Johannesburg - Five years ago, the South African port of Durban - threatened by storm surges and sea-level rise - pioneered a cross-sectoral climate adaptation policy similar to ones in London and New York, but is now experimenting with new policies more suited to a developing country.
Climate change was seen as a distant threat and not a priority by sectors such as housing which urgently needs to deliver to a majority of the population denied proper homes during apartheid.
The city is torn between environment and development agendas - and problems such as 34 percent unemployment, a housing backlog of 200,000 units, and a third of pregnant women attending ante-natal clinics being HIV-positive, have not made matters easier. It also faces enormous service delivery backlogs, weak capacity and limited sectoral buy-in.
During what the local authorities called the Headline Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, it became evident that there were departments such as public works and strategic planning that were not even aware of the need to build a climate change adaptation strategy, while others like water - more obviously vulnerable to climate risks - were more receptive.
Disaster management and its capacity to support disaster risk reduction is central to any adaptation policy. In a perfect world a city’s disaster management unit would work with all sectors to develop early warning systems, identify vulnerable areas and communities, and draw up strategies to reduce risk and climate-proof infrastructure.
But one of the biggest stumbling blocks was the perception of Durban’s disaster management unit as merely organizing relief during a crisis. The unit lacked capacity, said Durban’s deputy environmental head, Debra Roberts.
Roberts and Durban were brave enough to admit to the failure of the integrated adaptation strategy and move on. "When I admitted that the cross-sectoral approach did not work for us at an international conference, I had officials from Asian cities come and thank me for saying that," she said.
"It is one thing to talk about emerging trends in adaptation policy but another when you actually get to implementation," she added.
The idea now was to start small and focus on specific sectors - "ones that were aligned with existing business plans, development objectives and available funding and skills," said Roberts. The city adopted two pilot sectors - water and health - because of their vulnerability to climate risks.
But it became clear that despite the best intentions of the two sectors they would not be able to respond to all the impacts such as displacement of communities, an increase in human injuries, multiple emergencies over a wide geographical area, disease outbreaks and food shortages. The need for developing an adaptation plan for the disaster management unit became all the more relevant.
Pilot plans are being put in place, said Roberts. While the water sector has done well, the health sector and the disaster management unit - affected by skills shortages - have made little progress.
But as she puts it: "There is the sobering realization that, despite the serious risks posed by climate change, it is very basic institutional and resource challenges that are currently delaying appropriate disaster management planning, and not factors such as lack of access to new technologies and more sophisticated data sets."
Durban’s innovative policies have led to important lessons for urban settlements across the world, said David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and lead author of the chapter on urban adaptation in the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be published in 2014.
Climate change projections
Rainfall in Durban is expected to become intense but last for shorter periods and the number of days with temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius is likely to increase in another 60 years, according to climate change projections for the city prepared by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa.
The combined impact of the change in the rainfall patterns, and high temperatures, will affect water availability, agriculture production and food security.
Durban has already begun recycling sewage water to potable standards to reduce pressure on fresh water, but it needs to implement plans to increase the absorption capacity of the urban landscape in view of possible storm surges and flooding, improve drainage and storm sewer designs, Roberts said.
The health sector is pushing for improved systems able to cope with an increased caseload of emergencies. Higher temperatures may also cause malaria to spread to previously unaffected areas in Durban, the projections indicate. There is also a possibility of heat-related deaths and the spread of water-borne diseases.
"You need complete buy-in from the highest levels… Besides, each sector - be it housing or health - has different agendas and capacities," IIED’s Satterthwaite pointed out, adding: "Roberts and Durban will ultimately end up with a multisectoral approach - what she [Roberts] is doing is going about it in a sensible and pragmatic way."
Durban will host the main round of UN climate change talks in December 2011.