If you have just moved into the cities of Cape Town, Maputo, Lusaka or Windhoek, you have become part of the problem. A big driver of climate change is urbanization and scientists say these four African cities are at the top of the list.
That was one reason why 2016 ranked as the hottest year on record, according to data analyzed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations’ authoritative voice on weather, climate and water.
One of the leading causes of this is carbon dioxide and methane concentrations from burning fossil fuels, which surged to new records, claims the WMO. This based on evidence from the likes of NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, UK-based Met Office Hadley Centre and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.
The world’s cities are responsible for 60% of all carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases while occupying just 2% of Earth’s surface, according to the United Nations Human Settlement Programme.
It means, unless humans find ways of reducing their carbon emissions, worse is yet to come.
Climate change, according to the South African Weather Service, is the natural cycle which the earth and its atmosphere experience from energy received from the sun. The climate goes through warm and cold periods, taking hundreds of years to complete one cycle. The changes also influence rainfall, but the biosphere is able to adapt to a changing climate if these changes take place over centuries.
As many as 100 million people could slide into extreme poverty because of rising temperatures, which are caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the World Bank reports. It also says climate change has led to crop failures, natural disasters, higher food prices and the spread of waterborne diseases, creating poverty and pushing people at risk into destitution.
In 2015, the UN, in its report on climate change, noted that it is expected to cause shorter growing seasons and force large tracts of peripheral agriculture out of production. Without action, climate change would likely spark higher agricultural prices and could threaten food security in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Climate variability is also at play.
This year has been aggravated by El Nino, a Pacific Ocean weather pattern which decreases moisture in the sub-Saharan region and causes other extreme weather patterns.
Examples of climate variability could be seen in Cape Town in March; a disaster was declared by authorities as dam levels dropped to 31.5%. At the time of going to print, the city estimated that it had 105 days of useable water left. Meanwhile, in Mozambique and Madagascar, countries lying just north and east of South Africa, the category four tropical cyclone Enawo hit. The cyclone, which ravaged their coastlines with winds of 190 kilometers per hour, was dubbed the most destructive storm in years.
The next problem is how people deal with it.
A large group of people within the FRACTAL project, led by the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is trying to tackle the problems associated with climate change in cities through novel approaches.
“We need to move away from the ‘sausage machine’ type of model whereby climate data is produced on one end by scientists, then follows a path to be spat out at the end to decision makers who are expected to use the data. Decision makers need to be engaged in the process of producing relevant climate knowledge from the beginning.”
So says Alice McClure, the coordinator of the Future Resilience for African CiTies and Lands (FRACTAL), a four-year project that aims to build relationships between scientists, practitioners, and the people whose elected representatives decide what’s best for the city.
“In this process, science should not be king. We argue that the knowledge that decision makers in the cities have is more relevant than the information the scientist is going to produce. For the purpose of decision making, scientists can produce as much rigorous climate data as they want, but the uptake of climate information and eventual impact that it might have, is undermined without considerations of context,” says McClure.
Started in 2015, FRACTAL is working in nine cities: Blantyre, Gaborone, Harare, Lusaka, Maputo and Windhoek. Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa have joined the program as self-funded cities.
FRACTAL is part of an initiative called Future Climate Change for Africa, which runs five projects to understand Africa better during climate change and integrates this into decision making.
FRACTAL’s approach enables particular issues, focused on water and energy, to be identified in each of the cities in which it is working, for which relevant and significant climate knowledge can be produced by scientists and decision makers.
What is becoming evident through the initial engagements is that each city has its own problems. For example, in Maputo issues associated with potable water, drainage and sanitation have surfaced, while in Lusaka groundwater recharge, drinking water, flooding and solid waste in peri-urban areas surfaced as pertinent issues.
“We need to understand the region within which the city is located, and how this might affect resources in the city, such as energy and water. For example, Lusaka is located within the Kafue river basin. So we need to understand how changes in the broader surface water system – as a result of climate or other non-climate drivers – might affect water supply in Lusaka. City-regions are very integrated, complex systems with multiple actors, stressors and scales. We need to have a deep understanding of the city-region context to understand what climate information might be relevant and significant.”
As part of the project, FRACTAL has embedded researchers into offices in the cities to gain a better understanding of how governments work. The idea is that the work undertaken by these researchers is mutually beneficial for the city officials and the researchers working on the project.
“The scientists are learning about the city-region and the decision makers are learning about climate variability and change. Together, we would like to build an understanding of what climate change might look like in the future in each city.”
It means cities need to come up with tangible solutions that can adapt to the next 40 years of increasing droughts and stronger typhoons in the face of growing cities.