Adaptation angst in The Gambia

In recent weeks I’ve been researching a series of Francophone countries. With no option but to grapple with lengthy documents in French, I’ve skated the thin ice of a little knowledge in the language being a dangerous thing.

Turning to a new climate briefing for The Gambia therefore offered welcome relief. I don’t understand how the British colonials managed to secure this sliver of territory, almost totally enveloped by French Senegal, but at least I could read the stuff.

NAPAs are not normally a bundle of fun. These National Adaptation Programmes of Action are bound by a template and methodology imposed by the UN agencies funding the work. The stilted language often betrays the frustration of a government team working in a straitjacket.

Despite its tiny population of 1.6 million, the Gambian government had to follow the same discipline and churn out its 100 pages. But whoever wrote the report (suspicion falls on Dr. Momodou Njie) not only has a fine command of English, but also resolved that there were things to be said about climate change, notwithstanding the restrictive brief.

The Gambia NAPA is therefore a worthwhile read, raising awkward questions about climate change, many of them more pertinent now than on publication in November 2007.

The first idiosyncrasy is that the text dodges the usual business of projecting future temperature or rainfall trends, not to speak of the hypothetical consequences for agriculture.

Instead, the unspoken message of the report is that climate change has already caused so many problems in the country that little can be gained by second-guessing the future. The Executive Summary conveys this message to the world in forceful large bold type:

Climate change is not science fiction and its adverse effects are not going away soon

This assertion is backed by the evidence of “instrumental data going back to the 1940s (which) show without ambiguity…” (those good old British engineers at work maybe?). Detailed charts illustrate a steady rise in temperature and a rather dramatic decline in average annual rainfall.

Wisdom may lurk behind this reliance on hard facts. Climate models for Sahelian countries are self-confessed failures at projecting rainfall, such are the complexities.

This chimes with my feeling that climate sceptics should be engaged on the surer ground of future rising temperature and sea level as opposed to rainfall and extreme weather events.

The Gambia approach also casts a fresh perspective on adaptation. We’re normally told that small farmers in Africa have very low adaptive capacity – their extreme poverty simply rules out room for manoeuvre. But these poor Gambian farmers have been adapting to hostile conditions for a generation.

Future adaptation in Gambia therefore comes across as barely differentiated from strategies for national poverty reduction and environmental management. Indeed the NAPA may have been rather ahead of its time in spelling this out so explicitly.

Sure enough, the ten recommended adaptation projects would not look out of place in UNDP poverty reduction or environment and energy programmes.

Conversely, if the word “climate” was inserted into the titles in a list of donor-funded food security projects in Gambia that I found, they could readily be classed as adaptation.

Herein lies the problem. Unscrupulous donors may indulge this sleight of hand as a painless means of fulfilling the aid commitments of the loosely worded Copenhagen Accord.

I’m not convinced that the current concept of climate adaptation is sufficiently concise to survive as a discrete funding stream.

I’d love to hear opinions about this from climate change teams in Gambia and elsewhere, preferably outside the formality of official UN reports. Unfortunately The Gambia is not the place to start looking for free expression of opinion. I can’t trace a single blog under the .gm domain.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK