Let’s put things into perspective. In Sierra Leone – and across Africa – the science is unequivocal: Climate change is a contributory factor, alongside man-made elements like deforestation and encroachment, to the kind of disaster that hit Sierra Leone in August 2017. This is no longer an abstract issue.

According to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, Sierra Leone received an unprecedented amount of rainfall this year – three times the normal seasonal rainfall. Such torrential rains are a clear sign of the changing climate. In August 2017, at the height of the rainy season, Freetown received an unprecedented average of 539,9mm of rainfall. With its land size of 356,9km2, Freetown had an average of 190 million cubic meters of rain water to drain. This extreme volume of water, combined with human factors like encroachment on natural environment such as creeks and wetlands, which are the natural drainage and storage systems for flood waters, as well as construction on flood-prone areas and inefficient drainage systems, among other factors, cumulatively precipitated this disaster.

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What science says: No city in Africa is immune to extreme climate change effects

In early 2017, new data from the UK Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) show that the earth’s temperature has increased to about 1,1°C above pre-industrial levels. This is dangerously close – just 0,4°C away – from the 1,5°C threshold set by the Paris Climate Change Agreement to prevent the worsening effects of climate change. At this rate, the vulnerability of Africa’s coastal cities is unprecedented. Sea level rise is projected to hit coastal cities – 14% higher than the global average by 2100 for the fast approaching over 4°C warming scenario. The impact will stretch far and wide beyond Freetown to expose millions to risk of flooding. By 2050, high numbers are projected in coastal cities of Mozambique (5million), Tanzania (2million), Cameroon (2million), Egypt (1million), Senegal (0.5million), and Morocco (0.5million). Such flooding will reverse economic and development gains with the ensuing health impacts and damage to infrastructure, loss of tourist sites and disruption in food supply. It will also expose the populations to elevated food prices, loss of livelihoods and strife.

The earth’s temperature has increased to about 1,1°C above pre-industrial levels.

As far as ecosystems degradation is concerned, Africa loses up to USD68 billion annually. This means that the continent’s natural buffer against such impending climate change effects is being lost at a rate of about USD180 million daily.

Sierra Leone is classified as the third most vulnerable country to climate change.

The science is clear. The escalating climate change knows no boundaries, and this is coupled with an increasingly degraded environment. Countries across Africa need to urgently address these dual challenges if we want to forestall similar disasters in future.

This is the logic behind the universal, global response to climate change that has been called for under the Paris Agreement. Sierra Leone, classified as the third most vulnerable country to climate change, stands to benefit from being part of this global collective action – and it is among the countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement, demonstrating its resolve to combat climate change. In fact, Africa as a whole has shown global leadership in responding to climate change.

Africa as a whole has shown global leadership in responding to climate change

Combining ecosystems restoration with alternative livelihoods

The good news is that practical solutions have been successfully applied across Africa. In Rwanda’s Geshwati area, a land suitability and use map is informing policy decisions to relocate vulnerable communities from previously encroached natural environments and high-risk areas to safer habitation areas. Considering that agriculture is the backbone of these communities, this plan is also informing on ecosystems-based adaptation (EBA) agriculture techniques that the communities can safely engage in for their livelihoods without degrading the area. Simultaneously, the plan is guiding the restoration of previously degraded catchment areas using EBA techniques like agro-forestry and the planting of indigenous trees, among others, to stabilize soils and slopes and to regulate flood waters. This has eradicated landslides that were once a common phenomenon in the area.

The planting of indigenous trees to stabilise slopes and regulate flood waters has eradicated landslides that were a common phenomenon in the area.

A similar two-pronged strategy has been successfully applied to build resilience in Mozambique’s coastal communities that were highly vulnerable to coastal flooding. For example, an investment of USD120 per person to rehabilitate depleted mangroves and establish crab farming restored mangroves. These have become natural buffers against coastal flooding while simultaneously preventing future encroachment by providing alternative livelihood activities away from the mangroves.

Sierra Leone and other at-risk countries can benefit from similar strategies that restore degraded ecosystems, allowing them to act as a buffer to the compounding effects of climate change. Creating sustainable alternative livelihood activities away from risk-prone areas can also help prevent possible future encroachment, thus preventing the degradation of natural ecosystems. After all, natural ecosystems are our best bet against mounting climate change-driven disasters.

