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Learning from HyCRISTAL’s urban WASH research in East Africa




August 31, 2020


The experiences gleaned from HyCRISTAL, a project geared towards generating new and applicable climate information in East Africa can be applied across the tropical regions of Africa, according to climate researchers who developed and tested novel methods for this work.

Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) began a South-North research collaboration in 2015, with part of its focus being to better understand how climate change will impact East African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

The process of developing this information was specifically designed to bring climate researchers in Africa together with colleagues in the United Kingdom, in order to work with national and local governments, implementing institutions, development agencies, and local communities in these countries.

HyCRISTAL focused on urban water issues, including sanitation and hygiene concerns, as well as rural livelihoods, water management, and tea production, alongside climate science. Researchers aimed to work with local stakeholders to jointly identify the climate information needs, find climate adaptation solutions, and generate useful climate knowledge that decision-makers in East Africa can integrate into their planning in the context of climate change for the next 5 – to 40-years.

As FCFA completes this work and reviews the outcomes of the process, Dr John Marsham (HyCRISTAL principal investigator and UK Met Office Joint-Chair at the University of Leeds) maintains that the methods used in generating this climate knowledge could be applied throughout tropical regions in Africa, where knowledge about the future changes in rainfall remain ‘massively uncertain’.

Partnerships on the ground: building relationships to improve sanitation and hygiene

Like many developing cities in Africa, the Kenyan city of Kisumu has many residents living in informal settlements, and lacking secure access to clean water and good sanitation. One of the HyCRISTAL urban WASH teams key partnerships in this area was with local development agency Practical Action, which has more than 25 years’ experience working in the ‘WASH’ sector (water, sanitation, and hygiene) to help address these important service delivery gaps.

‘In partnering with Practical Action’s Kisumu field office, our HyCRISTAL regional team found that this relationship was invaluable, because it allowed us to make connections with other practitioners in the WASH community,’ explains engineer Dr Celia Way, a research fellow in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds in the UK, and member of FCFA’s WASH team.

In the past, researchers have often approached development questions in Africa with pre-determined solutions and recommendations for how countries or development practitioners should respond to climate impacts. FCFA’s approach was to work with communities and stakeholders already embedded in a context, to jointly identify needs and find solutions that are tailored to the specifics of each situation.

‘By drawing on the existing networks of an organisation like Practical Action, we could engage with relevant stakeholders in Kisumu within a short timescale,’ says Way. ‘This enriched our work by allowing us both to understand the local context better, and sooner, than we could have otherwise.’

This meant that FCFA researchers could work with local actors to develop the project and involve them in FCFA’s own processes, for example by inviting them to HyCRISTAL’s annual meeting in Kampala, Uganda, and engaging them in peer-to-peer learning and sharing sessions. This kind of relationship-building has proved central to local uptake of the resulting climate information.

Being agile: adapting research as new questions emerge

When the project started in 2015, researchers did not initially foresee just how complex it would be to translate the emerging climate science into information that could be used to inform a flood model at a city scale, or the opportunities that would present themselves in this area as they developed new high-resolution climate models, says Way.

‘We managed to overcome these challenges through a series of intensive cross-sector workshops with different stakeholders. These were both face-to-face and remote meetings, which allowed us to debate and discuss how to use and configure the data that was available to us,’ she says.

In hindsight, however, the FCFA researchers say these issues might have been resolved sooner, had the funding parameters been more flexible. This would have allowed resources to be reoriented immediately towards the solutions-focused processes.

Reviewing the lessons learned, researchers recommend that future development projects of this nature anticipate that the ‘real problems’ often only emerge as the projects progress, and that a degree of flexibility relating to funding allows for better problem-solving as a project unfolds.

FCFA is compiling a series of reviews of the lessons learned through FCFA, which can inform future climate information and development projects in future. A Critical Reflection on Learning from the FCFA Programme and the FCFA HyCRISTAL Research Consortium Summary are available for download.

Watch the video – A story of a flood:  

HyCRISTAL is FCFA’s regional team which focuses on development issues in East African Community states (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), as well as Somalia and Ethiopia. 

This article was written by Leonie Joubert as part of a series covering the science produced by various FCFA projects, and introduces some of the people behind it.