Climate change adaptation is not just about vulnerable countries

There are unsustainable cities in the Global North as well as the Global South. Real adaptation means hard choices in wealthier countries too.

Overlooking Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Yasser Abusen.

Overlooking Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Yasser Abusen.

In the climate change talks recently concluded in Paris, the final agreement included a goal to raise some $100 billion for adaptation and mitigation efforts in the world’s most vulnerable countries. While the idea of ‘adaptation’ was initially shunned by activists as giving up on mitigation, it was accepted as necessary at the 2009 Copenhagen climate meeting when experts and policymakers acknowledged that some level of climate change was unavoidable.

Adaptation is now seen as a central part of climate change efforts, framed as a transfer from rich to poor countries to enable people in the Global South to adjust to challenging circumstances. However, it says little about wealthier nations and their own unsustainable conditions.

When it comes to urban adaptation, for instance, cities such as Gaborone in Botswana are likely victims of climate change and deserve adaptation support. But that’s only one side of the puzzle. Other metropoles such as Phoenix, USA, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, are similarly part of the problem of too many people living in arid places. While conservation is critical, the time has come for adaption in the Global North as well and for some governments to actively encourage people to resettle in more well-watered areas of their countries.

Going dry

When Botswana gained independence from the UK in 1966, it didn’t have a capital city as it had been administered from a locale in South Africa. After surveying potential locations in this dryland nation, planners built Gaborone in south-eastern Botswana near one of the few places with adequate rainfall and a site for a dam that could supply the city with water. It also helped that the city was located in a more densely populated part of the country and along a railway constructed in the colonial era.

Now, some 50 years later, the dam supplying water for this city of roughly 250,000 people has gone dry and residents of Gaborone endure water rationing. Six out of the last 10 years have been drought years, with average rainfall in the Gaborone area declining from 530 mm per annum in the 20th century to 450mm in more recent years. While the reasons for Gaborone’s dwindling water supply are complex, shifting rainfall patterns related to climate change and a burgeoning urban population explain much of the shortage. Downscaled climate change models suggest that the situation will grow even worse in the decades to come.

The Government of Botswana has not taken this problem sitting down, building a north-south water carrier in 2000, extending some 360 km to the northeast to transport water from reservoirs built along the Motloutse and Shashe tributaries of the Limpopo River. The pipeline is now being extended to bring in water from the newly constructed Dikgatlhong Dam further up the Shashe River.

Botswana has been able to undertake such measures because it is a middle-income country that has astutely managed its diamond mining industry and invested heavily in public services. It has also cooperated with its neighbours in order to gain legal access to surface water from the region’s rivers.

But while the government is handling these challenging circumstances, one might reasonably ask how fair it is for it alone to shoulder the costs of such water transfers when global climate change − largely brought about by the emissions of others − has left this nation’s capital city high and dry.

Unsustainable from the start

The new climate change agreement struck in Paris purports to help cities like Gaborone adapt to such change. However, what is happening in Botswana also raises uncomfortable questions for other dryland cities, especially those in wealthier countries that rarely attract the attention of environment and development experts. What about metropoles that have never, even without climate change, been in sites with favourable physical attributes such as access to fresh water and a hospitable climate?

Take the case of Phoenix, USA, which currently relies on a vast network of dams and aqueducts across the western part of the country to supply water to its 4.5 million person metro area, the twelfth largest in the country. The entire western USA has been plagued by drought for much of the past 10 years and water demand from Phoenix and other cities has so drained the Colorado River that neighbouring Mexico rarely sees a trickle from this waterway.

The location of Phoenix was neither chosen for extremely favourable site conditions nor a situational trade advantage. Rather it was initially built on the back of an agricultural economy supported by large scale irrigation resulting from political decisions for dam-based development of semi-arid areas in the western USA. The city’s more recent growth has been fuelled by air conditioning, heat seeking retirees, and an influx of high tech companies.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with 5.7 million people, is another dryland city seriously challenged by water scarcity. The level of investment in Riyadh, and its capital city status, has little or nothing to do with desirable site or situation characteristics as it has always had limited fresh water resources and is not at the centre of major transportation networks. Rather, its position reflects the fact that this is the ancestral home of the Saudi ruling family.

What is remarkable about Riyadh is that it is increasingly supplied with desalinated water pumped from the Persian Gulf over a distance of 467 km. While the Saudi government has the resources to support this type of infrastructure, there are periods when water is rationed because of inadequate supplies. Thornier still is the politically charged question of how sustainable is a major city that increasingly relies on energy intensive desalination, a process that is not only expensive, but generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Global support for urban adaptation to global climate change is often framed as a way for people in the Global South to adjust to challenging circumstances, but it says little about cities in the wealthier nations that may be structurally unsustainable because of their arid locations. While conservation is critical, because it is far cheaper and more environmentally friendly than desalination or transporting water over long distances, there may also come a time when governments need to actively encourage people to resettle in more well-watered areas of their countries if such options exist.

Real adaptation also means hard choices in wealthier countries.

William G. Moseley is a Professor of Geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, USA, and, formerly, visiting faculty in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Botswana. His latest book is Land Reform in South Africa: An Uneven Transformation. Follow him on twitter at @WilliamGMoseley.

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