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Central and Southern Africa: High-Stakes Decisions under Climate Uncertainty


Beth Mackay


December 7, 2019


Rapid development in parts of central and southern Africa is occurring within a context of high exposure and vulnerability to climate change but with relatively low capacity for adaptation. Major infrastructural investments with 5–40 year lifetimes are being planned and implemented in the region – many without being informed by climate information. Ensuring this infrastructure is viable in a changing climate is essential, yet decision-makers face significant challenges in assessing how climate change affects investment decisions.

An international research project led by the Grantham Research Institute at London School of Economics has been working over the past four years to address critical knowledge gaps in the understanding of central and southern Africa’s climate and to effectively communicate climate information to decision-makers – crucial for enabling climate-resilient development in this highly vulnerable region. The research has generated important advances in understanding the complex processes that influence variability and extreme events in the climate system. This enables evaluation of the credibility of the modelled future climate, in contrast to more dated approaches which simply average the results of climate models.

The project, named UMFULA (meaning ‘river’ in Zulu and standing for Uncertainty Reduction in Models for Understanding Development Applications) has focused on rainfall as the most important challenge for climate models and a crucial variable for major decisions that affect the water–energy–food sectors. The researchers undertook detailed work on the management of water in Malawi and Tanzania, in a context of increasing demand for agricultural production and hydropower under a changing climate. Research focused on the Lake Malawi Shire River Basin, where outflows from Lake Malawi into the Shire River are critical for hydropower and irrigation, and also for biodiversity; and on the Rufiji River Basin, a significant source of water for drinking, irrigation, livestock and hydropower in Tanzania.

UMFULA has advanced the potential for climate models to capture the key features that drive the climate in central and southern Africa. For example, the researchers have improved insights into the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the single biggest influence on large-scale rainfall variability in southern Africa. They show how a strong Pacific Ocean El Niño event affects regional circulation patterns, and that human caused warming has increased the risk of severe drought. In terms of adaptation and climate resilient planning, a significant finding from the project is the importance of understanding the likely future characteristics of climate risk that infrastructure will be exposed to.

However, given uncertainty over how the climate will change in future, approaches must be strongly informed by local considerations and be robust to that uncertainty: that is, options need to work reasonably well across a range of uncertain future climate (and other) conditions. This approach allows researchers to inform decisions being made now, without having to wait for possible reductions in uncertainty.

The UMFULA team investigated the implications of a range of potential outcomes, to enable decision-makers to determine priorities while factoring in the uncertainties in the climate projections. In both UMFULA’s case studies in Malawi and Tanzania, decisions in the water–energy–food nexus involve large investments, long life-times and irreversibility. Development plans have to incorporate trade-offs between irrigation, hydropower and agricultural intensification and the impacts on ecosystem services (such as natural flood defences and ecological reserves), among other considerations. UMFULA’s aim was to provide the evidence base for this decision making. For example, the region contains a number of major dams and more are planned, including one that when complete will be among the largest in Africa. The project’s results show that adaptive rules for dam operation will be needed to deal with greater variability in reservoir inflows, and that improved coordination of decisions across water–energy–food sectors will be required to achieve development goals sustainably.

UMFULA also embraced a process of co-production of knowledge by researchers and wider stakeholders, to help build capacity to factor climate risks into long-term planning. Researchers have gained a better understanding of real-world decision making in which climate change is one of many important factors. For example, the tea sector is important to Malawi’s employment and economy – and is highly reliant on the right rainfall and temperature conditions. UMFULA has worked with large tea estates and smallholder farmers to tailor future climate projections, analysing changes for a set of metrics that could specifically affect tea yield and quality. Co-producing this information between UMFULA researchers and stakeholders in the tea sector has enabled the growers to identify appropriate ways to adapt their industry to reduce climate risk.

Of course, political influences, policy processes and local perspectives affect decision-making processes at all levels UMFULA’s analysis of Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia shows that change in political leadership, frequent cabinet reshuffles, shifts in ministerial mandates and rotation of high-level civil servants have led to a focus on short-term planning that links with electoral cycles, rather than on the necessary long-term building of resilience strategies and climate adaptation investments. The climate is already changing – with major consequences for ecosystems and society. Adaptation strategies are needed to manage current impacts and will be increasingly vital as the world continues to warm. But adaptation is complex and societies are only at the start of a learning process that will continue for decades. In UMFULA the aim has been to contribute to this process by developing capacity to understand climate risks and to collaboratively design ways for their incorporation into long-term planning in Malawi, Tanzania and more widely in central and southern Africa.

Download the UMFULA brief on the current and future climate of central and southern Africa What we have learnt and what it means for decision-making in Malawi and Tanzania here.  This article was written by Declan Conway and originally posted on the London School of Economic website here.