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Guy Weets – Protecting African cities against climate-change disasters

An interdisciplinary team of scientists in European and Africa study the outlook for African cities in a changing climate, and identify their vulnerabilities 

Guy Weets – Protecting African cities against climate-change disasters

Guy Weets, a telecommunications engineer and consultant for the research centre AMRA (Analysis and Monitoring of Environmental Risk) in Naples, is the scientific coordinator of the CLUVA project, funded by the EU. He tells about this research project designed to study ways to improve resilience towards climate change of African cities. In particular, the project, due to conclude in November 2013, focuses on the vulnerabilities of these cities and ways to assess the risk of disasters, such as flooding, sea-level rises, storms, droughts, desertification and fires.

This is not your first involvement in Africa. You previously tried to implement an early warning system for disasters based on mobile phones and information technology. Why did it fail?
Africans are quite good at using their mobiles, much better than we are. So technology was not the issue.  The real issue was governance. I remember an interview in Cameroon: we said to the local people: “There is a major risk of flooding in this region, and we advise you to evacuate this village.” Then we asked: “What are you going to do?” They answered: “We won’t leave. We don’t trust the government.”  We stopped the project because it seemed useless to develop technologies that would not be used.

So in what way is the approach of the CLUVA project different?
We have an entirely different objective: prevention—long-term prevention—because we cannot do something meaningful in the short term. The project is not a traditional research project, it is foresight knowledge research. We aim to influence policy makers, using good science, which is quite complicated because it requires a multidisciplinary approach. It requires the translation of scientific results and more specifically, uncertainties, into something that is understandable by the stake holders.  For me this is the most important aspect of the project, otherwise it will not create breakthroughs in climate-change resilient cities.

Why did the project focus on cities and not entire regions? 
Africa is experiencing the fastest urbanisation in the world. Unfortunately this urbanisation is not planned but done in total anarchy, making these cities especially vulnerable.  We identified the direct vulnerabilities, such as the resistance of buildings to floods. But what is important but difficult to do is to understand contextual vulnerabilities. That is ways in which disasters can cause poverty in the population because the capacity to work is destroyed. Poverty is the biggest vulnerability in Africa.

To study this vulnerability, we drafted scenarios of climate-change induced disasters.  In particular, we found that some cities will probably disappear. Saint Louis, a coastal city in Senegal and a UN Heritage Site, is an example. It is threatened by the combination of the flooding of the Senegal River, coastal erosion and the rise in sea level, and they simply do not have the resources to keep the city where it is now. 

How did the selected cities then benefit from the project?
Typically cities which benefited from the project through the implementation of a methodology to analyse, quantify and map important ecosystem services of the urban green structures that increase the resilience of the city to climate change. This approach also allowed assessing the impact of climate change on such green structures, and how they can serve to adapt to climate change. In that respect,  Saint Louis, Dar es Salaam and Addis Ababa certainly benefited from the study. By comparison, Ouagadougou and Douala are really lagging behind because the local universities have been unable to assign the right scientists to the right problems.  Generally, what we have found will be applicable to many cities in Africa.

For predicting climate change the project relied on the widely-used global circulation model.  Is it applicable to small areas, such as cities?
We can downscale the global circulation model to cells of eight by eight kilometres. And even to one kilometre by one kilometre.  But to use this model we need at least a history of measurements of wind, temperature, rainfall, over a few decades.  In Europe, we have hundreds of meteorological stations, but in Africa we are lucky if we have one station that makes measurements that are more or less reliable.  Our objective is not to make a breakthrough in climate research, but to give the authorities an indication of how they can improve the situation by making better measurements.

27 March 2013

by Alexander Hallemans

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No 6419747th FWP