FEATURE: Applying nature-based solutions system-wide offers great potential for adaptation
Professor Sosten Chiotha shares his vision of holistic, sustainable adaptation to climate change – based on years of experience in his native Malawi. This is one of a series of blogs highlighting potential for ‘accelerated adaptation in Africa’ in the run-up to the Climate Adaptation Summit, January 2021.
The consequences of many years of deforestation have become increasingly evident in Malawi. Forest cover has declined by more than half – from over 4 million hectares in 1972 to just under 2 million hectares in 1992 – and continues to decline at a rapid rate.
The consequences of this deforestation are widespread, including a lack of nature-based regulation of water supplies, because forests are a natural regulator of water flows. This has consequences for irrigation and fisheries – which are important around Lake Malawi and Lake Chilwa. Perhaps most importantly, the bare ground created by deforestation leads to flooding, increasing disaster risk.
Flash flooding regularly creates problems in both rural and urban areas. It causes damage to infrastructure, including roads and houses, and livelihoods. It damages crops, in a country where over 80% of the population make a living from the land.
The opportunities and challenges of integrated watershed approaches
In recent years in Malawi, as in many other countries, we have begun to do flood management differently, capitalising on a system-wide approach of nature-based solutions. This arose out of the realisation that trying to reduce flood risk in the site of the flooding is a ‘sticking plaster approach’, compared to addressing the risk at the source, which is typically upstream in the catchment. But taking a systems approach challenges our existing decision-making structures and ways of thinking.
An integrated watershed approach was applied in Lake Chilwa from 2010-17, inspired by local residents who expressed concern about the drying of the lake from 1995. A subsequent consultative process was undertaken with stakeholders. First, they defined the main ecosystem areas, characterised the structure and function of the ecosystem, identified important economic issues that affect the ecosystems and its inhabitants and determined the likely impact of the ecosystem on neighbouring ecosystems – before deciding on long-term goals, and flexible ways of reaching them.
One location within the Lake Chilwa watershed is Sadzi, a degraded hill of 67 hectares that caused floods and mud slides in 2013 and years before. As part of the integrated watershed approach, concerned citizens in the area proposed restoration through regeneration and banning of infrastructural developments and farming.
By 2019, there was visible improvement in land cover, reduced erosion, increased plant and animal diversity and improved stream flow and replenishment of the water table. The nature-based solution in turn led to generation of income streams from bee-keeping and opportunities for fish farming and irrigation, thereby enabling adaptation to the changing environmental conditions.
Positive demonstration effects were noted outside of target communities, with others adopting conservation agriculture and land management practices, contributing to a reduction in flood risk over a wider area.
Marshalling knowledge, taking time to consult
We have good reason to believe that nature-based solutions are effective in enabling adaptation – but they are certainly not easy. Many rounds of consultation took place in the Lake Chilwa basin. These involved a wide range of stakeholders, from national and district level government to traditional leaders, academics and researchers, and citizens. This form of governance, whilst arguably stronger in terms of outcomes, can be resource-intensive and time-consuming.
A systems-wide approach also requires unprecedented levels of coordination. Rather than just having officials representing one ministry, several ministries had to be represented in the process of characterising the strengths and challenges to the ecosystem. These discussions also had to be well informed by a wide range of evidence and information, spanning weather records and climate projections, land resources cover, water monitoring, information on impacts of extreme events and disasters, agricultural and fisheries potential.
Being ready for unintended consequences
Beyond coordination, a systems approach can throw up challenges that otherwise would go unnoticed. Change in one part of a system gives rise to change in another. In this case, whilst the reforestation was successful in parts of the basin, deforestation continued outside target hotspots – a clear case of ‘leakage’ (as it is known in policy circles), as people travelled further afield to obtain firewood for fuel. Similarly, whereas children used to walk across the degraded land to school, the regrowth of trees led to their feeling vulnerable and taking a longer route.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives. As long as all parties are willing to throw off their blinkers, a systems approach involving nature-based adaptation has far more potential than potted, individual efforts that are like trying to stick plaster across gaping wounds. Different stakeholders need to work together in an inclusive manner to identify the future we want to see, and how we are likely to achieve it.
New policy directions in Malawi
Malawi’s National Resilience Strategy is a step in the right direction – a cross-cutting integrated framework that addresses resilient agricultural growth; Disaster risk reduction, flood control, early warning and response systems; social protection, livelihoods and human capacity; and, crucially, catchment protection and management. If these systems approaches around nature-based solutions continue, there is potential to reduce deforestation and flood risk in Malawi, whilst also achieving a multitude of other benefits. Above all these nature-based solutions are about protecting lives, protecting livelihoods, and protecting the future in the context of a changing climate.
Image (above, right) Malawian Weather Chasers group at one of their tree planting events.