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OPINION: Africa Water Week: Climate resilient development in Africa needs to scale up to the strategic level

Klas Sandström, Team Leader at NIRAS, discusses the way forward for strategic water management as Africa Water Week kicks off today in Dakar, Senegal.

Farmers in Kenya are struggling to cope with changes in water supply due to climate change. Scientific American has shown that thirty years ago there were two reliable rainy seasons each year in Kenya – the short rains and the long rains – and there were signs telling farmers when to plant their crops. Today people cannot rely on these signs anymore. Farming is becoming increasingly difficult and there is a need to both reduce vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability and to prepare for future challenges. Kenya is in for a struggle. What can climate-resilient development offer?

Climate-resilient development happens at both project and strategic levels. The two are different, although not independent. The project level is relatively well defined; it can include building a bridge that can withstand floods or promoting new and improved dry-land farming methods. Such projects are often well defined in terms of activities and expected results; they give tangible short-term returns that can be monitored and assessed.

The strategic level focuses on national- or regional-level policy and programme frameworks that guide the project level. This can include e.g. the allocation of water between different sectors or national food security plans. But policies and programmes are often politically controversial and thus difficult to develop, and when short-term costs are expected to be balanced by uncertain future benefits, even well-made policies can become irrelevant.

Embedded in all climate-resilient development is the need for integration and planning. We say that by the integration of linked but different factors we can better plan for the protection, sharing and efficient use of scarce resources, avoid negative side-effects, and build promising futures for our children. There are many such approaches, including the complementary Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). Further reading on this is available here.

While EIA is a process to predict and address environmental concerns at the project level, SEA is the strategic integration of environmental considerations into development planning. SEA can also assess the cumulative effect of many small projects at regional or national scales. But there is an obstacle: strategic integration and planning is so difficult that it rarely happens – and it is even less likely to be implemented. The focus therefore remains at the project level, which is better understood, manageable, and supported by legal frameworks and funding. Still, the strategic level is of fundamental importance and should not be overlooked. It has the potential to deliver the big, positive changes that must take place as climate change proceeds. The focus should first be at the strategic level, then at the project level.

I am a frequent visitor to Uganda. When I was there for the first time 15 years ago, Kampala was a somewhat small, still rapidly growing city. Today the population in greater Kampala is about 3,5 million and by 2045 it may reach 8-10 million. This will have a huge impact on the region. Climate change will add further to such implications.

The challenges that Kampala faces in coming decades are a good example of the need for climate-resilient development at both strategic and project levels.

Much can be done at the project level, but this will not be enough if larger-scale strategic policy decisions are missing.

A woman sells dried fish in Kampala's Owino Market, which sprawls around an old stadium downtown

A woman sells dried fish in Kampala’s Owino Market, which sprawls around an old stadium downtown

Kampala is also different compared to many capitals in the region in terms of a much higher growth rate. This raises particular strategic concerns. For example, will Kampala’s ecosystems cope with the increasing demands to deliver increasing amounts of water to balance needed supplies, handle greater flood water magnitudes, and sustain a green and cool city? Or should urban growth in Uganda be directed towards other cities in the country, thus reducing the pressure on the Kampala region? Strategic land use planning is also needed in order to keep flood prone areas unoccupied and to ensure that transport systems will withstand increasing weather variability.

The case of farming in Kenya was mentioned above. With climate change, it is likely that parts of the country will become increasingly dry and difficult to use for food production. But even then, at the project level and with increasingly sophisticated irrigation technology, farming can continue. But at the strategic level, under such conditions, limited water resources are better allocated to higher value uses like urban services and industrial use. The greatest economic value is found in leaving water in the environment and ensuring that tourism becomes a revenue stream. Here, a very small unit of water can contribute to the creation of many jobs while at the same time attracting foreign currency – greatly needed in order to pay for an increasing food importation bill.

kenya small-scale farm irrigation

With climate change, it is likely that parts of Kenya will become increasingly dry and difficult to use for food production.

So what does this mean for on-going work in the field of climate-resilient development? I believe there is too much attention – relatively speaking – given to the project level and too little given to the strategic level. But the strategic level is complex and difficult to promote. To develop a SEA is a demanding process. It is riddled with political navigation, macro-economic considerations, and decision-making based on uncertain assumptions about the future. It will take some time before it becomes a mainstream approach.

On the other hand, there are a number of on-going programmes that provide capacity development in the field of climate-resilient development in Africa. In 2010, the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) initiated the Water, Climate and Development Programme (WACDEP) to support the integration of water security and climate change adaptation into development planning processes and the design of financing and investment strategies. This programme is now being implemented by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) in 8 countries across Africa and with support from CDKN and the British Government. Likewise, capacity development in SEA is available for many countries in East Africa (SEA 2014A and 2014C). These and other initiatives bring promise that the seeds of a strategic outlook on Africa’s environmental future are being planted, and with time we shall all be able to reap the fruits of a climate-resilient future.


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