In flooded western Zambia, communities lead climate fightback

by Jeffrey Barbee | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 June 2014 16:15 GMT

A canoe travels near landlocked Zambia's only port town, Mongu, on the edge of the Barotse plain. The plain floods for most of the year, and all movement of goods is by boat. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Jeffrey Barbee

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Giving local people power to set projects should make them more effective and resistant to corruption, experts say

NATONGA, Zambia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Barotse floodplain in western Zambia stretches into the distance, dark swamp grasses framing ripples glittering in the light of the setting sun. For half of the year this vast area of 5,500 square kilometers is flooded by the swollen Zambezi River, bringing life-giving waters to the people who live on its swampy edge. 

In the old days, when the floodwaters receded, a canal system built in the 1800s helped dry out the fertile plains and produce an abundance of food, local people remember. Since the late 1970s, however, that canal system has fallen into disrepair and now floodwater pools for months, making it difficult to farm this swampy land.

Climate change is making matters worse. The catchment area of the Zambezi River lies in central southern Africa. According to scientist Francois Engelbrecht, who runs the highest-resolution climate model of the region at the Center for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, this area is warming at a higher rate than many parts of the world, and could see stronger climate impacts.

To help address the current problems and future threats, the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) has earmarked $36 million to help make exposed communities like the ones here on the Barotse floodplain more resilient to the effects of climate change.

In large part, it hopes to do that by allowing local people to figure out what changes they think would be most effective, and providing funding to help them make them, a bottom-up approach that Zambians say should be more effective and more resistant to corruption.


An 80-kilometre drive through the scattered villages around the floodplain takes a back-breaking four hours of off-road driving. But among these most isolated people in the region, plans driven by the community are beginning to take shape.

Loza Ndondi, 53, says that when her father farmed this area in 1970s they had such an abundance of crops that they could buy cattle, something far beyond her means these days. Now the vast swamp is a clogged mass of reed that stays wet all year, making planting difficult.

She and the other villagers have explained to Justin Liyali, a project implementation manager in the Barotse sub-basin for the CIF’s Pilot Program for Climate Resilience, that if they can rebuild the canal system they might be able to return to their previous prosperity and adapt more effectively to climate change by being able to control floodwaters in the region.

The pilot programme covers 14 of the 16 districts in Zambia’s western province and some of the southern province as well. It will work to distribute CIF project grants at three levels in Zambia, attempting to help the region come to grips with flooding, drought, heat waves and even cold snaps.

Grants up to $120,000 a year are offered at the district level.  These grants aim to support roads, markets and other infrastructure investments that could support incomes and build climate resilience, based on what people in the district see as the most important needs.

The second group of grants is delivered at ward level.  Wards are groups of communities – similar to counties – that can apply for grants of up to $50,000 a year.  Elected ward councilors can seek grants for projects such as maintenance of the canals, or to bring in engineers to help maintain the many low-lying bridges that hold these far flung communities together throughout the wetland. 

The last, and arguably most important, type of grants distributed through the pilot programme are community grants. These climate change adaption grants come in two types. Up to $10,000 is available for infrastructure grants that benefit the whole community, and there are “soft grants” of up to $2,500 for groups of individuals who propose projects to diversify incomes.

The grant money, which is now beginning to flow, comes from $31 million in grants pledged to Zambia from the Climate Investment Funds. An additional $5 million loan from the World Bank to the Zambian government aims to fund rehabilitation of some of the region’s major canals over the next six years.


The effort has required some rethinking of past development models by multilateral banks, which have often taken a top-down approach to projects, officials said.

According to Akabonda Maina, the monitoring and evaluation officer for the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience in Zambia, large-scale development projects of this kind have often been imposed on communities at an international, national, or regional level. 

This programme hopes to do things differently, with pilot projects developed and directed by the local people most affected by climate change, using local solutions, he said. 

Developing and effectively implementing projects from the ground requires strong, clear and regular communication and trust between local people and project authorities like Maina, who are overseeing the plan. “Transparency and communication in the community projects is vital to our success,” he said.

“Small projects that operate at a local level are very effective, because they fly under the radar of government, civil society and other profiteering hyenas,” said Maina as he bounced in the seat of a truck winding its way deep into the sandy floodplain.

The irony that often those meant to develop communities in rural Africa are those who take advantage of them is not lost on him.

“There are checks and balances at the community level, most especially the women of these communities.  At least three out of four signatories to the community projects’ bank accounts are local women,” he said.

Communities elect signatories and representatives to their ward development committee. These committees filter project proposals and sign agreements in exchange for the grants. What should help keep the system safe from corruption, Maina said, is the full participation of the people themselves.

Many grants will employ local people. To restore a canal, hundreds of local villagers will be employed for weeks or months, he said. If the people feel that the project is not transparent or the money is not being transparently accounted for, they will have the power to stop the project, he said. 

“Transparency is the most important thing,” agreed Fine Nasilele, after hosting a ward development committee meeting under a msasa tree in Natonga. Nasilele is the head of Peoples Participation Services, a non-governmental organisation that works directly with the communities to help move their grant proposals forward.

He said that the financial books and records of the projects are filled out and kept available for public access, and that financial accounting for every project is reviewed by ward committees and presented in a meeting to every project participant, to help ensure that any questions or issues are dealt with in public.

From crop diversification to poultry keeping to grain storage, the projects seek to develop the communities’ ability to diversify their farming to help make them more resilient to climate change.


Climate change is already evident in Natonga village, families say.

Local chief Nduna Simunye sits next to his wife, who is cleaning tiny fingerlings of cassava, a tuber that is usually arm-sized. He says that in his 78 years the climate here has changed a lot, particularly since 1990.Unpredictable rainfall is leaving people hungry, he said.

The pilot climate resilience projects, started in November 2013, are still in their infancy and early growing pains are evident. The local government’s 32-year-old district planning officer, Gift Chibamba, for example, was stuck at Chief Simunye’s house, his broken pick-up truck waiting for repairs.

He said he hopes to get his truck, and the projects, moving faster. “For me the challenges are coordination. It’s okay right now, but it’s not great,” he said.

Getting a big international project working effectively with local communities and governments at a range of levels takes a huge effort, he said.

Poor communication between the district and provincial partners in the Zambian government, for example, is hampering progress to roll out the first few grants to Natonga village and others like it, he said.

“We all need to work together better,” he said.

Nasilele, the NGO coordinator who works directly with communities on their grant proposals, says speed is crucial. “I fear that climate change is getting so bad our solutions may not be enough,” he said.

Natonga village has experienced their hottest year on record twice in the last five years, but have also experienced frost for the first time ever. This kind of wild climactic variability is exactly what scientists like Engelbrecht predict for the region.

“We just don’t know what will happen,” Nasilele said.

Environmental experts in the region also say that climate resilience projects like those in Zambia may not be effective if climate changing emissions are not quickly reduced – and other projects in the region do not make clear that is a priority.

The World Bank, for instance, in 2010 loaned South Africa $3 billion to help build one of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations, just 1,500 kilometres away from Natonga. Because coal emissions are a major contributor to climate change, the bank’s support for the project – intended to reduce power shortages in South Africa – has prompted criticism and questions about its commitment to reducing climate change.

To see more images of western Zambia and its efforts to build greater climate resilience, click here.

Jeffrey Barbee is a journalist and photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He focuses on environmental issues including climate change and energy. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.

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