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Working back from the future: planning for Africa’s climate-altered conditions




January 12, 2021


By the year 2040, if shifts in the East African climate bring heavier rainstorms to the region, this will most likely result in greater flooding, urban infrastructure damage, and disease outbreaks in cities. Planning for that eventuality — putting the right drainage systems in place, for instance — calls for practical decision-making today that can be put into immediate effect so that cities in 2040 are prepared.

Flooding in Kampala, September 2020 (Source: Nicholas Bamulanzeki).


But how do city officials and politicians make planning decisions now, with such a long time-horizon in mind, when most are working within the limits of today’s annual budget cycles or five-year electoral cycles?

Researchers from HyCRISTAL have developed a novel planning tool that can help today’s decision-makers bridge the gap between the need for long-term change and the short-term practical actions that are needed now in order to address future development challenges.

Prof Barbara Evans, from the Leeds University School of Civil Engineering, is amongst the team of cross-disciplinary researchers working through HyCRISTAL, whose work includes addressing water, sanitation, and hygiene issues in low-income urban neighbourhoods in the global South.

The planning approach devised by the team involves imagining a plausible future scenario — in this case, one where the future climate includes greater extreme rain events and urban flooding — and then identifies the most pressing likely future impacts. From there, the framework allows planners to work backwards, until the present day, by drawing up a series of realistic and achievable actions that will be necessary along the way.

Applying this framework for health services and sanitation infrastructure in an urban African context, for instance, Evans and her team argue that the 40-year wetter seasons scenario would require that a city has drainage infrastructure that is sized adequately to handle bigger peak flood events. In order to have that in place, city managers 20 years earlier will need to have made budget decisions and approved investments that allowed for the necessary infrastructure to be installed by then. That would have required a series of municipal funding decisions to have taken place 10 years before that, which in turn would have needed five-year action plans leading up to that, starting today.

‘In the context of urban water and sanitation planning,’ Evans and colleagues David P Rowell (UK Met Office) and Fredrick Semazzi (North Carolina State University) write in the journal Environmental Research Letters in September 2020, ‘constraints in planning and budgeting limit the ability of departments to invest in re-engineering water or sanitation systems to deliver resilient services, because this would require reliable multi-year financial planning and operational transformation that cannot be funded from sporadic unreliable annual allocation.’

Kenyans wade through floodwaters from Lake Victoria (Photo: Mathew Okello, Practical Action)


This ‘future-climate, current policy’ framework draws from adaptive planning approaches as well as lessons from the business sector, and can be applied to planning challenges across sectors, particularly relating to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


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.

HyCRISTAL stands for Integrating Hydro Climate Science into Policy Decisions for Climate Resilient Infrastructure and Livelihoods in East Africa. HyCRISTAL aims to develop a new understanding of climate change in East Africa and to work with the region’s decision-makers to manage water for a more climate-resilient future.