Zomba City, Malawi, 29 March 2022 – As nations continue to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic, southeastern Africa has been rocked by a series of back-to-back storms.

On the 23rd of January, tropical storm Ana struck the coast, shortly followed by cyclones Batsirai and Emnati. With little time to recover, the region then braced for the passage of tropical cyclone Gombe, an event that led to devastating impacts in multiple countries.

In such conditions, cities, particularly densely populated informal neighbourhoods, are acutely exposed. The United Nations’ weather agency warns that eight to twelve more cyclones are expected in the Southern African region by the end of the cyclone season in May. As such, relying on emergency response is not a long-term solution.

In response, the answer to the region’s climate-related challenges lies in preparedness and building resilience – a realignment from a pattern of shock-response towards one of disaster risk management.

Since 2020, the project ‘Building Urban Climate Resilience in South-Eastern Africa,’ has proceeded under this notion. The initiative, headed by UN-Habitat, aims to strengthen urban resilience, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation strategies amongst four cities in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and the Union of Comoros.

The project, funded by the Adaptation Fund, is implemented by UN-Habitat, the four governments, the cities Morondava, Zomba, Chokwe and Moroni, alongside OXFAM and the Sub-Regional Technical Centre for Disaster Management, Sustainability and Urban Resilience (DiMSUR).

Last week, stakeholders met in Malawi to share experiences and learn from one another. This was an opportunity to improve policies for disaster risk management and climate change adaptation, which is critical given the transboundary nature of the extreme climate events affecting the region.

“This interaction between countries, while they exchange strengths, difficulties and plans, is a way to solidify a regional evidence-based strategy that will improve the capacity of the member countries of DiMSUR, to prevent, manage and mitigate the devastating effects of climate change, that are growing drastically in southern Africa, in the last years,” commented DiMSUR’s newly appointed Executive Director Nuno Remane.

During a field visit to project sites in Zomba City, city Council and community leaders presented the progress that had been made on numerous interventions: drainage works, the installation of gabion baskets and the construction of an evacuation centre which employs thirty women and four men from the community. Judith Saddik, a site clerk at the evacuation centre construction site, highlighted the change the centre had made to her community:

“It’s very good and nice for people during the rainy season; they can hide from the rain. When their houses are damaged, they can come here during the rainy season and in the case of any disaster,” she said.

Stakeholders also viewed how the project is building bridges – literally and figuratively. This was captured well by the Mayor of Zomba, Davie Maunde, during a site visit in Namalaka.

“You can see that the interventions which this project has brought to the community (...) bridge the gap which was there between the communities of the south and the east. Normally, many facilities which they depend on are on the other side. On this side, many people depend on the facilities that are on the other side like schools and hospitals. So, the intervention [a bridge] is quite welcome,” he said.

The project demonstrates how participatory resilience planning and prioritising can led to the implementation of integrated climate solutions for safer and more livable cities, whilst addressing root causes of vulnerability that amplify disaster risk. The interventions being carried out follow a stringent environmental and social management plan which ensures the most vulnerable are empowered.

Resilience-building requires participation, inclusion, prioritisation and an integrated suite of solutions at all levels. UN-Habitat and its partners aspire to help the region move from reaction to action and look forward to building on the learnings generated during this workshop.