Europe and Central Asia
10 Mar 2016

Combatting climate change in habitats with nature-friendly plans

A Regal Sunbird in the Echuya Forest Reserve. Photo: Gilles Bassiere/Flickr
By Edward Perry

For a climate change policy wonk, there is nothing more glamorous than to escape the stuffy negotiating rooms and venture into the field. Nothing more informative and grounding than to spend time observing and talking to local communities. And nowhere more fascinating to do this than the vast and varied ecosystems of East Africa.

As part of an adaptation project funded by the UK’s Darwin Initiative, I visited a number of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in East Africa. Each site – from the wetlands of Akanyaru in Rwanda to the montane forests of Echuya in Uganda – has a unique beauty. But one thing common to them all is a striking interdependence between the IBAs and the communities living within and around them. The IBAs provide communities with their basic needs – food, clean water and raw materials – and help buffer them from flood, soil erosion and drought. However, pressures such as unsustainable agriculture, deforestation and invasive species are threatening the health of IBAs and that of the communities that depend on them.

Climate change is adding to these pressures, amplifying existing risks to people and ecosystems and creating new ones. Communities living in the Akanyaru Wetlands have noticed an increased occurrence of serious flooding and prolonged drought over the past 15 years, leading to poor crop yields and water insecurity. Climate projections suggest that such events will only intensify and become more frequent across East Africa.

The BirdLife Partnership is providing communities with the tools they need to build their resilience to climate change. We are helping communities to better understand the risks they face, and empowering them to develop and implement adaptation plans that integrate actions to maintain, restore or enhance ecosystem services as a way to reduce their vulnerability. The beauty of these so-called ‘ecosystem-based approaches’ to adaptation is that they are readily accessible to rural communities, and tend to be good for nature too.

In Akanyaru, the community is removing invasive water hyacinth and converting it into fertiliser to restore natural flood regimes, improve fisheries and increase crop productivity. Communities on the edges of the Echuya Forest Reserve are adopting climate-smart agricultural practices and domesticating bamboo to reduce pressure on the forest, while the Serukubeze community in Burundi is restoring the slopes of the Mpungwe Mountain Chain to stabilise soils against erosion, help manage flood risk and increase soil fertility.

BirdLife International has been working with Partners to scale-up these responses by integrating ecosystem-based adaptation into a range of policies and plans, from local development plans in Burundi to the National Development Plan and National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan in Uganda.

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Birds are also affected by climate change. A global synthesis report shows that climate change has already led to changes in species distribution, disrupted interactions between predators, competitors and prey, and created mismatches in the timing of key events such as migration, breeding and food supply. These and other impacts are projected to worsen under climate change, with more than twice as many species being negatively impacted than the number of those benefitting. 

Enhancing the resilience of the existing IBA network will continue to be a priority for bird conservation as well as for community livelihoods. But this alone will not suffice: BirdLife is identifying new sites to conserve, enhancing the connectivity between IBAs to facilitate species movement across landscapes, and taking specific actions to help individual species adapt like the African Penguin.   

Adaptation is about learning. While we know a lot about climate change, uncertainties remain as to how it will manifest itself in specific localities, how people and nature will respond, and indeed what are the most effective responses. This means talking with communities, monitoring how birds respond to climate change, and being flexible and adaptive with our responses.

Policy wonks can learn a lot in the field, but have an important role to play back in their offices and stuffy negotiating rooms. Building the resilience of people and nature to climate change requires effective policy frameworks that facilitate nimble decision-making and that guide and incentivise sustainable, climate-resilient land management.

Last year was a successful one for multilateralism, with the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Each of these recognises the importance of ecosystem resilience and ecosystem-based approaches for adaptation. They send a powerful signal to governments and provide a catalyst to scale-up effective action nationally.

With its combined experience and reach of 119 Partners, the BirdLife Partnership has an important role to play in helping governments deliver these agreements in a way that is good for people and good for nature. 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.