Moving Forward Together: A Presentation of my Findings to the Zambia Red Cross Society

This post originally appeared on the website of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Science & Technology Policy Research in August 2016. See the original post here.

On Tuesday, August 16, 20016 I had the opportunity to present the findings of my fieldwork in rural communities located in Kazungula District of Zambia’s Southern Province to the Zambia Red Cross Society (ZRCS) in order to obtain feedback and engage in a critical discussion. The specific goals of this study, implemented over the course of two weeks as part of my internship with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, were to detail current barriers that communities face both in coping with and adapting to climate-induced disasters. An additional objective was to identify potential culturally-appropriate and feasible strategies for enhancing early warning systems (EWSs) and supporting disaster preparedness at the community level.


My hope was that the information I gathered would assist the ZRCS in their ongoing preparedness activities in these communities and in developing new proposals that more explicitly consider opportunities for building local climate resilience. In my presentation, I provided an overview of the primary disasters that residents face as well as a rich description of local strategies for coping with floods and droughts. This was followed by detailed information on both local access to formal weather and climate information and traditional mechanisms for predicting disasters in the absence of these formal sources. More details on these topics are provided in my previous blog, “Anticipating Disaster: Formal Climate Information vs. Traditional Ways of Knowing Floods and Droughts”. I then moved into a discussion of existing interventions that attempt to institute formal early warning systems in the region, analyzed each of their strengths and limitations, and then described community-initiated EWSs that already function on the ground using observations made in upstream communities. These formal and informal EWSs are described at length in my blog, “Early Warnings for Floods: Formal Interventions vs. Traditional Forms of Relaying Critical Information”. The most important part of my presentation, however, revolved around my ‘Recommendations’ section and the lively discussion it inspired among ZRCS staff in considering ways to integrate my research in their own work moving forward.

My recommendations focused primarily on two areas: 1) identifying opportunities for enhancing community-based EWSs already functioning in the region and 2) making suggestions for low-tech climate adaptive strategies proposed by residents that would only be feasible with either technical or financial assistance from an institution like the ZRCS. Specifically, on the topic of EWSs, I recommended leveraging the river gauges that already exist on tributaries to the Zambezi River by linking their trained gauge readers to downstream communities. Furthermore, by installing additional basic river gauges in the upstream, more residents can be integrated into a localized EWS based on providing lead times by simply linking upstream communities with access to live river level data with at-risk downstream villages. Such systems could leverage both the informal communication structures already present on the ground and the ZRCS’s Satellite Disaster Management Committees (SDMCs) to formalize a more effective means for dissemination.

In addition to these detailed recommendations on ways to enhance community-based EWSs, I also presented several potential climate adaptive strategies for mitigating local loss to floods and droughts that were generated by my informants during interviews and focus groups. These including the deepening of natural reservoirs in order to maintain a water supply for drinking and irrigation into the dry season, identifying appropriate places to sink boreholes using certain tree species as environmental indicators of non-salty water, and establishing seed banks to preserve indigenous drought-resistant crop varieties. Supporting community-initiated adaptive strategies such as these could work to address the dual climate-induced challenges of floods and droughts experienced in Kazungula communities.

After my presentation, ZRCS Disaster Management Coordinator Wisford Mudenda, Disaster Management Officer Samuel Mutambo, and I had a discussion about the ZRCS’s existing programs to build climate resilience in Kazungula communities and their plans for future information. Mr. Mudenda stressed, that having worked in these villages over the years, he has observed that one of the major failures of interventions has been the fact that there is rarely adequate attention paid to people’s livelihoods and the economic constraints many households face in adapting to climate change. For example, he described that the intervention, which the ZRCS was also involved in, to relocate Kasaya households out of the floodplain and resettle them in Namapande after the devastating 2006 and 2008 floods was limited in that it failed to recognize the reality of local needs and livelihoods. The resettled households, Mr. Mudenda explained, were not given adequate support in transitioning from a livelihood based on fishing to one dependent upon rain fed agriculture. Because farming did not resonate with people’s experience and skill set, many people sold the land they had been given and moved to town or back to the river. Those who stayed, as I also observed in my interviews, were forced to resort to destructive occupations like charcoal production in order to earn enough to meet their most basic needs.

