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Africa's new urban climate

Maputo illustrates the urban dimension of climate change-related challenges facing Africa

Story by Stockholm Environment Institute June 13th, 2017

Maputo, Mozambique's capital, is one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa, the continent that itself leads the world in urban growth rates [1]. For Maputo - and, indeed, for all of urban Africa - climate change represents a new force compounding long-standing problems. In cities throughout the developing world, a growing portion of residents flock to dense, informal settlements where they are vulnerable to the spread of disease, and to the vicissitudes of increasingly extreme weather. In these places, clean drinking water is scarce, and infrastructure to remove waste and to drain wastewater is lacking. Meanwhile, changing weather patterns - veering from severe drought to cyclone-induced floods - exacerbate the situation.

This context gave rise to the Future Resilience for African CiTies and Lands (FRACTAL) project, an effort to help to provide municipal decision-makers with the climate-change information they need to address the issues they confront. The project's goals are to enhance medium- to long-term planning of the kind that helps urban areas find the most effective ways to adapt. The focus is on climate-resilient development, and, particularly, on water- and energy-related issues.

Maputo is one of nine cities where researchers are working as part of the broader UK Department for International Development programme, Future Climate for Africa, aimed at improving understanding of climate variability, and at better integrating science into related decision making.

Participants in a FRACTAL Learning Lab play games designed to enhance understanding of key issues. Photo by Sukaina Bharwani, SEI.

many plans, No Action

“Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

(They do not move)."

– Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” Act I, lines and stage instructions

In Beckett’s classic play, the characters repeatedly vow to move, and, yet, they remain motionless. A similar theme, about the potential failure of words to result in action, surfaced in improvisational theatre created in the first FRACTAL Learning Lab held in Mozambique. Asked to stage pieces that expressed their thoughts about the climate change-related challenges facing Maputo, the extemporaneous playwrights – researchers from Eduardo Mondlane University and the University of Cape Town, on-the-ground practitioners and municipal staff - cast themselves as characters in role play with a familiar plot: people enthusiastically meet, make bold plans, and then return to work only to find that promised actions fail to ensue. As one participant put it, “There are many plans but they are not being put into action.”

These presentations crystallized the concerns of people from many organizations and agencies struggling to find answers to the issues confronting Maputo. They also present a glimpse of the challenges the FRACTAL project faces as it attempts to gain trust, and to help foster knowledge through processes of "co-production" - meaning that experts and stakeholders from all sectors of society work together to explore adaptation measures that are informed both by science and by an intimate understanding of local needs [2].

The idyllic coastline of Maputo is vulnerable to severe storms as the climate changes. Photo by SEI.

The beautiful coast of Mozambique belies the seriousness and urgency of the problems facing the nation and its capital city. With a 2,800-kilometre-long Indian Ocean coastline, Mozambique stands directly in the path of cyclones that have long devastated the nation. In coming years, cyclones may become less frequent, but they are likely to grow in intensity. Also forecast: heavier ranfalls, longer drought episodes, warmer summers, and rising sea levels. Planning that can foster climate-resilient development is neeed at both national and municipal levels.

Informal settlements in Maputo lack access to basic services.

The people who are most vulnerable in Maputo live in dense, and unregulated, informal settlements that are prone to floods and soil erosion. These residents constitute 80 percent of the urban population. Their neighborhoods also lack basic infrastructure and services, such as access to water, and functioning drainage and sanitation systems.

A bridge in Mozambique collapsed during floods in 2000. Photo by USAID via Wikipedia Commons.

In the port city of Maputo, and throughout Mozambique, cyclones, heavy rainfall and flooding have taken a toll on infrastructure, housing and the coastline. With each event, evidence accumulates in the form of: infrastructure incapable of withstanding new weather extremes, coastal erosion, crop failure, water scarcity, the drying of reservoirs, salt water intrusion into coastal aquifers, and the increasing spread of water-borne and vector-borne diseases.

The most recent cyclone, Dineo (Category One), hit Mozambique on  February 15, 2017, causing flooding. Photo by Alessandra Baldini.

