By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, SFA Co-Director

As the year comes to an end, I realized that it has now been ten years since I began working on Climate Change Adaptation. I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude and happiness looking back at one decade of following my passion. Here, I do a self-reflection on the journey of past years; touching on experiences, challenges, growth and learning opportunities.

Ten years ago, when I was working as a Lecturer in Civil Engineering in Lesotho, my voluntary “industry attachment” at the Department of Meteorology in Maseru city, led me to be a Co-Applicant for a US National Science Foundation funded START Global Environment Change Research grant. We undertook research on how climate change impacted subsistence farmers in Lesotho. The 120 households we interviewed told us that food crops are the most vulnerable to weather particularly frost damage, hail, drought and dry spells, which reduced crop yields. Although it was a small research project, it was one of the first researches of its kind in Lesotho and gave baseline information on this subject. Today, we know that with climate change, heavy snowfalls, strong winds, floods and droughts are expected to continue to affect the country, posing a direct threat to sectors such as agriculture, forestry and infrastructure.

By end of 2009, my husband got an assignment in Malawi and we moved to picturesque Zomba city in southern Malawi. I started volunteering at the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi and prepared a book on birds which were distributed freely through Danish funding to 400 primary schools. At the launch of the book, I met the Director of a prominent NGO; Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), who gave me an opportunity to work with LEAD for almost five years. It was a chance to do some varied and interesting work, such as compiling the State of Environment Report for Malawi, developing the National Climate Change Policy for Malawi, compiling a Stocktaking Report for Rio +20 for Malawi, reviewing the Decentralized Environmental Management Guidelines for Malawi, conducting studies on Advancing Green Economy through Technology Transfer, on impacts of Lake Chilwa drying in 2012/13 and on Bilharzia prevalence. Through this work, I learnt about the interlinkages between various sectors and climate change.

It was clear that Malawi needed substantial funding for climate change adaptation. Fortunately, we got a chance to successfully develop a Global Environment Facility proposal, which went on to get $6million for climate proofing of local development gains in two districts of Malawi. This has supported over 0.5 million people to receive knowledge, tools, capacities and methodologies for the adoption of an ecosystems and community based approach as well as integrating climate risks into adaptation measures.

LEAD and partners implemented the Norway Government funded Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Programme, with interventions that included tree planting, training on climate change, setting up drama groups and radio clubs, building fuel efficient fish smoking kilns, solar fish dryers, weather monitoring stations, linking farmers to markets, conservation agriculture training, fuel efficient stoves promotion and setting up a radio and TV station. The experience helped me understand the importance of using an integrated approach, as communities live integrated lives, not in “siloes” of sectors. Adaptation efforts just focusing on one sector may not be as effective. Lake Chilwa communities demanded that we not only look at income generation and livelihood building activities but also to look at health and family planning.

Consequently, from the Lake Chilwa Project, we published a report on the Linkages between Population, Reproductive Health, Gender and Climate Change Adaptation and went on to disseminate this widely to funders and policymakers both nationally and internationally, including at the International Conference on Family Planning in Ethiopia to Woodrow Wilson Center and Capitol Hill in Washington DC. We are confident that this has inspired projects that came afterwards to take a more integrated approach to adaptation efforts.

We are conscious that Climate Change affects those who contributed least to it, particularly those in developing countries and this has led to a climate justice movement. The Scottish Government supports this thinking and their Scottish Climate Justice Fund (SCJF) provides funds to countries like Malawi to cope with climate change impacts. I was part of two projects funded by SCJF, one on Solar Energy Kiosks and the other on Water Resources and climate change. From the Solar Kiosk project, I understood that when piloting a technology, understanding community socio-economic status is key to make the project a success or failure. From the Water Resources project, I learnt that it is important for decentralized structures and Government officials to be involved from the beginning for the project to be sustainable. From December 2019, I am part of a new project also funded by SCJF which will look at energy issues in Malawi, coming up with a novel communal cooker using waste as input. This project is led by the University of Glasgow.

The work at LEAD also piqued my interest on ecosystem services, particularly on provisioning ecosystem services, as it impacts on the lives of natural resource dependent poor communities. I got interested in a fragile yet productive ecosystem, the “Likangala River Catchment”, and this ended up becoming my PhD study. The ecosystem provides so many benefits including edible wild animals, wild plants and fungi, medicinal plants, construction materials, ornamental flowers, firewood, honey, gum, reeds and thatch/weaving grasses. Human activities such as land use change had affected the provisioning ecosystem services and water quality. With climate change, such fragile ecosystems will be affected and the natural resources dependent communities who live off them will be affected.

In 2015, we moved to The Kingdom of Eswatini following my husband’s job and I began volunteering at the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organizations (CANGO) Recommended by CANGO, I was engaged under a United Nations Environment funded project as the Climate Change Adaptation consultant for Eswatini’s Technology Needs Assessment (TNA) for climate change management. The TNA prioritized the sectors and technologies that the country needs as it adapts to climate change. I received support from many people particularly the stakeholders and guidance from the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, which moved me to look at this project as an “Ubuntu” inspired journey. Already some projects in Eswatini are using the information from the TNA, which is heartening to note.

In 2016, I went back to Malawi to start a non-profit organization with some friends, which we called “Abundance”, inspired by nature which is plenty and regenerating. Based on my past experiences, we used an integrated approach with deep focus on the community and activities are driven by community needs, building self-reliance. It is a completely voluntarily run organization and the dedicated team in Malawi are fantastic! The same year, I was approached by a colleague from the University of Glasgow to join the Sustainable Futures in Africa network. It appealed to me because the network uses a decolonial approach to our work and explore the relationship between social, cultural, and ecological factors in sustainability in Africa through interdisciplinary research initiatives. Co-Directing this network with Dr.Mia Perry with members from Scotland, Nigeria, Botswana, Uganda and Malawi is a pleasurable and stimulating experience. Abundance as an organization is also part of the network. Through the network, I had a chance to have a residency at the University of Glasgow in 2018 and give talks at the University on the lessons learnt from my work in Africa.

A friend in my PhD cohort linked me with a consultancy firm in South Africa (Gibb). Through them, I was able to undertake a regional consultancy work to compile the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Climate Change Year Book, covering 15 countries which was published in English, Portuguese and French. My interest in research continued to bubble within me and led me to undertake a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (Makana), South Africa. This culminated in a few journal articles and a book on Poverty Reduction through Non-Timber Forest Products, with case studies from six continents, which was published by Springer. I am now back in Eswatini and with colleagues supporting the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) to build capacity to develop proposals tapping on to climate finance. Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation are two sides of the same coin, I have come to understand as I work with NDMA.

Ten years ago, changing my career from civil engineering to environmental science and working on climate change adaptation and global development seemed like a risky thing to do. Looking back, I know it was right move. The transition would not have happened if I had not connected with supportive colleagues and mentors who guided me through this journey; and family and friends who were understanding throughout. It is tremendously satisfying to work on climate change adaptation, which is very pertinent today. However, at the moment, I also have a sense of anxiety for the future; about climatic stressors that will make permanent and temporary changes to ecosystems and the implications for losses and damages to people and society. As we make New Year’s Resolutions, let’s make some resolutions to make personal and collective action to save the planet. Let us contribute less emissions towards climate change, let us help with adaptation efforts.

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Obafemi Awolowo University

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