In reflecting on how Kazungula residents may adapt to the growing number of climate induced disasters in the region, Mr. Mudenda stressed that permanent relocation linked to land privatization does not seem to be an effective solution. Instead, there may be more resilience in preserving the fluid movements to and from the river that residents have traditionally made. Additionally, Disaster Management Officer Mr. Mutambo explained that even within current ZRCS interventions that seek to build climate resilience, there is a need to support traditional livelihoods in addition to agriculture by providing goats and other small livestock to people who have long been pastoralists and not farmers. These traditional livelihoods, in the end, may actually be more feasible with the growing water insecurity the region is facing.

In prioritizing interventions moving forward, Mr. Mudenda expressed that as an institution the ZRCS is most compelled to support adaptive strategies to cope with droughts and severe water stress as this is a chronic disaster that exacerbates the vulnerability of households across Kazungula. While floods are also devastating, they are less frequent, highly localized, and affect residents for a much shorter period of time. This conclusion seems to reflect the broader consensus among stakeholders whom I spoke with on the ground: both floods and droughts impact communities, but droughts are much harder to predict, have fewer adaptive actions to be taken, and have far greater economic impacts. For this reason, ZRCS staff were very interested in exploring interventions to support the deepening of natural reservoirs as recommended by local interlocutors during my interviews and focus groups. These basic excavation projects would be less expensive than bore wells, preserve salt-free surface water for drinking, and could serve multiple purposes for communities (watering holes for cattle, irrigation for vegetable gardens, etc.).

Despite the ZRCS’s primary interest in supporting adaptive strategies to secure Kazungula residents from drought, staff also expressed enthusiasm for simple actions that could greatly enhance early warning systems for flooding at the community level. During my presentation, staff were particularly interested in learning more about my experience working with Practical Action in South Asia on their community-based early warning systems that serve 70,000 Nepalis and over 100,000 Indian farmers by linking downstream villages to live river level data through simple cell phone technology. As I projected several images and explained the model that I am studying for my thesis, ZRCS staff frequently stopped me to ask questions.

Furthermore, prior to my research and presentation of results, ZRCS Disaster Management staff had not been aware of the informal communication structures villages already relied upon to access water level information from upstream communities. This awareness may enable the ZRCS to enhance these systems by leveraging the SDMC structures they already have in set up in communities. Staff reflected on the value of holding community focus groups, perhaps in villages downstream from the Kasaya Bridge and other existing river gauges, to do participatory risk mapping and set up a structure for sharing that information locally.

As we concluded the discussion, Mr. Mudenda reflected on the point I had made in my presentation that one of the greatest challenges with adapting to floods in Kazungula is the way in which these disasters are experienced unevenly and how, due to site-specific topography and hydrology, the impacts of these events are vastly different. Although the localized nature of flooding may be more pronounced than droughts, Mr. Mudenda reminded me that this illustrates how, at the end of the day, any intervention to support community-based climate adaptation has to acknowledge that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. In order to effectively support climate adaptation, institutions like the ZRCS need to consider the ways in which broader trends are experienced differently at the local level, not even at the district level, but within individual villages across Kazungula. Such localized actions, however, informed by the place-based knowledge and the rich experiences of people who have lived in these communities for generations may be the most effective path forward for building local resilience.

At the end of my presentation and discussion, I thanked both Mr. Mudenda and Mr. Mutambo for all of their support over the course of my internship. It has been an honor to serve the ZRCS in some small way in this mission. Regardless of how they choose to proceed on the ground in Kazungla, I am thrilled to have been able participate in such a rich discussion and listen to the reflections of Disaster Management staff on how the information I uncovered could both inspire and guide future interventions to build local climate resilience.

See photo gallery of Sierra’s Red Cross-Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship in Zambia.

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