Submitted by Rebecca Welling on Tue, 10/13/2015

There is growing recognition that water security is critical for sustainable economic development, reducing poverty and adapting to climate change. Yet a key aspect often overlooked in efforts to meet this fundamental need is the role played by ecosystems such as rivers, floodplains and wetlands – or ‘natural infrastructure’.

This is where the WISE-UP project, led by IUCN, comes in. It shows the value of natural infrastructure as a ‘nature-based solution’ for climate change adaptation and sustainable development. As the impacts of rainfall variability, along with population and economic growth, increase competition for water, solutions are needed that maximise the benefits provided by the basin – food, water for irrigation and energy production and so on – whilst maintaining the needs of the basin ecosystem itself.

Focussing on the Volta and Tana River basins of West and East Africa respectively, WISE-UP works with decision makers, encouraging them to consider solutions that are based on both natural and built infrastructure (including dams and irrigation channels).

Dialogue with decision makers to identify and agree trade-offs lead to conversations on more equitable and effective solutions that suit all stakeholders including farmers, local communities and government agencies. However, these conversations need the right tools and knowledge to integrate natural infrastructure into future planning and investment choices, together with the latest climate information to understand the future pressures on river basins.

Key questions arise in these conversations: are the initial project findings relevant to stakeholder needs? Is the research accessible, communicable, and applicable for key decision makers? Is there anything that project partners feel that hasn’t adequately been covered? 

Some of these questions were raised at the recent ‘action learning’ meetings held in Nairobi and Accra, led by our partners, the African Collaborative Center for Earth System Sciences (ACCESS) – University of Nairobi in Kenya and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Ghana.

As with any project, it is important to find the right forms of engagement and communication to share results with the stakeholders affected by it. At the project kick-off meeting in 2014 we were asked: ‘how are you going to make this project different from others’ and ‘should we expect a big report at the end of the project which we will just add to the other ones?’

So how do we make WISE-UP different, innovative, and relevant? How do we get stakeholders to actually use what we’re learning through the project to help support them in future decisions about infrastructure investments that take into account climate change and sustainable development?

What makes WISE-UP different is that it engages basin stakeholders directly throughout the project. From the very start they are in the driver’s seat – actively guiding research questions and direction. This is done through our action learning process designed to operate at the interface between developing new scientific evidence and identifying the political dynamics and economic drivers shaping decision making and policy. This is critical to better understand how to make information and tools practical, useful and trusted – how to take science into the world of policy and decision making. This approach streamlines conventional project cycle procedures, and avoids leaving the project with an ‘uptake’ challenge.

The recent meetings gathered key stakeholders for a day of ‘analytical deliberation’, to ensure that the evidence and tools coming out of WISE-UP are appropriate for the realities of decision making and consensus building in their respective countries.

Initial results are now being shared to assimilate feedback and help guide our next steps. Indeed, the results presented during these sessions are already a result of an iterative process with basin stakeholders, learning from them about the key issues and challenges faced in these two basins.

In Nairobi, Anthony Hurford from the University of Manchester presented preliminary results from a system model for the Tana River, focusing on a set of performance metrics. A range of built and natural infrastructure investments can be generated, each of which provides a different balance of benefits. Decision makers can select from these ‘best available’ options according to their preferences and political context. By asking stakeholders to explain their interests, WISE-UP can develop metrics of river basin performance which show how stakeholder interests might be positively or negatively affected by different investment options. For example: how will new irrigation systems affect downstream river flows? How much water is likely to be available in the future for irrigation?

In Accra, Marloes Mul from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) presented preliminary research results on the role of freshwater ecosystems in the Volta basin. The seasonal calendar of ecosystem services from different sites in the basin at Arigu, Bissigu, and Pwalugu were shared with stakeholders. Better understanding the river basin services that people rely on, can help to inform decision making to avoid possible negative impacts on the environment and people’s livelihoods.

Climate change will dramatically change the way that infrastructure is decided, financed and used in the future. Less water and erratic rainfall patterns present challenges for large water storage in terms of technical performance, the return on investment, and sharing of benefits. In the Volta, for example, there is interest in more decentralised, smaller reservoirs rather than larger projects such as the Pwalugu dam.

Action learning promotes closed meetings in which sensitive issues can be discussed and active debate can take place between often conflicting stakeholder groups. It is an extremely powerful process that helps us shape the future stages of research and field work, and allows WISE-UP to continually evaluate the relevance of its work. As a result of the second round of meetings, participants provided direct guidance on updating the results and how to present them, and also gave access to information to help inform the project on future climate change challenges.

The action learning process will continue throughout the project with the same participants meeting twice a year. The hope is that this improves information delivery, builds ownership of project ‘results and outputs’, strengthens trust in information-sharing, generates results that are used effectively, and contributes to the knowledge capital and innovation that is needed for change.

Rebecca Welling is Project Officer at the IUCN Global Water Programme: rebecca.welling[@]