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FEATURE: From planning to action – lessons from Durban’s adaptation response

Durban is well known for its environmentally pioneering work in fields such as Local Agenda 21, urban biodiversity and ecosystem services, and more recently climate change adaptation. Being an early adopter and pioneer of new ideas has become a hallmark of eThekwini Municipality’s approach to improving environmental sustainability. Key to the city’s success has been a ‘learning-by-doing’ strategy that has allowed the municipality to explore new methods and concepts through structured and programmatic action. A case in point has been the development of Durban’s Municipal Climate Protection Programme (MCPP).

Work on the MCPP began in 2004 and focused initially on understanding the local impacts of climate change. This impact assessment process highlighted that local level climate change would pose a significant challenge to the attainment of the city’s development goals. This concern led in turn to an early prioritization of climate change adaptation. The adaptation workstream of the MCPP has focused on three broad areas, namely municipal and community level adaptation and a range of urban management interventions.

The municipal interventions started with the preparation of a headline adaptation strategy for key municipal sectors. This preliminary work is now being deepened through the development of detailed Municipal Adaptation Plans (MAPs) for high-risk sectors such as water, waste and disaster management. Work on the MAPs has challenged the commonly held belief that a cross-sectoral approach is the most effective method of adaptation planning. Local experience suggests that high level integrated planning is unlikely to prompt meaningful action (in high pressure local government contexts) and that more detailed and focused sector level work may be more successful in encouraging adaptation action. Durban’s headline adaptation strategy was unsuccessful in encouraging any new adaptation focused action, while the development of the sectorally focused MAPs has been far more successful in building champions and encouraging action.

Other important municipal adaptation interventions include the work being undertaken to make the city’s 75 000 ha open space system ‘climate smart’. Key concerns in this regard are Durban’s location within a global biodiversity hotspot and the acknowledged significance of ecosystem services to the city’s long-term resilience. An initial attempt at bioclimatic envelope modelling highlighted the limitations of inadequate data (in terms of quality and coverage) and has prompted the development of a long-term research partnership with a local university to address this shortfall.

At the community level, various approaches to understanding community level (as opposed to city-wide) risk and vulnerability have been tested. There has been a strong focus on understanding food security issues due to the projected negative impact of climate change on dryland maize yields (a key subsistence crop in the city). This resulted in field trials being undertaken to identify potential replacement staple crops. The outcomes of the trials and improved climate impact assessment data have, however, indicated that the effect on maize productivity was probably overstated and future climate impacts could probably be managed through changes in planting dates and the provision of irrigation. This has highlighted that the understanding of local level impacts is an evolving science, and local government planning will have to become more flexible and responsive to deal with these changing inputs.

Community reforestation projects have also been piloted as a means of achieving adaptation and mitigation gains, while at the same time ensuring socio-economic upliftment of poor communities. These types of interventions are particularly significant given the high levels of unemployment in the city and demonstrate how the concept of climate change adaptation can be mainstreamed through its association with critical new emerging concepts such as the ‘green economy’.

The urban management interventions featured in the adaptation workstream include a pilot green roof project (to test the local impact of green roofs on temperature reduction and stormwater runoff), sea level rise modelling and the development of a Green Guideline Series (booklets focusing on water, energy, landscaping and waste management) as part of the local greening programme for the 2010 Fifa Soccer World CupTM. These have all been critical in catalysing debate about the possibilities of new urban typologies and new forms of urban management. It has been critical to translate this transformative thinking into practice through pilot projects (e.g. green roof, greening of the World CupTM Stadium, etc.) in order that their potential impact can be more readily understood.

Mainstreaming has also been a critical concern of the MCPP. To this end a GIS based tool has been developed to facilitate the incorporation of climate change considerations into the city’s spatial planning. This process has highlighted the difficulty of developing easy-to-use, accurate, local level analytical tools. Also significant has been the incorporation of the need for a Municipal Climate Protection Programme into the city’s core planning document, the IDP (the integrated development plan). Related institutional outcomes include the creation of a new, dedicated climate protection branch and networking amongst relevant city departments to develop a city-wide climate protection function.

In the final analysis this strong and early focus on adaptation in Durban contrasts with the national and international focus on mitigation. This need to pursue urgent, goal-directed local level adaptation plans is, however, complicated by city governments lacking the competence and capacity to adapt to climate change in many cases. There is therefore a need to ensure that whatever adaptation funding currently exists or is put in place in future as a result on ongoing international negotiations, is directly accessible to local governments as well as national level governments. At the end of the day, while the causes of the climate change are global, the impacts are local and therefore actions to reverse the trends must be locally derived.

Dr. Debra Roberts currently heads the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department of eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa). She is currently a lead author of Chapter 8, Urban Areas, of the Working Group II contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, due for release in 2014. She is also a member of various international advisory bodies focused on climate change issues in cities (e.g. the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes’ Expert Panel on Human Settlements and Infrastructure). In addition she is vice-chair of UN-Habitat’s HS-NET Advisory Board which oversaw the production of the 2011 ‘Cities and Climate Change’ Global Report. Dr. Roberts has written widely in the fields of urban open space planning, environmental management and urban climate protection and has received numerous awards for her work.

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