In recent years Mozambique took the brunt of devastating cyclones: Category Four cyclones Eline (2000), Favio (2007), and Funso (2012), among them. The lessons learned in the wake of Eline led to improved early-warning and disaster-preparedness systems – and to lower death tolls. Nevertheless, even “weak” storms wreak havoc and upend lives. Flooding took a toll, for example, in the aftermath of Dineo, a Category One storm that struck in February 2017 [3].

Residents wait to collect water. Photo by Club of Mozambique.

The first FRACTAL Learning Lab in Maputo used games, theatre, and other participatory exercises to "co-explore" these climate-related concerns, needs and priorities. Local participants identified and ranked the three most pressing issues from their point of view: 1) infrastructure for drinking water, 2) infrastructure for sanitation and drainage, and 3) policies to address the availability of drinking water.

Recent events in part explain the emphasis on drinking water, and the infrastructure and policies that affect its supply. New restrictions, imposed in the wake of severe drought, led reliable access to potable water to deteriorate in Maputo. This year, the Maputo Regional Water Company announced that the supply to the Greater Maputo Metropolitan Area would be drastically reduced due to insufficient supplies from the Umbeluzi River and the Pequenos Libombos Reservoir (said to be at just 14 percent capacity as of January 2017) [4]. In an effort to stretch water supplies until the start of the next rainy season, expected to begin in October, the company banned the use of Umbeluzi River water for all purposes other than human consumption, and announced that it would only pump water to the region’s residents on alternating days. However, some contend that this promised, every-other-day supply is not being fulfilled, and they say that they must for hours in hopes of collecting water [5].

Extremely low water levels in the Pequenos Libombos reservoir on the Umbeluzi river prompted rationing. Photo source: Moz Life.

The focus on drinking water – both from formal and informal sources - underscores the need for coordination and foresight in urban planning that takes climate change into account. For example, the Maputo Municipal Adaptation Plan (2016-2018) did not foresee drinking water availability as an issue. In part, this is because responsibility for water infrastructure management does not belong to the municipality - but to other entities (parastatal institutions or private companies) under state regulation. The municipality then distributes water based on settlement plans - which themselves present a challenge, given the rapid, informal, and little-regulated nature of urban growth. Finding effective ways to address water issues will require the input from all quarters - national, state and municipal governments; private and parastatal water suppliers; water users, including businesses and residents; advisors with policy and planning expertise; and researchers whose work addresses climate change, water issues, and relevant technologies.

Residents access water from boreholes in the informal areas. Photo source: SEI.

Though most concerns about access to drinking water came from central, formal housing areas, where shortages are a recent phenomenon, residents who live in peripheral, informal areas, have long faced the problems associated with shortages and limited access to clean drinking water. Residents of informal settlements buy water from water vendors, or they find shallow boreholes that are often drilled by local government or private suppliers. In informal settlements, concerns about potable water stem from a lack of coordination and planning, which have led to drilling of boreholes in undesirable locations. Growing demand for boreholes as a water source has led to price speculation and rising prices. Moreover, saltwater intrusion is a future risk if climate information is not fully incorporated into water resource planning in these areas.

Drainage systems in informal areas are poorly maintained. Photo by SEI.
Even efficient drains are sometimes blocked by refuse. Photo by SEI.
Debris and previous flood damage to roads block drainage systems and lead to further flood and disease during risk. Photo source: SEI.

For the majority of the population who live in Maputo’s informal neighbourhoods, the higher-priority issue stems from the lack of sanitation and drainage, both of which lead to the spread of water- and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, cholera and diarrheal diseases. Solid waste management is a related issue because flooding overwhelms the already poorly functioning drainage systems in informal settlements. Possible interventions include developing, improving and enforcing building standards; providing comprehensive education regarding waste management; and increasing law enforcement of waste-disposal practices.

