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OPINION: Reflections on achieving climate resilience in Latin American cities


María José Pacha, Ebru Gencer and Manuel Winograd of the Climate-Resilient Cities in Latin America initiative (a joint initiative of CDKN, Fundacion Futuro Latinoamericano and Canada’s International Development Research Centre) share climate resilience insights from cities on the frontlines of climate change. This article was originally published in Spanish: read the original here. English editing by Mairi Dupar of CDKN.

What are the challenges, barriers and opportunities for small and medium cities in the region to be climate resilient? This question guided a recent workshop: Reflections on the participatory planning and implementation of actions for climate resilience that took place in Panama City on 6-7 December, 2017. It involved representatives from the municipalities and civil society organisations of the cities of Santo Tomé (Argentina), Santa Ana (El Salvador) and Dosquebradas (Colombia). They gathered at the end of a 12+ month initiative to cultivate participatory processes in these cities to identify priorities for climate change adaptation and related decision-making. Here we share some key reflections from the workshop.

The role of information in local climate adaptation

Participants reflected on the difficulties that small and medium-sized cities have in generating, sharing and validating information to supports climate-related decision-making. Manuel Winograd (Alterra), who led the overall initiative to explore adaptation and mitigation options for the three cities, indicated that: “the main challenge for the co-production and validation of information is the type and amount of data available.

In some cities, there may be too much data and in other there may be a deficiency in both the type of data and in appropriate formats. The main challenge was how to use the information that exists to explore options for more resilient cities based on the knowledge of all actors. That’s because it comes in different formats and belongs to different institutions that often do not share it.

The role of participation

An important component of the initiative was participation and co-construction of information by relevant actors.

First,  the project team identified the main actors and the relationships among them. Then, they interviewed these actors to bring out their perceptions about the threats posed to their cities by climate variability and climate change. This ‘diagnosis’ stage enabled the project team to identify, explore and validate options for climate adaptation and so define a route forward for planning more resilient cities.

From this several-staged process, the team learned that (a) initially it is necessary to differentiate between those actors who only contribute to workshops and those who have real weight and influence to accompany the decision-making and implementing processes in a deeper way; and (b) that the portfolio of options must be politically and socially relevant on the one hand, and technically and financially sound on the other, to guide implementation adequately. What this means is: avoiding climate adaptation options that are based on ‘passing fashions’ or public agendas based on short-term trends.

Another important point that arising from the city of Dosquebradas’ experience is that technical information and stakeholder participation must go hand in hand – a point stressed by Yuliana Montoya of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Risaralda (CARDER): “This type of project draws attention to what that the communities know about the issue. In our experience, we realised that there is a lack of knowledge about climate change and it is necessary to generate citizen capacity.”

Cities’ vulnerabilities

Daniela Quésta, Mayor of Santo Tomé, explained that her city of 60,000 inhabitants is highly vulnerable to flooding, due to its location near the Salado and Paraná Rivers. These floods bring pressing problems to dwellings and other urban infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Milton Reyes, representative of the Municipality of Santa Ana in El Salvador, said that the floods are causing serious problems in his city, mainly triggered by (and a result of) land use changes in the upper river basin: the coffee plantations have been replaced by cement constructions that prevent the natural absorption of rainwater by the soil.

Julián Carrizosa, from the Municipality of Dosquebradas, noted that the high vulnerability of homes in many areas of Dosquebradas is aggravated by the poor management of solid waste and debris by residents, who improperly dispose of such items in the river bed. It not only causes water pollution and disrupts the city’s aesthetic, but also reduces the hydraulic capacity of the streams and increases the risk of flooding.

Priority actions for climate change adaptation

In each city, the team led by Jorgelina Hardoy (IIED Latin America), Ebru Gencer (CUDRR + R) and Manuel Winograd (Alterra) and their partners generated specific, tangible proposals that have been analysed and validated by the respective communities and the public sector. It is striking that all three cities defined priority options as the ecological restoration of the edges of rivers, streams, estuaries, riverbanks and basins, because they ensure essential environmental services to the municipalities and their population and help in creating resilience. For example, Dosquebradas proposes the recovery of forest fragments and biological corridors in areas of urban expansion.

Project achievement

One of the key questions debated at the workshop was: how did the project help your city? Leandro Jaramillo from CARDER said that thanks to this project, “now we know that there is an interested community that has accompanied our process”. Meanwhile, Jonathan Roberto, Coordinator of Water Resources of Santo Tomé, stressed that the project helped to reorder the city’s priorities and establish resilience objectives. The local government also realised that it is important to communicate better to citizens about local actions that it is carrying out to address flood-related vulnerability and rising water tables.

The process helped to close a gap between the scale and scope of decision-making authority – and the scales at which resilience-building actions must be carried out. At the same time, the project delineated and facilitated coordination among decision-makers at different levels, helping them to agree on actions to be taken at their respective levels of authority:  river basins, neighbourhoods and localities. Working together at different levels is essential if authorities are to tackle – effectively – divergent or conflicting interests over planning and resource management in the urban, peri-urban and rural areas of the city.

Recommendations for other cities

According to Leandro Jaramillo, from CARDER, the most important lesson from Dosquebradas’s experience for others is: create (public) awareness and communicate information on climate impacts and options well, to ensure that everyone has it. This implies being able to adapt climate information into simple language that can be understood by the different actors, so that it can generate greater ownership and citizen empowerment. It is necessary to generate adequate channels and forms of communication that place climate information in local context.

Julián Carrizosa, representative of the municipal government of Dosquebradas, reflected on the importance of city leaders’ being able to focus strategically on ‘the city we want’, even though matters in day-to-day management make this difficult. Finally, all three cities identified that integrating urban, peri-urban and rural landscapes in the planning and development of cities is absolutely essential to creating a portfolio of adaptation options and securing mechanisms and actions for resilience.

Resilient Cities campaign: ‘My city is preparing’

This workshop was organised in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR); the three cities have joined in their global campaign: ‘Developing Resilient Cities: My city is preparing.’  The global campaign addresses themes of local governance and urban risk with the aim of supporting local governments to reduce risk and increase resilience in the urban environment through the application of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030). The campaign offers solutions and tools that enable governments and local actors to identify gaps in their resilience and increase their financial and technical capacity and knowledge for planning and risk management. Through the campaign, the participating cities form a broad alliance for resilience at global level.




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