United Nations Environment Programme

Empowering the vulnerable

Participatory action to mitigate and adapt to climate change can also alleviate poverty.
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Residents of vulnerable communities have been trained as “treepreneurs”, who collect indigenous seeds and grow seedlings, earning credit to exchange for things like food and building materials.

Many cities in the developing world lack the capacity to adapt in the face of emerging climate variability, caught in a perfect storm of population growth, escalating adaptation needs, and substantial development deficits. In South Africa, these challenges have been exacerbated by a legacy of formalised racial division that has created widespread social, economic and environmental injustice.

The city of Durban, also known as eThekwini Municipality, is in a biodiversity hotspot, one of only 35 of its kind worldwide, but faces serious threats to its ecosystems. As the planet warms, temperatures in the Municipality are likely to increase by 3-5°C by 2100. This is likely to manifest itself in more frequent extreme rainfall events and higher stream flow intensity, with prolonged dry spells. Projected impacts include an increase in extreme weather overall, the erosion and loss of topsoil, a rise in vector-borne diseases, species extinctions and potential reductions in agricultural yields.

The Municipality has tried to adopt a systemic approach to dealing with climate change by developing an integrated mitigation and adaptation strategy. This was developed through a public participation process to deepen our shared understanding of the climate change problem, and to identify opportunities and co-benefits for service delivery and job creation through the solutions pursued.

Much of the adaptation and mitigation work undertaken in the city since the initiation of its Municipal Climate Protection Programme in 2004 has been opportunistic and reactive. A more strategic approach was adopted in 2015 through the Durban Climate Change Strategy, which has 10 thematic areas: Water, Sea Level Rise, Biodiversity, Food Security, Health, Energy, Waste and Pollution, Transport, Economic Development, and Knowledge Generation and Understanding. Implementing it is overseen by a political climate change committee.

Durban was recognised in the C40 Infocus report for its climate change achievements and was singled out as the only African city that scored highly for the quality and completeness of its environmental risk reporting for 2015.

The Municipality's mitigation work – undertaken by its Energy Office and highly informed by South Africa's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 and by 42 per cent by 2025, compared to a “business-as-usual” scenario - starts with the development of an emissions inventory, per source and per economic sector. It mainly focuses on reducing emissions from electricity generation, principally through energy efficiency and promoting the uptake of renewable energy. The goal is to transition to a less emissions-intensive energy mix – with economic benefits resulting from improved efficiency – while incentivizing economic growth in sectors with lower energy intensities.

Specific projects that have been implemented include: energy efficiency interventions in municipally owned facilities and infrastructure; solar water heating systems, water pumps and motors; installing solar panels on municipal buildings; a cycling programme for staff members; and an attractive public transport system.

Adaptation – overseen by the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department - focuses on biodiversity, and is anchored by the city's 79,000-hectare Metropolitan Open Space System. It includes indigenous reforestation projects in the city that also aim to alleviate poverty. Residents of some of Durban’s poorest and most vulnerable communities have been trained as “treepreneurs”, who collect indigenous seeds and grow seedlings, earning credit that can be exchanged at quarterly “tree stores” for things like food and building materials, or to cover school fees.

Reafforestation projects have been established, including to offset carbon emissions from hosting mega events like the 2010 football World Cup. Green roofs are championed for municipally-owned buildings and there is a successful programme to alleviate poverty and develop skills by employing people to manage fires and undertake invasive plant control, mostly in priority areas of high biodiversity.

Planning is underpinned by long term research commitments through the Durban Research Action Partnership with the city's local tertiary institution of higher learning, producing knowledge that both provides guidance for implementing adaptation and fills critical skills deficiencies in the local job market.

Implementing the climate change strategy builds upon the initiation in 2008 of Municipal Adaptation Plans for water, health and disaster management, and seeks to extend the climate change response to other functions and to residents of the city. Partnerships are being developed to implement initiatives like the Palmiet Rehabilitation Project, where multiple stakeholders have together developed an understanding of catchment-based challenges and solutions through a climate change lens. The stakeholder group brings leadership from informal settlements into the planning process to empower their communities with solutions. These have included a positive community response to solid waste and the training of snake monitors to alter negative perceptions of the reptiles, which are attracted to pests associated with the waste and have bitten some people. Developing project stakeholder groups able to address multiple root causes of problems, rather than their symptoms, and empowering vulnerable communities together present a compelling vision of how transformative action should be.

Such action aligns with national priorities such as poverty alleviation, international obligations including the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, and local imperatives like the City’s Integrated Development Plan. It seeks to address mitigation and adaptation, whilst generating co-benefits and building the green economy. Globally, there has never been stronger recognition of the urgency that should be given to climate change action, and this is reflected in the finance mechanisms that have become available.

Durban is now planning a large-scale transformative programme to address climate change not just in the city, but in its surrounding municipalities, through the Central KwaZulu-Natal Climate Change Compact. This partnership is endorsed by the Durban Adaptation Charter, which seeks to scale up climate change action beyond municipal boundaries, and has been signed by 341 mayors and local government leaders, representing 1,069 cities from 45 countries, half of them African. Compact partnerships are now being planned across Southern and East Africa, where neighbouring municipalities are seeking to share resources and skills to plan and implement climate change programmes through a transformative approach that builds good governance.

The authors are grateful for the contributions of Magash Naidoo and Debra Roberts to this article.