Informal settlements have been built adjacent to the Costa do Sol mangrove zoned area. Photo by SEI.
Despite the evident risks, vulnerable, low-lying areas near the coastline attract development. Photo by SEI.

Mozambique has sought to use mangroves and ecological zoning to protect inland areas from flooding. Nonetheless, many informal settlements and high-end housing developments have been built near to or right in the midst of the mangroves. Though some developments have been demolished to protect natural water flows and seafood production, mangrove swamps remain degraded and in need of rehabilitation. The zoning of the mangrove swamp is a challenge; the mangroves’ natural beauty may even have served as a magnet for the construction of luxury houses that further compromise the resilience of the ecological system [6]. The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) has demarcated the protected zones, but replanting of areas that have been degraded or destroyed has not yet materialized. And, despite evident risks, vulnerable, low-lying areas near the coastline continue to attract development. A new shopping centre is under construction near the unprotected coastline.

A young mangrove sprouts through the sands in Mozambique. Phto by Sylvain via Flickr.

'Success Looks Like Change'

The recent Maputo Municipal Adaptation Plan (2016-2018) recognizes the need address the provision of services in both formal areas and informal settlements. Learning Lab participants identified various areas in which FRACTAL could provide support. These include:

Looking beyond the city’s borders. Effective approaches must extend beyond Maputo to include peri-urban areas and the whole Greater Maputo Metropolitan region. The FRACTAL approach, which emphasizes a "systems perspective" for urban areas, also signals the importance of this issue.

"Co-producing" knowledge to inform decision-making processes. Work is needed to identify entry-points that present opportunities to communicate more effectively with, and to seek the participation of the region’s many stakeholders. This will enable a better understanding of their needs (both climate and socio-economic information needs) to support medium to long-term decision-making. For example, what information about future climate can support investment into planning for boreholes in informal settlements in a way that will not lead to saltwater intrusion?

Creating viable plans to address water governance, demand, supply, and access over the long term. Research is needed to assess water demand, supply and distribution to Maputo’s formal and informal areas; to devise back-up plans; and to explore possible alternative water sources (such as recycling and rainwater harvesting). This will help planners to incorporate and climate-resilient development into their planning processes.

As Teresa Chissequere, the deputy director of Municipal Urban Planning and Environment at the Maputo Municipal Council, said in the Learning Lab, “Success would look like something actually changing, and a change of frame of mind of how we work together.”

The philosophy of change speaks directly to the transdisciplinary nature of FRACTAL, which aims to encourage researchers and a wide range of city stakeholders to engage in "co-producing" knowledge, and "co-exploring" issues to jointly identify and address the most important matters facing cities in Africa. For many of us, this requires stepping into unfamiliar territory, but as FRACTAL co-ordinator, Alice McClure reflects, “culturing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset” is necessary when dealing with the complex issue of climate-related changes, especially in a complex setting of urban development on the complex continent of Africa. This necessitates humility and constant reflection to be sure we really are learning [7].


[1] African Development Bank, 'Urbanization in Africa' (13 December 2012).

[2] Taylor, A.; Scott, D.; Steynor, A.; and McClure, A.; 'Transdisciplinarity, Co-Production and Co-Exploration: Integrating knowledge across science, policy and practice in FRACTAL', (forthcoming FRACTAL Working Paper).

[3] 'More on severe water restrictions for Maputo', AIM report, 9 January 2017.

[4] 'Mozambique: Italy supports UNICEF in humanitarian intervention after Dineo cyclone', March 2017. (Accessed March 17, 2017 from

[5] 'Heavy rains have not solved Maputo’s water crisis', 19 Jan 2017. (Accessed 21 March 2017.)

[6] Castán Broto, V.; Boyd, E.; Ensor, J.; Seventine, C.; Macucule, D.A.; Allen, C.; 'Participation and planning for climate change: lessons from an experimental project in Maputo, Mozambique', The Climate Development and Knowledge Network, 2015.

[7] McClure, A., 'Culturing (some form of) a growth mindset for learning in FRACTAL', (14 January, 2017).

Maputo City, Mozambique