Collaboration is key to sustainable climate resilience solutions

Innovative approaches to designing small-scale water infrastructure are helping drought-stricken areas of Zimbabwe tackle the impacts of climate change.

By Zipozihle Chuma Nombewu, Adam Smith International

Over the past 20 years, East and Southern Africa have been hard hit by the impacts of changing weather patterns. In many areas, low crop yields have increasingly become the norm as a result of erratic rainfall whilst in other areas, longer periods of drought have resulted in repeated crop failure. It’s predicted the severity and impact of extreme weather events across the region will worsen with time due to anticipated decreases in precipitation and increased variability. Sustaining a reliable water supply can help improve the ability of communities to survive in a changing climate. Whilst small-scale water infrastructure provides a regular and sustained water supply, it needs to be well-designed and properly maintained by communities to succeed as is shown by two projects recently completed in Zimbabwe.

Outside the Bikita Rural Hospital in the early morning. This hospital will receive solar power from the Kufandada River Protection and Irrigation Scheme Project. Images: Robin Wyatt Vision / Daylin Paul

The two irrigation schemes, Kufandada and Bindagombe, are currently supporting communities in the Zimbabwe districts of Bikita and Chivi. These interventions are increasing the resilience of local communities to the effects of climate change through the provision of small-scale water infrastructure, including boreholes and irrigation. Boreholes ensure a sustained water supply while irrigation infrastructure assists communities in moving from subsistence rain-fed agriculture to larger scale, more reliable agricultural production allowing for the surplus to be sold at markets. In the past, these districts of Zimbabwe typically experienced crop failure once every 10 years, but more recently this is closer to every three to five years, a clear indicator of the changing climate the region is battling.

Predicted future patterns of atmospheric circulation in southern Africa are not well known, but it is widely recognised that risks to ecosystems, water stresses and agricultural practices in the region will become more intense. In the Bikita and Chivi districts, climate scientists predict longer and more frequent droughts according to both medium (2025) and longer term (2055) projections. However, there is still a degree of uncertainty in terms of the severity of impacts and type of risks posed to vulnerable communities and the infrastructure they rely on. As a means of managing these uncertainties, a bespoke climate change risk assessment tool is helping technical teams identify and address potential risks and related impacts to infrastructure projects in southern Africa. It provides guidance on mainstreaming climate resilience during key milestones in the design and implementation of small-scale infrastructure and has been tailored specifically to the varying sub-climatic zones in the region.

Tsungai reviews the plans for the Kufandada River Protection and Irrigation Scheme Project. Images: Robin Wyatt Vision / Daylin Paul

The tool uses projections of future climate change patterns such as self organising maps (SOM) to better understand the risks faced by communities. An SOM is a breakdown of data sets into cluster groups on a chart, with a statistical relationship to their projections. It is a statistical technique which collates similar values within the full set of possibility as laid out in a data set.

These risks faced by communities relate primarily to effects that extreme weather events like flooding and prolonged droughts have on livelihoods, food security and health. The tool also looks at specific project components (i.e. siting of infrastructure, materials, technologies etc.) which are at risk to climate variability, and explores practical measures that can be put in place to improve the intervention’s overall resilience in the context of the local community.

The tool is underpinned by a collaborative process which guides teams on how to tackle the issue of climate resilience in infrastructure development for livelihoods. Specifically, climate scientists, engineers and community representatives are engaged in conjunction with desk-based climate analyses and on-site observations, to help design and deliver sustainable, climate-proofed infrastructure which can be managed and governed by communities both now and in the future.

Naison inspects a pipe at the reservoir of the Kufandada River Protection and Irrigation Scheme Project. Images: Robin Wyatt Vision / Daylin Paul

In the Bindangombe and Kufandada projects, this collaborative approach has resulted in the implementation of climate resilient, sustainable designs which meet the needs of the beneficiary communities while delivering optimal value for money. The Kufandada project serves a local hospital which benefits around 15,000 people. As a result of applying this collaborative approach during the feasibility stage of the project, the design was altered to include solar panels instead of hydro-electric power (which is currently unreliable due to reduced and or variable rainfall). These panels provide a more reliable source of clean energy for the hospital and irrigation scheme, as well as the borehole pumps.

A further outcome of applying this tool is a reduction in soil erosion in both Kufundada and Bindangombe, through the inclusion of an environmental protection component. That is, rock barriers and netting which acts as a barrier to prevent further land degradation on agricultural lands. Reducing soil and sediment in rivers improves water quality, thus assisting in restoring ecosystem services and helping to reduce flood risk to communities further down the catchment. Including this component in both schemes has resulted in an improved understanding within the beneficiary communities on issues of environmental protection, which contributes to the longer-term sustainability of the schemes.

Tsungai checks a sprinkler that is part of the Kufandada River Protection and Irrigation Scheme Project. Images: Robin Wyatt Vision / Daylin Paul

This approach to mainstreaming climate resilience in infrastructure designs has proven successful in delivering more sustainable projects, and has the potential to be replicated to continue to support and improve the livelihoods of communities in the face of increasingly difficult climate conditions. Further work is being undertaken to strengthen the climate change risk assessment tool as it is applied across projects to extend its ability to inform project decisions by applying economic costs to various climate change impact scenarios, and building these into the project decision-making progress.

While this methodology was developed within the context of projected climate change impacts and risks in Southern Africa, this approach to assessing, managing and addressing the risks associated with water infrastructure has the potential to be applied globally and across various sectors.

Zipozihle Chuma Nombewu is a Project Manager on the Climate Resilient Infrastructure Development Facility (CRIDF) a UK Aid Funded project with Adam Smith International as the lead implementing partner in association with WYG, ECORYS, Interconsult Zimbabwe and SouthSouthNorth (SSN).