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OPINION: Scarcity in the midst of plenty – climate impact in the Limpopo Basin

Shravya K. Reddy, Principal at Pegasys Strategy and Development, discusses her experience in designing  a climate resilience strategy for the Limpopo River Basin in Mozambique, where both water abundance and scarcity are significant climate-related issues. 

Too much rain when you don’t need it, and too little rain when it’s absolutely critical – this is the plight of communities in the Limpopo river basin in Mozambique. Those living in this region of southern Mozambique are used to seeing the pendulum swing between heavy floods and intense droughts. Sometimes, different parts of this region even experience each of these extremes in the same year! How does one cope with this? How can the water resources of the region – primarily the Limpopo river – be managed so that floods cause less havoc in the rainy season and there is more water available for agriculture, drinking water, and other domestic and industrial uses in the dry season? And how relevant or effective would such management approaches be in the face of climate change, which could alter rainfall and river flow patterns in the area?

These are a few of the questions that some of my colleagues and I set out to explore a few months ago. Through CDKN’s “Building Climate Resilience in the Limpopo Basin” project in Mozambique, we began working with ARA-Sul – the Mozambican government’s lead water resources management agency – to:

  • develop a better understanding of the current climate of the Mozambican Limpopo basin (including existing climate variability, i.e. the irregularities of climatic patterns today, between different seasons and different years);
  • investigate what climate change impacts have started being observed; and
  • assess what future climate change is likely to mean for the basin’s water resources.

Our goal was to formulate a climate resilience strategy for the Limpopo basin in Mozambique, as guidance for the country’s decision makers on how to help the region cope better with climate variability and climate change. In other words, how can Mozambique adapt better to change, be it the type of change the region already experiences intermittently, or different types of changes heralded by human-induced climate change?

In order to develop a robust and well-informed strategy, we first had to create an evidence base that would better illustrate the types of climatic impacts relevant to the region in the present and the future, and draw inferences regarding what this means for the region’s water resources. To understand the strategy’s priority areas, we identified the areas that need the most attention, or the types of impacts that are most damaging and therefore warrant an emphasis in response measures. Thus, we first began our study with a climate vulnerability assessment, and thereafter focused the strategy on areas that emerged as “medium” or “high” vulnerability.

After several months of work, including field visits, we are now at the stage where we have been able to formulate a strategy that we believe will not only help address climate variability and climate change, but will also strengthen overall development and economic growth in the Limpopo basin in Mozambique. One of the underlying concepts in our strategy has always been that strong socio-economic indicators of development in the region will translate into the local population being better equipped to deal with a wide variety of shocks, including climate related changes. Communities with more capacity to adjust to any changes – by virtue of having more economic, social, and institutional resources at their disposal – will be more resilient to climate change.

One of the many things we learned when we visited the Limpopo basin is that there is a wealth of innate knowledge on adaptation strategies. Communities who have been dealing with the vagaries of climate for generations have already found coping mechanisms. Even those who don’t fully understand the extent of potential climate change impacts, do comprehend that changes of a bigger order or magnitude may be in store, and several groups and institutions have already started thinking about future adaptation measures.

While different approaches currently being implemented have had differing levels of success, the fact that there is a foundation of adaptation measures to build on and strengthen is positive. When developing resilience strategies there is a temptation sometimes to “re-invent the wheel”– to provide suggestions or recommendations as if nothing similar is already taking place. However, having learnt about a wide range of actions already underway, we are resisting this temptation and developing a strategy that is additive, and moves current efforts forward.

Our suggested resilience strategy tries to answer many of the questions that the project is a response to. For instance, the strategic path to reducing the unpredictability in water availability (despite changing rainfall patterns and inter-seasonal variability) is to consider building one (or more) water storage facilities that can collect water during heavy rains, and store it for use during the lean season – allowing farmers, residents, and small scale industry in the region more reliable, year-round water access. Similarly, the strategy to address flooding is to invest in flood control infrastructure, complemented with community-based disaster risk reduction and management activities (for instance, to continue finding effective ways to warn people about floods, and to help provide them viable alternatives of housing and occupations so that they need not be tied to the floodplains for their livelihoods). While designing such infrastructure or such community-based programmes can be challenging – given that climate change is likely to make conditions more difficult and unpredictable – we do know enough about the direction of change and the trends emerging to be able to take climate change into account (including by having engineers make the physical structures more robust). That said, the best strategy is one that can stay dynamic and nimble and be adapted to changing conditions as we learn more in the future. We’ve tried to keep this in mind as we developed the resilience strategy.

We will soon be sharing the strategy with key Mozambican stakeholders, to seek their feedback and incorporate their input. Reflecting local perspectives in the strategy is key to making it sustainable and operational. Once the draft strategy evolves through this iterative process, we look forward to sharing its highlights with readers like you through this blog. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

Shravya K. Reddy is a Principal at Pegasys Strategy and Development, and is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

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