet many of these communities are already living in extremely fragile economic circumstances. For Debra, reducing the impact of climate change on the communities therefore begins by improving the living conditions of the least fortunate. "Planning and managing cities has long been considered the governments' responsibility," explains Debra Roberts. But we now know that all players must rally around this challenge—local governments, civil society and private sector players. We must find new forms of city governance which invite everyone to the decision making table."

Activating public and private cooperation

Amongst these hybrid initiatives, Debra Roberts mentions the reforestation programme set up by the eThekwini Municipality and the Wildlands Conservation Trust. In exchange for the indigenous trees that they grow, tree planters receive credit notes which they can use to buy everyday goods and services in 'Tree Stores', such as food, clothing, meal vouchers, driving lessons and building materials for houses. "Improving living conditions is crucial for developing community resilience," continues Debra Roberts. "With this programme, we are creating an economy based on a new value chain that develops the city's natural resources, and at the same time initiating forms of cooperation between local governments, NGOs and businesses."

Philippe Derieux
AXA Global P&C

Collaboration between the private sector, researchers and local governments is today crucial for supporting African cities with their resilience strategies.

Debra's teams are also working on issues of land governance between the Municipality and large land owners. "We are working on a pilot project with three companies to create a model enabling them to optimise the biodiversity offsets required to mitigate the impact of their development activities. This looks to secure the creation, protection and management of three large ‘offsite’ nature reserves which provide the possibility of creating jobs for the local communities. "With this initiative, we want to transform the traditional development model into a tool for sustainable development and resilience," explains Debra, who has plenty of other ideas for guiding the social investments of major groups in sustainable development activities. According to Debra, insurers now need to address a fundamental challenge: "How do you insure the watershed of a stream or river, a wetland area or a forest?" But before that, Debra thinks that "all the players involved must collectively agree on the value of natural resources in our economies and recognise that they are assets which must be protected."

With three decades of experience in the field within local governments, Debra Roberts remains very modest in the face of the vagaries of climate and politics. "One thing's for sure," she tells us. "We won't be able to apply the same strategies everywhere. But if we start to consider natural areas as key components of e urban infrastructure, and if we create jobs connected to this ecological infrastructure, we shall have the first keys for developing the resilience of tomorrow's cities."

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