Climate change vulnerability in Southern African cities

Editor(s) Macchi, Silvia and Tiepolo, Maurizio.
Publisher Springer
Year 2014

In reading the growing literature on urban climate change adaptation, it is sometimes possible to forget that urban authorities in many cases still lack the basic risk analysis and adaptation planning tools, processes and capacity necessary to diminish local vulnerability to climate variability and change. As the foreword of Climate Change Vulnerability in Southern African Cities reminds us, there is a clear need for research and literature focused upon vulnerability and adaptation in African urban locations where vulnerabilities are high and resources and preparedness still very limited.

It is refreshing to read a book focusing on a few case studies of African cities not usually under the climate change literature spotlight, such as Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg traditionally have been. Stimulating also is the volume’s explicit emphasis upon peri-urban areas, the areas in cities where urban and rural features and processes meet, and where there are mixed populations, important environmental services, and consumption of natural resources. These areas are expanding exponentially around the densely developed and infrastructure-heavy nuclei in many Sub-Saharan cities (not to mention in many other developing country cities), and thus deserve explicit focus.

The book selects a few case studies for examining urban regions under climate stress. Climate impacts and vulnerabilities are examined and illustrated in Dar es Salaam, Maputo, Dakar and Mozambique’s Caia District, and the adaptation strategies employed by city residents and government institutions (as well as the limitations thereof) are identified. A good illustration of the book’s focus is, for example, the chapter dealing with the investigation of urban sprawl, recognizing it to be a major non-climatic factor that will accentuate the effects of climate change. The authors present a methodology for land cover monitoring that is tailored to the needs and resources of the Dar es Salaam municipality, being economical, simple and quick to execute, and thus practical for the resource-strained (in terms of both finance and capacity) municipality. The chapter thus typifies the book’s focus on the realities of formulating vulnerability assessment methods and adaptation strategies tailored to the needs of communities in extremely low capacity areas and adapted to situations where information is lacking, or scattered with limited access to it.

The book touches upon many of the concepts and approaches from the social sciences that have been used to understand vulnerability, impacts and adaptation, including decision-making under uncertainty, disaster risk management, governance, adaptive capacity, risk assessment, knowledge co-production, and adaptation mainstreaming, among others. As such, Climate Change Vulnerability in Southern African Cities serves as a useful primer for researchers, students and practitioners interested in enhancing their knowledge and skills as regards integrating climate change risk and vulnerability assessments, as well adaptation planning and mainstreaming, into applied research and development projects in urban Africa.

While the logic of focusing upon the challenges of climate change in cities located in the southeastern African context is clear, I found missing the comparison with what we do know from other cities and areas located in the same geographical context. Certainly, only a few specific locations in southeastern Africa have levels of engagement with climate change issues that could be considered to make significant inroads towards meeting the scale of the challenge. These locations, typified by the cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, are thus atypical in many ways. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to see some comparison and contrast made between these known leaders on climate change adaptation, and the cases examined in the book.  South African cities still represent some of the best current examples of local-level climate change work, and contribute to much of the current knowledge around urban climate change (in both the research and implementation fields) in the African continent. While South Africa admittedly may not always be representative of the realities of other southeastern cities, it nonetheless shares more commonalities with the rest of the African continent than it does with the developed world. In this respect, the lessons of its cities would likely offer useful opportunity for comparison.

Overall, the book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of climate-related hazards and the impact they have on areas prone to them, of the capacity of local populations to adapt and of local authorities’ ability to respond. It further provides a good overview of methods used to estimate levels of risk and vulnerability, tools that are useful when planning adaptation to climate change in large cities.

Lorena Pasquini is the Research Coordinator for the African Climate & Development Initiative and a Senior Researcher at the Global Risk Governance Programme, both at UCT. She has a doctorate from the University of Sheffield (UK), and has a strong background of both research and practice into interdisciplinary issues located at the society/environment nexus. She has worked as a researcher, consultant and practitioner on a variety of conservation, environmental change and management, climate adaptation, environmental governance and development issues.


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