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FEATURE: Citizen-led groups support inclusive adaptation to climate change

Dorothy Tembo-Nhlema, Chair of the Weather Chasers Group in Malawi, sees how the group has developed into an energetic, dynamic force for environmental protection in the country and is part of a larger civil society movement for positive change. This is one of a series of blogs on ‘Accelerating adaptation action in Africa’ published by CDKN to frame the Africa segment of the Climate Adaptation Summit, January 2021.

If I am asked “What will it take for Africa to adapt sufficiently to climate change by 2050?” my own recent experience points to the critical importance of providing a space for civic action to enable inclusive adaptation to climate change.

Improvements in information and communications technology have enabled the creation of social spaces for civic engagement, participation and action. In Malawi, “WhatsApp” is used as the primary platform for a number of citizen-led groups that have self-mobilised in recent years. These groups provide spaces for sharing important information and strategising actions, and the results are proving more inclusive and impactful than physical meetings (not to mention more rapid and cost-effective).

Weather Chasers is the oldest WhatsApp group that I have been part of – but there are now a wide range, including the Hard Talk Environment Group and Movement for Environmental Action. Initially launched in January 2016 by the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (with the support of the World Meteorological Organisation) to share early warning information under the Common Alert Protocol, Weather Chasers has subsequently evolved to coordinate civic action for locally-led adaptation.

As well as enabling coordination of civic action, including through annual self-funded tree planting events, the evolving environmental movement recently gained political recognition. I, along with a number of members, were invited to State House to hear the new president’s weekly update that was dedicated to environmental issues.

Currently limited by the constraint that only 256 members can join a WhatsApp group, Weather Chasers is always full and has a substantial waiting list. Membership is diverse and creates a non-hierarchical forum in which people of many backgrounds are brought together by their common interest in, and commitment to, weather and climate issues.

Inclusive space for peer-to-peer exchange

Parliamentarians, policy-makers, academics, media, technicians with different disciplinary backgrounds and farmers all use the space to interact with mutual respect and oneness of purpose.  The attraction of the group is that anyone can contribute – in fact this is actively encouraged – and there is always something new to learn.

It is in the Weather Chasers group that members share possible channels for dialogue and working strategies including specific knowledge, practices and capacity to address mitigation of, and adaptation to climate change.

With the rich membership these groups discuss various issues and receive contributions from different professionals, it is in the same group that solutions are developed and communicated to the responsible authorities formally and informally.

When issues and transgressions are publicized on the platform, actions are immediately taken because all the responsible authorities are members. In the recent past concerns raised on the platforms have led to the arrest of some manufacturers of thin plastics for contravention of the national ban, and the closure of companies for illegal discharge of effluents.

Increasing recognition from government

Government is increasingly recognising the capacity and commitment and overall legitimacy of the groups, capitalising on the connections for inputs to ongoing processes. We have been approached by government departments not only to disseminate information, but also to validate certain materials before dissemination.

The Weather Chasers, Hard Talk Environment and Movement for Environmental Action developed an issue based matrix relating to key environmental concerns that was presented to the Minister for Forestry and Natural Resources, Directors and staff of the relevant Departments. It is expected that we will be asked to meet this high level delegation again to assess the implementation status.

The new president’s State of the Nation address on 4th September 2020 was criticised by members because it did not emphasise climate change or environment. Critiques from members on this oversight, given the problems Malawi faces with deforestation, land degradation and waste and water mismanagement found their way to the advisors and the president himself.  Six days later the president addressed the public through a special response with input from group members, assuring the general public that environment was deliberately left out because it is a big issue that required separate attention. Group members were invited to the dedicated speech on environment as well as presidential weekly updates.

These self-organising groups are thus enabling significant impact – both directly through contributing to tangible local-led adaptation practices and indirectly through ensuring civic participation in government-led processes. We all know that for project to benefit the masses and sustain impact, projects should be should be ‘country driven’ but of course very few countries have a say since its external funding and this obviously leads to elite capture. Moving forward a solution to this could be to support grassroots organisations and citizen-led initiatives rather than everything being only through national government to promote ownership. Malawi’s platforms certainly show how effective this can be.

 Image: Malawi’s forest, courtesy Scripiec, flickr.com

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