How do you manage climate risk? Ask those on the frontline

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 April 2017 11:53 GMT

A woman gets water from a well dug in the Black Imfolozi River bed, which is dry due to drought, near Ulundi, northeast of Durban, South Africa, Jan. 20, 2016. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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"People aren't interested in rainfall projections for the next 100 years - they want to understand what's happening to them now”

More than 20 million people are at risk of dying from starvation within six months, the U.N. World Food Programme warned several weeks ago. Persistent armed conflict and prolonged droughts have crippled the economies of Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and northern Nigeria, where communities are suffering the worst hunger.

That means we need to change the way we look at climate risk, Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, told a meeting in Nairobi this week.

Experts at the gathering called for the U.N.’s climate science panel to change the way it works, and examine how climate risk plays out locally and interlinks with other factors like the economy and health

“Rising levels of food insecurity are not just due to a lack of rainfall, but also because people are vulnerable to conflict,” van Aalst told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Kenya. “Climate is only one piece of a much bigger puzzle.”

He urged scientists and policy makers to focus on what matters to people in highly vulnerable places. “They aren’t interested in rainfall projections for the next 100 years - they want to understand what is happening to them now,” he told the event convened by the Climate Centre and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


Debra Roberts, chief resilience officer for the South African city of Durban and co-chair of an IPCC working group on climate adaptation and vulnerability, sees a growing gap between local climate action and the scientific work of the U.N. panel.

“Most of the time, our assessment just doesn’t find its way down to the communities who need it most,” she said.

Van Aalst said knowledge needs to be organised “in a way that is helpful to people and allows them to make better decisions”.

Roberts called for a “value chain of actors to take these messages down so they can be refined and interpreted in the local context”. “Think of the IPCC as a stone we throw into a pond: What other organisations form the ripples?”

International NGOs, for example, can play a role as intermediaries between governments and the population, she added.

But the exchange of information must be two-way, she emphasised, with knowledge also being passed upwards by those working on the ground.

Ultimately it is local people who must manage climate risks - and they can help fill gaps in understanding as well as map out solutions, said van Aalst.

The Paris climate change agreement acknowledges its vision to curb global warming cannot not be achieved by national governments alone, he noted, but requires a “climate action agenda”, bringing in local governments, NGOs, businesses and individuals.


Roberts underlined the need for a better understanding of local contexts, both in rural areas and cities.

In Durban, for example, the poorest and most vulnerable residents live far from jobs and services, and are particularly exposed to environmental degradation such as worsening coastal erosion and water shortages.

“That is something policymakers cannot ignore when designing urban policies and trying to tackle climate risk,” she said.

Cities – which are responsible for an estimated three-quarters of planet-warming emissions, according to the U.N. Environment Programme – are key to bridging the gap between local climate risk and global policy decisions, she said.

But making that happen will take time, she added, not least because local communities tend to see themselves as recipients of expert knowledge rather than as “generators of knowledge themselves”.

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