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Experts Probe Urban Growth, Climate Change Links in Africa

A new project has united researchers exploring the connection between rapid urban growth in Africa and climate related emergencies, in an effort to safeguard vulnerable urban populations from the effects of climate change.

The Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa program, or CCAA, aims to increase the capacity of African people and organizations to cope with the effects of climate change.

Sponsored by Canada's International Development Research Center and the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, the project hopes to indentify strategies to help the urban poor in Africa's largest cities to adapt to challenges posed by the changing environment, says project manager Francois Gasengayire.

"The program supports research that helps reduce poverty by improving the environment. And the goal is to harness the capacity of the poor to reduce environmental degradation as it relates to natural disasters, and enhance the use of natural resources for food, water, and income generation," he said.

Gasengayire says program organizers sought out proposals from across Africa for research projects exploring the links between urban growth and climate change. The researchers, who have assembled in Dakar, represent a range of institutions working with the diverse climate-related issues facing urban areas throughout Africa.

Gasengayire said that an increase in disasters caused by climate change is likely to be felt most acutely in Africa's urban centers.

"There is a kind of link, and at the same time a vicious cycle between poverty, urban poverty, and environmental burdens," he said.

Experts say the effects of climate change are already being felt across the continent, and fear that incidences of flooding and drought, and the frequency and intensity of severe storms, will continue to increase in coming decades. Gasingayire says recent shifts in familiar weather patterns, caused by climate change, have made traditional agriculture across Africa less profitable, and driven Africans from rural areas to cities in unprecedented numbers.

The resulting population growth of urban centers, in turn, places stress on natural resources, such as arable land, natural fuels, and fresh water supplies, according to Liqa Raschid-Sally, program manager in Ghana and Ethiopia for Sri Lanka based International Water Management Institute.

"When you move water from agriculture to cities, you can also have an aggravation of the situation in the rural area, or the suburban area, affecting the city, and so there are a lot of issues around this rural-urban interface which could be aggravated by climate change and therefore also affect the cities," she said.

Sally says increasing numbers of poor migrants to an urban area also heavily tax infrastructure, placing higher demand on already inadequate water and sanitation systems, and creating a challenge for urban planners. She says her work is aimed at giving policy makers some tools to employ in their planning.

"The approach is to try to have a science-based decision tool to help policy makers and planners, decision makers at the city level essentially, to address these questions," she added.

Such policy tools are necessary because the urban poor have fewer resources to adapt to climate change, and are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, says University of Ghana researcher Samuel Nli Andey, describing an urban settlement outside Accra.

"The problem is you have this huge migrant settlement, which is located on a flat plain, these areas experience floods on a normal basis, every year there are floods, and we think this is going to increase. And once it increases it is going to affect the lives of the people there," he said.

Andey says his research will focus on surveying houses in the effected zones, and studying the anticipated responses to flooding. He says the problems caused by flooding are likely to worsen as new residents move into flood plains around Accra.

In 2008, floods struck several countries in West Africa, including Ghana, Liberia, and Senegal, and caused significant damage in Accra. Ghanaian officials and urban planners blamed overbuilding in low-lying, flood prone areas for exacerbating the damage caused by the disaster.