Maps of projected changes in Northern Hemisphere seasonal mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century to the mid-21st century, based on SRES emissions scenario A1B photo credit WikiCommons

We must fight the trend of urbanisation

Africa’s cities face the fastest pace of urban population growth globally. This growth, however, does not reflect positively on economic growth, which is a key enabler to building climate resilience. For example, the World Bank notes that African cities are almost 30% more expensive than other countries at similar income levels. Housing is 55% more costly and food prices are 35% higher than in other low and middle-income countries. Considering the high unemployment and underemployment, the majority – more than 50% – of urban dwellers end up living in slums. Sierra Leone, which faces an urbanisation rate of 2,9%, has 75,6% of its urban population in informal settlements. These urban poor stand out as the most vulnerable, something that needs to be addressed urgently.

To address this, a key area is diversifying and decentralising socioeconomic growth opportunities away from cities. This is critical to eradicate the allure of cities as being the only areas where one can access income opportunities. It is vital to decongest cities and curtail the growth of informal settlements that are vulnerability hot spots.

Focusing on the catalytic area of Ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA) Driven Agriculture and industrialisation powered by clean energy offers an opportunity to diversify income opportunities to sustainable sectors of EBA-driven Agriculture & Clean Energy at a minimum. Cumulatively, this amalgamation is projected to create an agro-industrial sector worth up to USD1 trillion by 2030, while ensuring ecosystems are taken care of and carbon is offset to ensure climate resilience. It is such diversification that will open up rural Africa, where 70% of agriculture takes place, to industrialisation and the creation of economic opportunities to relieve the pressure on urban areas.

How to make it happen

Making this paradigm shift happen requires a collective undertaking. It will take the intervention of both state and non-state actors, as is called for in section 5 of the Paris Agreement. Mutual partnerships to bridge policy and operational gaps will have to be formed. Through the Ecosystem-based Adaptation for Food Security in Assembly (EBAFOSA), countries and stakeholders are engaging to bridge critical gaps. Among the intervention areas that are being prioritized is the harmonization of policy across complementary ministries, such as the ministries of agriculture, industrialization, land, energy, trade and roads, among others, to ensure that their policies complement the establishment of clean energy-powered agro-industrial zones in rural Africa as special enterprise zones and centres of sustainable jobs creation. For example, through EBAFOSA, Sierra Leone is harmonizing finance, industry, energy and agriculture sectoral policies to establish tax concession incentives for agro-based industries that are powered by clean energy in rural areas. These are set to attract investment to these areas to fuel job creation and take the pressure off urban centres like Freetown.

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Another area is affordable financing. To fuel the growth of sustainable businesses outside cities, EBAFOSA is also bridging financing gaps to spur entrepreneurship in these catalytic sectors in rural areas. Kenya provides an example on this. In Makueni County, which is the first county to legislate a climate change fund to domestically finance climate actions, EBAFOSA Kenya is facilitating mutual partnerships between the county government and the private sector actors to ensure that this fund is partly used to de-risk private-sector lending along the sustainable agriculture led, clean energy-powered agro-value addition chain. Working with select micro-financiers, the government of Makueni County is developing a risk-sharing facility by providing a monetary deposit as security to cover default risk and unlock up to 10 times the securitized amounts for lending to entrepreneurs along the sustainable agriculture-led clean energy-powered agro-value addition chain. This risk-sharing facility is reducing the cost of capital and incentivising private sector actors engaged along this chain – from farmers, distributors, marketers and advisory service providers – to capitalize their businesses and create sustainable jobs at the sub-national level to lure people away from crowded cities.

Also an important area where harmonization can happen is in the building of multi-stakeholder, complementary partnerships to bridge policy and operational gaps towards sustainable rural industries. In Cameroon, EBAFOSA is catalyzing partnerships at policy and ground level towards linking off-grid small-hydro directly to power cassava and Irish potato processing in rural areas into varied product lines. These are then linked to markets and supply chains across the country, using ICT mobile apps. A total of 10 youth groups engaging in ICT, clean energy and marketing have been engaged, creating green jobs for approximately 100 young people. More than 500 women now have access to value-addition services As a result they have cut their post-harvest losses to enhance their income stability and the community’s food security. Such gainfully engaged people will not be lured to cities in search of a livelihood.

Working together towards a common goal

“Traveling is learning,” says an African proverb. Sierra Leone and other at-risk countries stand a real chance of forestalling similar disasters by domesticating the above solutions that have been successfully applied by their counterparts across Africa. EBAFOSA, through its modus operandi of ‘innovative volunteerism’, offers an opportunity for country stakeholders to convene their respective capacities for mutual partnerships towards a common end. The solutions are known and we have the means to implement them. Let’s rise and act in the best interests of Africa’s present and future generations.